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The Brazilian Red Cross rebuilds

Brazil is the richest country in Latin America, but one-third of its citizens live in poverty. Now, after ten years of considerably reduced activity, the Brazilian Red Cross is rebuilding. Trying to improve the lives of the poorest people is one of the most important goals of the Brazilian Red Cross.

High above the world-famous beaches and fashionable suburbs of Rio de Janeiro perch slums that are home to some 2 million people. In Rio de Janeiro, as across Brazil as a whole, about one-third of the people live in poverty. This economic exclusion is not the result of a lack of wealth in the country as a whole — Brazil’s economy is the world’s tenth largest — but of the way wealth is distributed. A survey in July 2005 showed that the richest 1 per cent of Brazilians control 13 per cent of the national wealth. A further 13 per cent of the nation’s wealth is spread among the poorest 50 per cent.

This cruel equation is the reason 54 million people live in poverty in the richest country in Latin America. Income inequality is the most urgent problem in Brazil today. Changing this situation is one of the Brazilian government’s challenges. And trying to improve the lot of the most vulnerable people is one of the most important goals of the Brazilian Red Cross. The election of new leaders in 2004 and the approval of a strategic plan demonstrate that this National Society is looking forward to a more active future.




Income inequality is the top priority

“If we had to use only one word to describe the causes of vulnerability in Brazil, the word would be inequality,” says Fernando Casanova, the coordinator of the International Federation’s South America regional delegation in Buenos Aires, Argentina. “There is inequality in the distribution of wealth and resources, and inequality generates poverty.”

In Brazil, poverty results in a lack of access to fundamental resources such as health care, safe water and education.

“Understanding that poverty is a general issue, the Brazilian Red Cross identified its work priorities as being health, disasters, community programmes, youth and volunteers. All these programmes will be carried out with the most vulnerable people in mind,” says Gabriel Santangelo of the ICRC in Buenos Aires.

The Brazilian Red Cross’s strategic plan focuses on the one-third of the population living on a monthly income of less than US$ 33. The plan concludes that living on that income means having poor living and health conditions, deficient access to education, and insufficient and inadequate food.

In the short term, the Brazilian Red Cross plans to become more effective by integrating its activities to focus on the most vulnerable people. The goal is to fi nd new ways to assist the huge numbers of Brazil’s poor by 2008. Among the activities are a national health programme, community-based programmes, disaster preparedness and response programmes, and volunteer training.

Unemployment and violence are other issues at the heart of Brazilian Red Cross programmes. Data from Rio de Janeiro reveals that unemployment in the state is 9 per cent. The jobless rate is 19 per cent in the city’s favelas or slums.

The deadline of 2008 for reshaping the National Society is no coincidence. The date marks 100 years since it was founded. Its first president, Oswaldo Cruz, was responsible for sanitation campaigns in Rio de Janeiro at the beginning of the 20th century. Since then, the National Society has acted to serve humanity in ordinary life and at critical moments such as during floods and droughts.

However, between 1992 and 2001, administrative problems at headquarters in Rio de Janeiro generated a debt of US$ 2.3 million, which nearly stopped the work of their more than 130 employees; today, headquarters consists of 18 paid staff.

But even during the difficult years, when the National Society could not offer leadership and support, 16 states branches and 36 local branches continued working independently.

“Every branch was working on the local issues, specific to each region,” says Brazilian Red Cross president, Luiz Fernando Hernández.

Boats on the Amazon

During this period, boats with Red Cross volunteers were often the only contact with health services for people in inaccessible areas of the Amazon.

In Pará state in northern Brazil, the local branch, with 3,000 volunteers, has been working with an environmental group to recycle rubbish. This is a way of preserving the environment and at the same time generating employment and income for poor people

In Maranhao, one of the poorest states in Brazil, the local branch trains young people, aged 14 to 24, to prepare them for working life.

“Our state reflects the many contradictions of the country,” says Maranhao branch president Carmen Maria Texeira Moreira. “There is a high percentage of unemployment and, on the other hand, industries claim that they cannot find qualified people.”

Founded in 1914, the Minas Gerais branch is one of the oldest in the country. During the past few years, it has conducted training courses for nurses and first aiders.

“Today, we are implementing the strategic plan and refocusing on the most vulnerable people,” says Minas Gerais branch’s general secretary, Márcia Fernández Zazá.

Brazilian Red Cross president, Luiz Fernando Hernández.



Using Brazil’s power

President Luiz Fernando Hernández says branches must continue to serve their own populations in their own unique ways. “Now, together with the branches, we are developing national activities, and they still work on their local matters.”

The National Society’s new strength was demonstrated after 2004’s Indian Ocean tsunami, when, in a short space of time, it collected 300 tonnes of food, clothes and medicine, and raised US$ 705,000 to help people injured in the disaster.

“It was a record collection in Latin America,” says Luiz Fernando Hernández. “We collected more than twice the amount raised by any other country in the region. “Right now, the Brazilian Red Cross’s goal is to devote all that power to the most vulnerable people in the country and to try to improve their living conditions.”

Roberta Jansen
Roberta Jansen is a journalist for O Globo newspaper in Brazil.


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