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Brazil becomes antipoverty showcase

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"The question of poverty is at the forefront of Latin American governments today. The poor are visible again, and Brazil is playing a leading role in this," says Patrus Ananias, Brazil's minister of social development, who traveled to Namibia last month to help the African Union review its social policy framework.

The arid plains of Brazil's impoverished northeast, where Lula was born, seem a world away from the booming southeast.

Towns are isolated from one another, connected by roads that, when paved, are riddled with potholes. And yet, the poverty in this region has been reduced more than anywhere else in the country.

Half the nation's welfare subsidies go to small rural towns, like Manari, where mass migration to the cities was once the only hope. Manari, in the state of Pernambuco, sits at the edge of the "sertao" or "backlands," a land of dusty fields and craggy trees. Five years ago, it received the lowest human development index ranking in the country by the United Nations Development Program, with an average monthly income of $13 and 57 percent of the population illiterate – on par with Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

Today Manari is undergoing a boom. The town received potable water for the first time last year.

In the past three years, the first high school and health clinic were built. This summer, the government inaugurated the final 15-mile stretch of asphalt connecting Manari to the main highway.

But the most immediate improvement to the quality of life has been the government's monthly conditional cash payments to two-thirds of the town, or 3,000 families.

Mothers receive up to 182 reais – about $82 – as long as they keep their children in school, get them vaccinated, and participate in regular health checkups.

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