With the spotlight on Rio for another world sporting event, it is time once more to return to the sport of talking about the people of Brazil. Who are they? What do they do? What do they watch on TV? Do they like beer? Are they religious? Will they get the medals they want? Do they even want the Olympics? Many questions, different angles to cover, and with real and interesting people at the heart of it all.
Inevitably one of the main points of discussion that comes up at any contemporary dinner party table when Brazil is the topic of conversation is the abject poverty in the country.
When I first began researching for this article I took at look at Google images. I needn’t have bothered; it was the usual cliche collection of scantily clad- and in some cases naked- street urchins with distended stomachs and crusty noses scrabbling around in the dust. These emotive photographs are of course meant to melt your heart but more importantly convince you to sign a direct debit form for a corporate charity.
Between the six or so billion people living on the planet today, there is enormous disparity of the relative earnings and income in the world. That is to say, for those who do earn there are people taking home a dollar a day at one end of the scale and individuals of incalculable wealth at the other. There’s nothing remarkable about this observation; it’s always been the case. Having any money at all is a fairly modern development for the dollar-a-day class who until ‘relatively’ recently would’ve simply been allowed by the landlord to live on the land that they worked. Reading more about Brazil and what makes poverty a particular issue, I came to the realisation that the varying efforts to alleviate poverty were not working. That much was obvious, or there would be no article. What was striking was that for perhaps the last 50 years during this period where Brazil thinks of what to do about its poorest citizens the government has developed responses which would never have worked and you can’t help thinking they didn’t want it to. In 2016 in Brazil poverty is rapidly increasing.
Poor people in Brazil unsurprisingly live all over the country. It’s difficult to go out and gather statistics or details as to the extent of their poverty and exactly where the various communities reside as it is a topic of little interest to most people. You’re dependent on reading terribly mundane drivel from international institutions which go into far too much detail for anyone aside the intensely interested minority. Nevertheless, deep amongst the social science jargon it is possible to identify two kinds of poverty in Brazil. There are the appendages to the major cities known as Favela which are basically the Brazilian equivalent of African shanty towns, with walls made from, anything and roofs from corrugated steel.
The other kind of poor in Brazil is the kind the international organisations seem more interested in. These are the rural poor in the North Eastern part of the country. The experts would dispute it, but they measure poverty using extremely crude metrics such as the presence of water supply, sanitation, access to education and whether or not work is ‘formal’. I say crude because this kind of measurement precludes the possibility of less sophisticated means of dealing with life’s requirements. They assume that nobody in any of these rural communities has taken it upon themselves to make arrangements to dispose of their own sewerage and secure their own natural water supply, and that the only way they can live is if the UN drop food parcels. It’s a tad patronising.
Having to work, therefore, with the stark reality that I’m just not geared for writing about poverty in Brazil, it seemed clear that to get a unique perspective and make this worthwhile I would have to conduct my own research. Like a proper reporter I’d have go to the scene and get the scoop. United Politics did not offer tickets for a flight to North East Brazil so I went with the next best thing: Google Street View. What I found actually surprised me. I’m going to ruffle some feathers and put it to you that the poor people of Brazil aren’t that poor at all. I’m not joking, go and find out for yourself. Pick any town in the poorest Northeastern area of the country and drill down to street level. The plethora of images captured by Google reinforce the view that, whilst technically speaking the people may fall short by many conventional measures, it is wrong to come to the conclusion that there is a problem for millions of people.
So why do we talk about the poverty of Brazil? From my virtual tour of the country two images in particular stand out. These images are everywhere; the Google car gives you a snapshot of life happening and so from the images you can make reasonable assumptions. The first image is a construction scene. The man fixing the tiles to the building is wearing flip-flops instead of safety boots and he’s cutting tiles but there’s no sign of any safety goggles. The equipment he is using is basic and the work being performed isn’t of a particularly complex nature. Two friends or colleagues look on, one sitting in a plastic chair while the other leans. In the foreground there is a push bike; if you look closer you’ll see it has no brakes.
Images: Google Inc.
The second image has a lot less going on, in fact, the only thing to note is the writing on the wall. The direct translation of the words are “FOR SALE IS THIS HOUSE”. So there we have it. Two sides of the issue laid out. On the one hand we have international institutions such as the World Bank offering a lofty analysis of the situation according to their preferred metrics, and on the other, real images of real life in poor rural Brazil. You could, however, convince me with more detailed arguments that neither of these visions of Brazil are the truth. The fact is I’m the first to admit that I’ve got my ‘L’ plates on when it comes to this subject. I’m prepared to listen, and prepared to take one of those plane tickets if you happen to have one going spare.
What I infer from the proposition of institutions such as the World Bank is that the people are poor and the government programs to alleviate their poverty are ineffective. What I infer from the street scenes is that the people there are getting on with life. The person selling her house hasn’t employed the services of an estate agent. Instead, a paint aerosol to advertise the sale of the property twice in large lettering on the walls suffices. The guy doing the tiling does not have safety boots because he does not have a boss who has to make sure he is safe so that the firm isn’t sued. And as there isn’t a lot to do, his companions sit and watch, and it’s no problem. The bike has no brakes because its rider is never in any real rush to get anywhere.
At the end of the day it seems to me that this comes down to a clash of values. If you were to ask some poor people from a rural area of north-eastern Brazil if they wanted to work twelve hours a day (after commuting) so they could give a lot of money to the government to help alleviate the plight of their poorer brethren, what do you suppose the response would be from the majority? And would these supposed victims of abject poverty like to exchange what they have for a fractious relationship with their family? A situation where both mother and father are at work and away from home, working, with half their earnings being used to pay strangers to look after their children for them? Would they like a home with double glazing and an insulated loft, binding them to a lifetime of twelve hour working days, paying back the nice bank who lent them the virtual cash to buy it? Do they want a new Mazda on a personal contract hire agreement instead of a push-bike without brakes so they’re able to travel a thousand miles a week on gridlocked streets? I could go on, but I think you get the picture.
Perhaps I’m being naive here; I could be mistaken in my observations and have come to a somewhat superficial conclusion. But when your life-goal is a plastic chair by the roadside, are you really poor? It seems to me that the poor of Brazil are freer than us and they do it that way because that’s what they want to do. Perhaps we in the UK are the truly impoverished.