Progressive policies change societies

2012-04-28 16:12

South Africans of all hues and classes have over the last few years, decried the South African government’s support for the poor through its progressive expansion of the social assistance programme, particularly the cash transfers to the caregivers of children.

Parties from across the political spectrum have made references to the social assistance programme as being unaffordable or creating a class of dependent citizens.

These types of comments are often muted for short periods in the face of research-based evidence that indicates the positive effects of these programmes.

This included research done by Unicef and the Finance and Fiscal Commission that indicated the extent to which the child support grant served to protect poor children and therefore poor households from the worst effects of the global economic and financial crisis and the extent to which it reduced child poverty and hunger.

Over the next few weeks, further studies commissioned by the department of social development will be made public and will indicate the extent to which access to and use of the child support grants have improved the lives of South Africa’s children.

This includes improvements in educational performance and effects on young people’s attitudes to safe sex thereby contributing to efforts to reduce new HIV infections.

Perhaps the Brazilian experience will serve to garner more interest in the role that progressive social policies can play in transforming societies.

In lectures given by the deputy minister of social development to South African politicians, bureaucrats and civil society, Brazil’s deputy minister of social development and said the eradication of hunger indicated that over the past 10 years, Brazil has taken 28 million people out of poverty and transitioned another 36 million people into the middle classes.

The poverty index fell 42% to 28% with extreme poverty declining from 12% to 5%.

Over the same period, Brazil also achieved the highest ever recorded reduction in inequality as measured by the Gini Coefficient.
At the same time, Brazil has moved to being the sixth largest economy in the world, overtaking the UK.

While a robust economy under the stewardship of the left wing Workers Party helped, research done by the International Poverty Centre (IPC), a UN agency based in Brasilia indicated that the key drivers of this remarkable changes were strategies that would be a worrying factor here.

According to the IPC and the Brazilian government, the key drivers were, and these are in order of most effect, a consistent raising of the minimum wage, reducing inequalities within the education system and expanding the social protection system.

Since 2003, the Brazilian government progressively raised minimum wages in all sectors, resulting in a 66% real increase in wages for the poorest Brazilians. The income of the bottom 10% grew six times faster than the top 10%.

Through actively reducing inequality in the education system, poorer Brazilians received equal quality of education, improving educational outcomes and thereby increasing the numbers of skilled people needed in the labour market.
Over the same period, the government expanded the social protection system.

Brazil’s Bolsa Familia, which is akin to our own social assistance programme, provided social assistance to families, targeting children.

The programme supports 13 million families – that is is more than 25% of the Brazilian population.

While the programme is accompanied by soft conditionalities related to school attendance and health promotion requirements, it also has constitutionally mandated non-conditional cash transfers to older persons and people with disabilities.

The net effect of these social policy investments was the creation of an internal market that was part of the factors that transformed Brazilian society.

The Brazilians have aptly illustrated that social policy interventions can change society and provide for more inclusive forms of economic growth.
Both countries have similar social policy objectives and policies, but in the South African case our outcomes are less dramatic. There are not many cases of Brazilian firms moving their operations and listing ­­offshore.

According to the sociologist Gay Seidman, this is largely due to Brazilian companies and elites having stronger national consciousness and attachments to the Brazilian project than is the case with their South African counterparts.

At the same time, Brazilian government efforts were more co-ordinated and disciplined.

The anti-poverty programmes coordinated by the ministry of social development included the active participation of at least eight other government departments all working in concert and guided by a common plan.

The Brazilian state is further along the path of being a democratic development state than is the case with South Africa in that the state is a bit more insulated from special interest capture which is a pre-requisite of successful developmental states.

Therefore, aside from having the right policies, we can only fully emulate the Brazilian experience with more support for key anti-poverty drivers.

» Dangor is special adviser to the minister of social development 

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