One of the most important factors in reversing widespread economic inequality in Brazil has been the income transferal program Bolsa Família, which has helped lift 35 million people out of extreme poverty. This is according to Celso Amorim, former foreign minister of Brazil, who said Bolsa Família was one of the largest programs of its kind in the world, and also helped children attend school and get vaccinations.
Mr. Amorim spoke to International Peace Institute Senior Adviser Warren Hoge on the sidelines of the Independent Commission on Multilateralism’s fourth retreat, which dealt with fragile states and cities. He said fragility is very difficult to identity, particularly when poor countries are involved.
“Who would have said in the 1970s or even early 80s that the Soviet Union was a fragile state?” he said. “That would have seemed absurd… [fragility is] very difficult to define, but certainly there are some factors, and one of them, no doubt, is very heavy poverty.
“I don’t think Brazil was ever, at least in the past century, a fragile state in the sense that it might disintegrate or fragment itself,” he said. “But it was a country that could not work in foreign affairs, for instance—with all the potential it had—and that had to do to a great extent [with] the existence of a dictatorial regime.”
Mr. Amorim said the increasing cohesiveness of Brazilian society and the work toward diminishing inequality has resulted in newfound economic stability.
Turning to the debate on United Nations Security Council reform, Mr. Amorim said Brazil’s official position is for expansion, but it will take time. “I personally think that the permanence in itself is power, apart from, of course, the veto,” he said. “The Security Council will continue to be imperfect as it is the only legal body which can authorize the use of force—that’s very important—but I think we could maybe put some fresh air into the discussions on peace and security.”
Listen to the interview:
Celso, to begin with, how do you define “fragility?”
Fragility is very difficult to define and very difficult to identify—certainly when you have a very poor country. Who would have said in the 1970s or even early 80s that the Soviet Union was a fragile state? That would have seemed absurd. The same would go to Yugoslavia in the 60s when it was leading the non-aligned movement and suddenly they became fragile. So, it’s very difficult to define, but certainly there are some factors, and one of them, no doubt, is very heavy poverty.
What did fragility mean in Brazil?
I don’t think Brazil was ever, at least in the past century, a fragile state in the sense that it might disintegrate or fragment itself. But it was a country that could not work in foreign affairs, for instance—with all the potential it had—and that had to do to a great extent [with] the existence of a dictatorial regime. So one of the big steps that Brazil made, and that was in the context of a similar movement in Latin America, especially in Argentina, was to move to a democratic government in the early 80s and that was consolidated in our bilateral relations, by economic treaties, but also in a very important one on mutual inspections on the nuclear area, so democracy became consolidated.
Then we reached economic stability, which of course increased the cohesiveness of the country, but I think the most recent part was the strong work to eliminate, or to diminish at least significantly, inequality in Brazil. This has been a quite significant change and probably the most significant change in the last 10 years or so, 15 years maybe, and that had impact in everything including in foreign policy.
How did Brazil address the inequality in its society?
Through several programs. Maybe the most important one was the Bolsa Família, which was said to be, I believe it was, the largest program of income transferring in the world. So that raised people from absolute poverty to poverty, and some, a great number even, to the middle class. More than 35 million people were taken out of extreme poverty, so that was a very important example. If you go to university now in Brazil, public university, not only the surnames or the places of birth, but even the color of the skin will be different because inequality had very many facets.
What does the phrase “Bolsa Família,” mean and how did it work?
It was a kind of family stipendium given normally to the woman, to the mother of the family, a little less than one minimum salary. It increased depending on the number of children they had in school, but the children had to be in school, not only registered, but actually being there. So that had also the side effect of avoiding sending children to work too early, and also they had to go to treatments and vaccinations. In the case of women, pregnant women for instance, had to have all the tests. So I think it was a program that was an enormous success, and then it was complemented by several others, including more places for poorer people in the best universities, which are the public universities in Brazil.
Nowadays, also, there are strong programs in the area of construction of housing for poorer people. Of course, all this now is in a bit of a difficulty because the economic situation is not so easy, I think there have been tax breaks, which maybe went too far now—we have to bring that back. So that affects the economic growth of the country as a whole, but I think we’ll go through this phase and when we come out of this phase, we’ll come out as a better country.
Finally, Celso, when people talk about [United Nations] Security Council reform…usually people agree that Brazil should be a permanent member given its size and importance. What is Brazil’s own position on Security Council reform, and do you think we’ll see it in our lifetime?
Well I’m no longer in government, but the official position is well known—we have to expand the Security Council, we need two categories of members, including developing countries among the permanent members. How we get there, I’m not sure. It will take time, and as I mentioned the other day, I was here on the 50th anniversary, the 60th anniversary, now it’s the 70th anniversary of the UN, but I see perspectives, which might help to reform, may not be the ideal one.
On the more institutional part, there is this proposal by the Elders, mainly [former UN Secretary General] Kofi Annan and [former Norway Prime Minister] Gro Brundtland, according to which we would have long-term members who could be re-elected indefinitely. I personally think that the permanence in itself is power, apart from, of course, the veto. The Security Council will continue to be imperfect as it is the only legal body which can authorize the use of force—that’s very important—but I think we could maybe put some fresh air into the discussions on peace and security.
Celso Amorim, thank you for this conversation.