Brazil’s return: Food security and social protection

Published on 30 August 2023

Stephen Devereux

Research Fellow

Renato S. Maluf, Reference Centre on Food and Nutrition Sovereignty and Security

To the international community, Brazil’s record on food security and social protection until relatively recently was exemplary, even enviable. The level of child stunting in Brazil fell from 25% in the mid-1980s to 15% in the mid-1990s and just 5% by the mid-2010s. This is a remarkable success story. Throughout the same 30-year period, the rate of child stunting in South Africa, a country that shares many characteristics with Brazil, remained constant at about 25%.

Fruits in a market in Brazil
Image by © eltpics via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

How did Brazil do it?

When President Lula da Silva came into office in 2003, he almost immediately launched Fome Zero or Zero Hunger, a coordinated set of government interventions that aimed to eradicate hunger and extreme poverty in Brazil. A number of food security and social protection programmes were launched, including: cash transfers targeting the poorest (most famously, the conditional cash transfer Bolsa Família); support to family farmers; creating formal jobs and increasing official minimum wages; improving the nutritional quality of school meals; educating people about healthy eating habits; and subsidising low-cost restaurants. Social participation in the making, implementing and monitoring of these pro-poor public policies was another crucial component of the strategy.

Crucially, these social protection interventions were complemented by linkages to services that are known to be necessary to influence food security and nutrition. These included: maternal education; a breastfeeding campaign; free health care under the Family Health Strategy; installing thousands of rural cisterns in the semi-arid region to improve access to safe drinking water; and improved sanitation, including access to flush toilets.

One important lesson for other countries is that Brazil focused on the objective of zero hunger, and it identified and implemented a range of policies and programmes to achieve this. There is no “silver bullet” to eradicate hunger and to promote access to food. During the early 2000s social protection was rising rapidly up the development policy agenda worldwide, but it became dominated by cash transfers, a single instrument that was expected to achieve numerous social and economic outcomes on its own – one book promoting cash transfers was titled ‘Just Give Money to the Poor’. Cash transfers have many beneficial effects, including improved food security outcomes, but they have achieved very limited impact on child malnutrition rates and on access to adequate and healthy food. Cash transfers alone are not enough, as demonstrated by the success of Brazil’s coordinated, multisectoral approach.

What went wrong?

After 2015, many positive trends in Brazil started to reverse. Indicators of food insecurity that had been falling started rising again. Self-reported hunger jumped from 4% in 2014 to 15% in 2022, reflecting deepening inequality in multiple dimensions, in a country that is already one of the most unequal in the world. Hunger was worse in the North and Northeast regions, among unemployed and informal workers, among female-headed households, and among men or women self-declared as being black or brown. Households considered food secure declined sharply, from 77% in 2014 to 41% in 2022.

Economic and political crises since 2015/16 led to rises in unemployment and precarious work, falling government support for family farmers, cutbacks in social protection and the minimum wage, and dismantling of other progressive government policies. COVID-19 was another exacerbating factor from 2020 onwards. By the time Lula was re-elected President in 2022, much of the gains made during his first term had been lost. Millions of Brazilians no longer have access to an adequate and healthy diet.

What is the way forward?

Social protection thinking and practice have evolved in recent years, and many useful lessons were learned from COVID-19, that Lula’s new administration in Brazil could draw on. Here are three lessons.

First, it is now acknowledged that social protection systems need to build linkages to other social sectors, like education and health, and also to economic sectors, like family farming and employment, to maximise the synergies and achieve meaningful impacts on poverty and hunger. This approach is called “cash-plus”. In fact, Brazil was already doing this with its Zero Hunger strategy, long before “cash-plus” was conceived. So this is not a new idea for Brazil, but is something that urgently needs to be revived.

Second, COVID-19 exposed a gap in most countries’ social protection systems, namely informal workers who are not able to register for social insurance (e.g. unemployment benefits), and do not receive social assistance because they are working. Governments across the world introduced temporary cash transfer programmes to help informal workers and others survive lockdowns. New beneficiaries were added to existing programmes (horizontal expansion), and existing beneficiaries were given bigger payments (vertical expansion), until the pandemic was over. This is called “shock-responsive social protection”. Some countries improved their social protection systems, for example, by switching from manual collection of benefits to digital payment mechanisms like mobile money. These extensions and innovations remain in place in many countries, even after the pandemic.

Many countries built on insights learned during COVID-19 to rethink their social contract around social protection. Botswana, for instance, initiated fundamental reforms, including the consolidation of 29 social assistance schemes into a National Social Protection Framework with five flagship programmes, covering the life-cycle from childhood to old age. In South Africa, social justice activists campaigned successfully to convert a temporary COVID-19 Social Relief of Distress Grant into permanent Basic Income Support for low-income adults who were previously excluded from social insurance.

To conclude, given the political transition that is underway in Brazil, maybe the time is right to reverse recent negative trends, and renegotiate the social contract around social protection and zero hunger. This should start with the reopening of public spaces for social participation in public policy debates with an intersectoral nature, together with the perspective of linking the eradication of hunger with the right to access adequate and healthy food.

Read the next blog in the ‘Brazil’s return’ series


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Programmes and centres
Food Equity Centre Brazil IDS Initiative

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