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Story Publication logo September 6, 2012

Brazil: Imagine a World Free of Hunger and Need


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Two transitioning economies, similar development challenges, vastly different population size and...

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Senator Eduardo Matarazzo Suplicy. Image by Rema Nagarajan. Brazil, 2012.

"Imagine all the people, with a basic income to live" would probably have been a line in John Lennon's immortal song, Imagine. Then again, maybe not. Words like income and basic are probably too prosaic to figure in the lyrics of a song like that. Yet, basic income for all is the stuff of the kind of dreams the song talks about, a dream that seems too impossible to make true.

However, a basic minimum income for every human being is precisely what 71-year-old Leftist politician, economist and professor Senator Eduardo Matarazzo Suplicy, believes is possible given the economic prosperity the world is seeing. And he intends to start with making this a reality in Brazil. Hailing from an immensely wealthy family, Suplicy is a three-time senator from São Paulo, who is a founding member of the current ruling party, the Workers Party.

Senator Suplicy's persistence paid off when the Bill he introduced in 1991 was finally sanctioned by then president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in January 2004 to become the law that established the Citizen's Basic Income (CBI) to be implemented step by step, giving priority to those most in need, until the day when everyone will receive it. Senator Suplicy sees the law on Bolsa Familia (family allowance) Program, which pays a certain amount every month to all families with a monthly income below a certain level, as a step towards CBI.

The estimated budget of the Bolsa Familia program in 2012 is about US $10 billion or about 0.4% of Brazil's GDP. From covering over 3 million families in 2003 when it started, today the program covers almost 14 million families or about a quarter of the 200 million Brazilian population. However, Bolsa Familia is cash assistance for poor families if they fulfill conditions such as sending their children to school or getting them fully immunized and so on.

"I too believed that only the poor should get the money. But now I am convinced of a basic income for all citizens irrespective of their race, sex, age, civil or economic condition. It is much simpler for everyone to understand and easier to implement without all the cost of the bureaucracy of identifying who is poor, monitoring the compliance of the conditions and so on. It also takes away the stigma of having to be poor to receive the money," says Suplicy.

Wouldn't giving away money make people lazy? "You have enough money to survive, but you still work to earn more don't you? Then why believe the poor will not work to improve their lives? It's basic human nature to work beyond mere survival to have better conditions," says Suplicy.

Quoting Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, whom he admires greatly, Senator Suplicy says that for development to be meaningful, it must mean a greater degree of freedom for the whole population. And to him, the important advantage of CBI is the dignity and freedom it affords each person. "With such a basic income, people will not be forced to accept working conditions that resemble slavery. They can seek and insist on work that affords them better conditions, " he points out.

"All the natural wealth and public assets of a country belongs to its people. If that is true, then the people ought to have a share of the money earned from exploiting these resources. If we set aside 10% from such earnings to create a citizens fund, soon it will be possible to give a basic income to the citizens," explains the senator.

However, he himself realises how difficult it is to realise.

"The main difficulty with CBI is that it costs a lot. Even to give a very modest CBI of about $35 per month or, what is currently paid as the basic minimum under Bolsa Familia, would mean a budget of more than $80 billion, or eight times the current budget of Bolsa Familia, or 4% of the GDP," he admits. This seems difficult, even to him, as a government has to think of not only CBI, but has to also invest in other sectors such as education, health, infrastructure, housing, sanitation social security, environment protection and so on.

Incidentally, Senator Suplicy is not alone in dreaming of a basic income for all. There is a network of individuals from across the world, from different disciplines and walks of life including academics, researchers, students, economists, government authorities, politicians and people in social and religious organisations who are interested in basic income issues. They are part of the Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN) set up in 1986. BIEN organizes congresses every two years to foster informed discussion on the topic of basic income. This year it is slated to happen from September 14-16 in Munich and Suplicy is definitely going.

Senator Suplicy believes that just as two of the greatest human achievements during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were the abolition of slavery and the adoption of universal suffrage, respectively, the biggest achievement of the 21st century will be Citizen's Basic Income.

He is dismissed as a dreamer, though much loved and respected for his earnestness and honesty. Yet, even within the government and outside it, almost no one believes the basic income will ever happen and think it is a bit eccentric to insist upon this. But who knows? Maybe, those who talked about abolishing slavery over two centuries ago too were treated the same way.


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