Zero Hunger: Political Culture and Antipoverty Policy in Northeast Brazil

In the last decade, many scholars have produced innovative studies of antipoverty policies, and the literature now includes extensive analyses of Brazil’s approaches to poverty which can provide important lessons for other countries.  At the core of Brazil’s antipoverty policies were The Zero Hunger policy and Bolsa de Familia. While Bolsa de Familia has attracted enormous attention, the Zero Hunger policy has not been as widely analyzed or studied. Thus, Aaron Ansell offers a valuable contribution by providing an interesting ethnographic study of the Zero Hunger policy and a powerful tool to understand the complex patronage system that underlies the political structure of rural Brazil. The book also offers important lessons regarding the use of policy to do social and political engineering.   Ansell highlights the Brazilian state’s unsuccessful efforts to dismantle traditional hierarchical exchanges in the name of social justice, development and democracy.

Ansell locates his study in the small municipality of Passarinho in the rural interior of Piauí State in the Brazilian Northeast. Studying Piauí’s cultivators is critically important because they had the lowest income and the lowest score in the Human Development Index within Brazil. They also suffered from chronic and severe nutritional deprivation and experienced the physical and psychological consequences of hunger. Passarinho’s hunger was twice as bad as in the rest of the Brazilian Northeast and 3.5 times worse than in the country as a whole. Following Nancy Scheper-Hughes’ landmark study of the Brazilian Northeast, Ansell argues that access to food separates the poor from the extremely poor and leads to the stigmatization of hunger and the hungry. However, while Scheper-Hughes argues that it is the state and the dominant classes that stigmatize hunger, Ansell argues that the impoverished peasants also stigmatize and exclude the poorest and hungriest among them. Stigmatization leads to concealment.  Concealing hunger is part of a broader set of local beliefs that connect possessions and the desire to have possessions with evil spirits and negative consequences. Thus, poor people reinforce the stigma of hunger and isolate the poorest from the shared relations that could help them reduce hunger. Those who suffer the consequences of hunger, which the Brazilian rural poor describe as nervos or a nervous condition, are isolated as well.

Ansell is interested in understanding why the Zero Hunger program failed and forced a very popular President to fold his much heralded approach to hunger elimination into Bolsa de Familia, a more general Conditional Cash Transfer program. The answer is to be found in the government’s attempt to use this policy as a mechanism to unravel the clientelistic ties that have dominated politics in rural Brazil. Ansell shows that policy makers decided not to use the existing clientelistic political structures to implement the policy.  Instead, they bypassed those structures, using the policy to undermine clientelistic relations and enhance the power of the Federal Government and the governing Workers’ Party (PT).

Ansell highlights important cultural misunderstandings that led to this policy failure. For instance, while the Lula administration saw patronage as exclusionary and anti-democratic, rural Brazilians saw it as a familiar form of social and political relations that could not be abandoned by the promise of a small amount of food. Moreover, people in the rural areas saw the government’s attempt to destroy clientelistic structures and replace them by a system of collective labor as a threat to their survival. This ethnography demonstrates that Passarinho’s people lived in world fraught with inequalities and dangers which were not understood by the government and the PT.

The policy itself had two components: a food card that allowed the recipient to access food for nine months and the development of a form of communal work which would secure future access to food and destroy clientelistic ties. Following Lula’s example of the prodigal son who left the poor Northeast and became a national leader, those implementing the policy presented themselves as the prodigal sons (and maybe daughters) of the Northeast returning to rescue their distant relatives from hunger and from patronage ties through the revival of a form of communal work that was unfamiliar to the peasants. In the final analysis, government officials did not belong to the rural world and their political engineering goals failed because the peasants did not adopt the notions of participatory development and communal arrangements designed by the policy makers in Brasilia.

Thus, the failure of the program lies in the attempt to use Zero Hunger as a mechanism to promote democracy and development assuming that hunger was not only an outcome of clientelism, but also an obstacle to both democracy and development. However,  the peasants rejected both the elimination of clientelistic ties and the proposed communal arrangements because they threatened the peasants’ meager existence. Additionally, traditional beliefs interfered with the policy. If their community believed that peasants were seeking wealth, they would be rejected and punished by the evil spirits. Eventually, the program was folded into Bolsa de Familia which centralized the administration of the program in the mayor’s office a central figure in the patronage system.

How could policy makers in Brasilia misunderstand the depth of the patronage system?  Why couldn’t they pay more attention to the nature of local beliefs and practices, including the stigmatization of the very poor and the very hungry? Why policy makers overestimated the peasant’s interest in participatory development and the power of the government officials to instill communal attachments among the peasants? Ansell’s analysis raises these and other very important questions that explain the policy failure and the prevalence of clientelistic relations in rural Brazil.

In conclusion, this ethnography offers a fascinating story and very important analytical conclusions regarding the misuse of an anti-hunger policy to restructure clientelistic relations and advance the interests of the governing part. Ansell shows a deep understanding of the power of clientelistic relations and attitudes toward hunger in rural Brazil, which will make an evocative assignment for classes on Brazilian politics and culture, comparative social policies, Latin American politics and societies, or anthropology of welfare.

Silvia Borzutzky, Carnegie Mellon University

Ansell, Aaron. Zero Hunger: Political Culture and Antipoverty Policy in Northeast Brazil.  The University of North Carolina Press, 2014. Read more at University of North Carolina Press. 

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