Bolsa Família is often promoted as a model of good practice for social protection programmes in the developing world. As a Brazilian, in the short period of time that I’ve worked on international social protection, I’ve been surprised by how famous Bolsa Família is around the world and how it has inspired similar programmes around the world. But, despite its great reputation internationally, in Brazil it is nowhere near as well regarded, and its future is uncertain.
Compared to Brazil’s main social security schemes, Bolsa Família is rather small and, unlike others, it is not an entitlement: households living in poverty do not have the right to access the programme. And, as Kidd and Huda (2012) have argued, Bolsa Família has a limited impact on poverty and inequality when compared to the country’s minimum wage pensions. Indeed, Bolsa Família doesn’t do a great job in reaching the poorest members of society, missing out around 50% of intended beneficiaries.
As Brazil goes through turbulent times, the debate on Bolsa Família has gained momentum once again. If we disregard the nonsensical parts of the discussion – such as the unfounded belief that many have about the poor being lazy and unfit to make decisions for themselves – the main debate centres around improving the programme’s efficiency, which in Brazil means removing the “undeserving”. It is as if the programme only needed some tweaking to be put right. There are definitely positive things about the programme, but much more can be done than just improving “efficiency”. A key objective should be to transform Bolsa Família into an entitlement that is accessible by all citizens, when in need.