Why we should still give to rich Brazil

Wednesday, January 11, 2012 • by Loretta Minghella


The UK government is expected to enshrine in law its commitment to 0.7 percent of gross national income for overseas aid. As a result, the brickbats have been flying in the tabloid press, most notably the Daily Mail.

UK aid to India was the paper's first target. Notwithstanding the fact that a third of the world's poorest 1.2 billion people live in the subcontinent, the country has a space programme, and is officially rated middle-income. Why should it continue to receive handouts from the hard-pressed UK taxpayer?

The news last week that Brazil, another recipient of aid from the British Department for International Development, was now rated wealthier than the UK sparked more outrage. "Britain must put its own vulnerable first," the paper demanded in its leader comment.

It was left to The Sun to sound a less strident note. "Brazil's population is around 190 million," a spokesman from the Centre for the Economics and Business Research is quoted as saying. "They may have a bigger economy, but living standards here [in the UK] are still far higher than over there."

That is the heart of the issue. I have no desire to minimise the daily struggle of the poor and vulnerable in this country. But, on a recent visit to Christian Aid projects in Brazil, I saw for myself the way in which newfound economic wealth can go hand in hand with abject need.

The face of global poverty has changed in recent years. Whereas, 20 to 30 years ago, the vast majority of the world's poorest people were found in poor countries, today, 75 percent of those in extreme poverty – earning less than a $1 a day – live in middle-income countries.

Despite its growing economic power, Brazil remains one of the most unequal countries in the world: three percent of the population owns two-thirds of all arable land. Millions have no access to land, and
a third of the people have no access to clean running water.

The reasons for this unequal picture include an extremely regressive tax system. In 2005, Brazil collected nearly 34 percent of its GDP in tax, only to invest just 9.5 percent in basic services such as education, health, housing, and sanitation. The reason for this is a combination of the country's heavy debts, and the fact that the IMF requires Brazil to maintain a four-percent budget surplus.

One Christian Aid partner I visited, the Gaspar Garcia Centre for Human Rights, works with the
homeless and dispossessed in the centre of Sao Paulo, the largest city in the southern hemisphere. Sao Paulo's evident affluence is in sharp contrast to the conditions for those who live on the streets, or in the rundown tenement-shacks known as corticos.

I visited one of its projects at a waste-recycling centre, where people are given the chance to acquire skills such as making and selling products from recycled materials. Another partner, MST (the Landless People's Movement), has successfully settled 400,000 landless families in areas across the country.

I was also able to travel into the mountains around Rio to witness the devastation left by the floods of January 2010, in which at least 1000 people died. Government help in remote areas was minimal. Another partner, Koinonia, provided blankets and food rations for 6000 people, and is helping the displaced to rebuild their lives.

To abandon countries such as Brazil at this stage of its development would be extremely short-sighted. National growth on its own in the developing world is not enough. It is essential, of course, in helping people move out of poverty, but can all too often occur at the expense of the poor.

Loretta Minghella is the director of ACT Alliance member Christian Aid.
This article was originally published in the Church Times