Economist to Study Effectiveness of Rural Poverty Program in Brazil

Steven Helfand awarded $70,000 grant to evaluate United Nations agriculture sustainability project aimed at breaking cycle of poverty

Steven Helfand

Steven Helfand has received a $70,000 grant to evaluate programs aimed at reducing rural poverty in Brazil.

RIVERSIDE, Calif. — The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) of the United Nations has awarded UC Riverside economist Steven M. Helfand a $70,000 grant to determine the effectiveness of programs aimed at reducing rural poverty in Brazil.

The project is part of a seven-country study in Latin America that will examine potential synergies between rural development programs funded by organizations like IFAD and the World Bank and a new generation of anti-poverty programs in the region called conditional cash transfers. The study is being coordinated by the University of the Andes in Colombia.

“IFAD’s mission is to help the poorest of the poor in the world, typically farmers,” explained Helfand, whose research focuses on developmental and agricultural economics in Latin America, in particular, Brazil. “The idea is to improve incomes for people currently living in extreme poverty and to try to break the transmission of poverty to their children.”

The U.N. organization has funded agricultural development projects in Brazil for decades, particularly in the semiarid Northeast, the second-most populous and the poorest region of Brazil. Helfand is leading a team that will analyze how well cash-transfer programs work with efforts like IFAD’s Community Development Project for the Gavião River Region (PROGAVIÃO), and whether there are greater impacts on alleviating poverty when such programs work together.

Workers making candy

Helfand observes workers making rapadura, a candy produced from sugar cane, in a factory built with funding from the International Fund for Agricultural Development.

Conditional cash-transfer programs emerged in Latin America in the 1990s, providing small stipends to families of approximately $35 a month under Brazil’s Bolsa Familia program, which serves approximately 50 million people and is the largest conditional cash-transfer program in the world. Bolsa Familia is part of the “Brazil without Misery” program which seeks to eradicate extreme poverty in the country. An additional $15 per month is provided for each child under age 15. Conditions typically attached to the stipend include requirements that children attend school and receive vaccinations. Payments typically go to women, whom research has shown are more likely to spend the money on their families.

“These programs have been credited with making a significant impact on poverty and inequality in Latin America in the past decade,” said Helfand, who teaches courses on economic development in Latin America and Brazil at UCR.

PROGAVIÃO, which operated between 1997 and 2005 in the Northeast region, was intended to increase incomes and improve living conditions of residents of the Gavião River basin with environmentally sustainable development. For example, IFAD partnered with the state government of Bahia to fund numerous infrastructure improvements, such as small dams and bridges, and cisterns for families and tanks large enough to support home gardens, Helfand explained. A 16,000-liter cistern provides enough water to enable one family to survive one drought for one year. Cisterns of 52,000 liters will sustain a family’s home garden for one year.

“Last year was one of the worst droughts in rural Northeast Brazil. Many animals died,” the economist said. “Animals are a form of savings. Having a cistern is like an insurance mechanism.”

Helfand and GPS device

Steven Helfand uses a GPS device to map the location of a village in a study that will determine the effectiveness of programs aimed at reducing rural poverty in Brazil.

Helfand’s team will gather GPS data from more than 200 rural communities ranging in size from a half-dozen families to 75 families with a church or a school. The success of the rural development program will be determined by comparing agricultural census data in census tracts that received assistance over the life of the seven-year IFAD project with similar census tracts that did not.

In some areas, for example, the introduction of infrastructure to sustain family farms resulted in agricultural cooperatives that provide food for school lunches and manioc flour for local consumption.

Brazil has what is probably the best national agricultural research agency among developing countries, Helfand explained. Embrapa was created in 1973 and contributed to the success of Brazilian agriculture in recent decades.

“That is part of what’s behind the agriculture boom in Brazil,” Helfand noted. “Brazil and the U.S. are the largest agricultural powerhouses in the world today.” Researchers around the world are currently very interested in trying to understand what lessons might exist for African countries from the Brazilian experience with tropical agriculture.

IFAD was established in 1977 as a result of the 1974 World Food Conference, which was organized in response to the food crises of the early 1970s that primarily affected the Sahelian countries of Africa, a semiarid zone of western and north-central Africa extending from Senegal east to The Sudan. In 2012 IFAD had operations in 99 countries.

Two cisterns

The International Fund for Agricultural Development of the United Nations, together with the federal and state governments, has funded construction of water-storage systems in rural Brazil like this 52,000-liter cistern (left) that will support home gardens and smaller cisterns (right) that will sustain a family for one year during a drought.

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