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Escaping the shanty towns of Brazil

In a book published last month, ‘Favela: Four Decades of Living on the Edge of Rio de Janeiro’, the sociologist Janice Perlman takes a look at life in the shanty towns of Brazil.

She first visited and interviewed some of the poor living in the shanties (‘Favelas’) of Rio de Janeiro in the late 1960s. The huge shanty towns had sprung up around the city in the mid-20th century after a flood of migration from the countryside to the cities. The scale and speed of the migration was so fast, that 108 million people, equating to half of Brazil’s population, moved to city-dwelling in the space of only forty years.

Ms Perlman and her team managed to track down over 40% of the 750 people she interviewed for her study in the 1960s to see how they were faring forty years later. Surprisingly, more than half no longer lived in the shanty dwellings and had managed to move up the social ladder through education, hard work and sometimes good luck. The main threat against the others pulling themselves out of poverty seemed to be the drugs violence which has plagued the shanty areas since the 1980s.

This evidence that social mobility is possible for the poorest in Brazil’s society comes at a time when other countries are looking at the development policies adopted by the Brazilian government, particularly the ‘Bolsa Familia’ or family grant. This gives mothers a regular and small amount of money if their children stay in education and receive medical check-ups. Payments are suspended if children miss more than 15% of their classes because, most likely, they are being sent out to work by their families.

The programme is widely considered to be a success in tackling child labour and improving education. 12.4 million households in Brazil now take part in the conditional cash-transfer programme (CCT) and the political candidates for the forthcoming election in October are saying they will expand the scheme.

Brazil has made significant progress in tackling poverty. According to the Fundacao Getulio Vargas university, the number of Brazilians earning less than 440 dollars per month has fallen by over 8% year on year since 2003. And the family grant scheme is considered to have been partly responsible for the reduction in poverty. Some have had concerns about the incentives, but a recent report for the United Nations Development Programme concluded that the limited amounts of money involved did not lead to any kind of dependence on the scheme or have any adverse affect on the labour market.

However, the programme is not a panacea and there are still worries that while the scheme seems to work effectively against ongoing poverty in rural areas, it is less effective in urban ones. In Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, fewer than 10% of households took part in the programme in 2006, compared to 41% of rural households.

Certainly the cost of living in cities is greater and child labour rates are still high in Brazil. This is why there is a plan to target extra payments towards older teenagers who need to train or find work, reducing the likelihood of younger children being sent out to work. And Rio de Janeiro is at the vanguard of designing a new programme, called the Bolsa Carioca. Hopefully, with improvements to the existing grants scheme, it will be even easier in the future for the poor to work their way out of poverty and leave the shanty towns behind.

Laurinda Luffman signature