Bolsa Familia: Brazil

“Solutions can only solve problems if they reach those who need them most.”

It has been said that development is about delivery: the will and ability to deliver interventions to very poor people in order to improve their lives. The development “space” is filled with great ideas and innovative solutions, from technological interventions to new policy initiatives. But the effects of these potentially game-changing ideas are severely mitigated if they do not actually get to the people they are intended to benefit. We think of this challenge in terms of “reach.” Solutions can only solve problems if they reach those who need them most.

Those who live at the base of the pyramid – the poorest of the poor – are also the hardest to reach. Many are homeless or live far in the countryside; they might lack formal identification; or they are socially marginalized because of their ethnicity or gender. As Anthony Lake of UNICEF puts it: “Disaggregate the data and we find that our statistical national successes are masking moral and practical failures. People are left behind simply because they live in rural communities or urban slums, in conflict zones, as part of indigenous groups, with disabilities or because they are girls.”

The Bolsa Familia program in Brazil is an excellent example of an innovative social policy program that successfully reaches the hardest to reach. Bolsa Familia is a conditional cash transfer scheme that targets Brazil’s poorest families. In addition to reducing poverty and improving health and education outcomes among those in the bottom income quintile, the Bolsa Familia program is noted for its precision, in not only identifying and finding the poorest of the poor, the socially excluded and the geographically distant, but also in delivering the cash benefit to these families. Over the course of one year, five students sought to understand the design mechanics of the direct transfer method of Bolsa Familia—from literature reviews in Toronto to field interviews in Sao Paolo. The results of this research point to innovative policy design, the appropriate use of technologies, sheer legwork in the villages and urban favelas, and political attention paid to the challenges and imperatives of reach.