2 May 2018

Brazil’s Fome Zero program: food for thought

Mike writes:*

The volatile nature of global food prices, environmental degradation in agricultural systems, and the combined crises of poverty and malnutrition have incited debates about the role that governments and civil societies alike have in addressing one of the most complex and systematic issues in the 21st century: food security.

Brazil’s approach to alleviating these issues has had considerable success in improving nutrition and food security within its population. Its Fome Zero program [pdf], a singular approach endeavored by the government has overcome considerable barriers to implementing an effective nationwide strategy to end hunger and to improve nutrition.

This strategy, consolidated a series of existing social welfare and developmental policies and included an expansive overhaul to the programmes and strategies aiming to address social welfare across the country. Initiated in 2003, its primary aim was to completely eradicate hunger and malnutrition by directly challenging the main underlying cause and an issue of great precedence; poverty, particularly rural poverty.

The program is based on a multi sectoral approach consisting of national, sectoral, and local level public strategies which involves policies and programs around education, food production, health services and social protection. The platform was organized around four main pillars: access to food, strengthening family farming, income generation and social articulation, and mobilization and control. Since its implementation infant mortality has fallen 47%, malnutrition amongst children has fallen from 17.9 to 3.5%, and extreme poverty fell from 14 to 3.5%.

The case of Brazil and its success has not gone unnoticed. A vast country with a population over 200 million, has been considered as one of the most successful experiences in reducing malnutrition globally. Fome Zero has been a source of inspiration for other countries facing similar issues relating to food insecurity. It has already been proposed to serve as a model for a groundbreaking regional initiative that will eradicate hunger and malnutrition within South America and the Caribbean, having already been endorsed by all countries with a target goal set for 2025.

The main question now is, can the Brazilian case be used as a model to alleviate food insecurity and malnutrition for countries all over the world? Brazil has already assumed a leadership role in providing the necessary expertise as well as funding for several African countries. This initiative stems from strengthening the capacities of developing countries to design and be able to implement effective programs that will deal with malnutrition and food insecurity. India has also attempted to implement a similar cash transfer system [pdf] as Brazil has in order to ameliorate poverty by directly providing families with the funds to purchase basic needs. Whilst both India and Brazil are welfare states, India would be unable to implement such a policy with the same level of effectiveness, as there remains a great deal of institutional differences between both countries.

Here lies the main concern, implementing policies that may have worked considerably well such as Fome Zero in Brazil, to other countries around the world, may not produce similar results and may even be more detrimental for a country’s long run economic growth and development. Institutional factors, as well as the socio economic and cultural context will play an important role in determining the outcome and effectiveness of any policy. One of the main risks is that a social welfare program aimed to end hunger will raise certain expectations which may not be met due to institutional weaknesses, a lack of funding, and rates of corruption. Democratic governance is likely one of the main pillars of food security, and the role that society has in enhancing potential policies like Fome Zero will widely depend on the attitudes and motivations of a country’s population.

The political will and commitment of the Brazilian government, alongside the widespread support of the civil society were prerequisites for the programmes success. The Brazilian government’s grassroots initiative has effectively dealt with one of the most pressing issues of the 21st century. Whilst we cannot directly implement its policies to other countries, Fome Zero’s implementation and effectiveness can serve as a baseline for social welfare programs of a similar magnitude.

Bottom line: The strategy implemented within Brazil has the potential to serve as a model for reducing food insecurity and malnutrition globally, however context and institutional qualities are key factors that must be taken into account.

* Please help my growth and development economics students by commenting on unclear analysis, other perspectives, data sources, etc. (Or you can just say something nice :)