The Fome Zero Program – Brazil’s Losing Struggle to Help the Hungry: Lula’s Leadership Fading

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Of Brazil’s 180 million people, an estimated 46 million go to bed hungry every night. In an effort to help alleviate this problem, President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, upon his inauguration in 2003, started the poverty program Fome Zero (Zero Hunger). This initiative allocates a $20 allowance per month to each undernourished Brazilian household and aims to cut the number of people living in extreme poverty in half by 2015. Lula created the program with hopes of not only reducing the figure of starving citizens, but of stimulating economic growth through the creation of jobs and higher wages. Additionally, two components of the program, Zero Sede (Zero Thirst) and Luz para Todos (Light for All), sought to build water cisterns to provide clean water and supply the country with electricity respectively. However, Fome Zero was perhaps too idealistic or ambitious, and ultimately the implementation of the program fell far short of expectations. In fact, these words to a large extent can be used to characterize the Lula presidency.

Fome Zero‘s Shortcomings
Fome Zero is run by an administrative committee, which consists of representatives from communities throughout Brazil, and is led by a union leader from the ruling Workers’ Party (PT) as well as one from the opposition. A recent problem for the proper structuring of Fome Zero has been the absence of credible right wing or moderate political parties in Brazil. In a sense, there is currently no competition in the Brazilian political arena for the Workers’ Party. The Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), the Democratic Labor Party (PDT) and the Liberal Front Party (PFL) pose no real electoral threat. Without the right or moderate side weighing in on any political discussions, the center left wing has no competition. Devoid of any difference of opinion in their formative stages, government programs such as Fome Zero can become vitiated and then strung out.

One problem with Fome Zero has been the handling of funds allocated to the program, which could be one of several signals that corruption is taking root in the structure of the current Brazilian government. Money that currently goes into the program comes from either donations or from the public treasury and in fact, the amount of funds donated to it from outside sources had become so large that a special bank account was created for funds from this source. Yet, many of the extremely impoverished families in Brazil have not seen any of the subventions that they were supposed to receive. The government’s primary line of explanation for its lack of promptness in delivering funds to the hungry is that the revenue earmarked for underwriting the country’s hunger programs instead has been used to help service the national debt. Another complication is that just five months after Lula took office, the budget for Fome Zero was cut down a third from its original amount. This means that the program’s budget was shrunk to $492 million, only enough to feed 46 million people at about $10 per year for each household. A year later, about $800 million was budgeted toward the program, but only $130 million of that was actually disbursed. In other words, Lula’s program has become more bark than bite.

Zero Sede and Luz para Todos also fell short of expectations. The residents of the town of Acauã, for example, were promised an improved standard of living from both of these programs, but no water cisterns have yet been built and the progress that was registered by Luz para Todos has added up to two visits by electrical technicians. Moreover, Fome Zero used to constitute its own separate ministry, but shortly after the program began, it was integrated into the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Social Development. Fome Zero is now losing the high priority it once had on Lula’s agenda and being commingled in with the government’s other social programs. In addition, there is no disputing that the structure of Fome Zero needs significant change if it is to survive beyond Lula’s presidency.

Like his Fome Zero program, Lula is not doing all that well in Brazilian popularity polls, although he still retains his majority. He was booed at the World Social Forum and was denounced as a traitor when he announced his plan to attend the World Economic Forum in Switzerland – an event considered the purlieu of the wealthy. While Lula has always been viewed as an icon of the underprivileged, his attendance at this forum caused an increasing number of Brazilians to begin to question his true allegiances.

The Positive Side of Fome Zero
On the other hand, there have been some social improvements in Brazil due to the Fome Zero program. New stores have been built, with plans for more to come, which will provide new employment opportunities and conceivably higher wages for tens of thousands of Brazilians desperate to improve their living standards. If the program is able to develop while avoiding complete corrupting and under-funding, it will provide a respectable model for other South American countries. Lula has pushed to make his anti-hunger program an inspiration for all, and has brought the idea forward of taxing wealthier nations with the goal of using these funds to help third world countries confront hunger. In order, to make the impact that Lula originally envisioned when he first conceptualized his program, the government will have to improve its use of available funds, expand upon them and broaden the population base which could benefit from Fome Zero.