In brief

In the late 1990s, Brazil was notorious for its high levels of hunger, poverty and inequality, particularly in its densely populated major cities. Programa Bolsa Familia (PBF) is a government programme introduced in 2003 by President Lula that makes cash transfers to low-income families on condition that they, for example, send their children to school and ensure that they are properly vaccinated. This form of “investment in human capital” has been adopted by administrations from New York City to the Philippines.

The challenge

For many decades, Brazil has struggled with the problems of structural inequality and poverty, with high levels of hunger and deprivation, most notoriously  in the favelas, the shacks and shanty towns of the great cities, such as São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. It is seen as a transgenerational problem, with children unable to acquire the education and other benefits that would enable them to escape from the poverty of their background in low-income households.

The initiative

In the period up to 2003, the federal government under the then President Cardoso introduced a number of conditional cash transfer (CCT) programmes that all addressed different aspects of  poverty and inequality. In October of that year, President Lula da Silva introduced the Programa Bolsa Família (PBF). It was created from the merger of four existing programmes: Bolsa Escola, Bolsa Alimentação, Cartão Alimentação, and Auxílio-Gás. Its aim was “improve the efficiency and coherence of the social safety net and to scale up assistance to provide universal coverage of Brazil’s poor”. [1]

The main objectives of the PBF were to:

  • Reduce poverty and inequality, by providing a minimum level of income for extremely poor families.
  • Break the cycle of poverty by making the cash transfers conditional. The conditional element is that families receive the cash only if they adhere to core responsibilities such as taking their children to the doctor whenever the need arises and ensuring that they attend school. It aims to break the poverty cycle by obliging the recipients to invest in human capital (in their children’s education, for example).
  • Empower BFP beneficiaries by linking them to complementary services.

The public impact

It is estimated that “the level of extreme poverty would be between 33 per cent and 50 per cent higher without the PBF. The programme has also contributed to reducing income inequality, accounting for 12-21 per cent of the recent sharp decline”. [2]

The programme was responsible for approximately 28 percent of the total poverty reduction in Brazil, and from 2002-12 the number of Brazilians living with less than BRL70 a week had fallen from 8.8 percent to 3.6 percent. “According to a recent UN study, [the number of people suffering from hunger] had decreased from 22.8 million people in 1992 to 13.6 million in 2012.” [3] The PBF has now succeeded in reaching 11.1 million families (over 46 million people), which makes it the largest such programme in the world.

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What did and didn't work

All cases in our Public Impact Observatory have been evaluated for performance against the elements of our Public Impact Fundamentals.


Stakeholder Engagement Strong

The federal government was the main internal stakeholder. Three government agencies–the General Controller’s Office, the Federal Audits Court, and the Office of the Public Prosecutor–are responsible for formal oversight and controls of the PBF.  Local administrations are responsible for data collection and for registering eligible families.

The World Bank was the main external stakeholder, providing the technical support to design the parameters of the programme. “The option of unifying Brazil’s CCTs had been discussed for some time in Brazilian policy and academic circles, as well as in exchanges with the World Bank and other donors.”

Political Commitment Strong

Lula da Silva was committed both to the principle of CCT programmes as a means of reducing poverty, hunger and inequality and to the consolidation  of existing programmes. “The issue of combining the federal government’s cash transfer programmes was part of President Lula da Silva’s election platform.” [4] He was involved in initial discussions with the World Bank about the viability of CCT programmes and made the PBF one the highest priority policies of his government.

Public Confidence Good

In January 2003, Lula’s approval rating stood at 83% of all Brazilians (he had been elected the year before). However, this had fallen to 60% by April 2005, with 29% giving the president a negative rating.  However, on the whole he was regarded positively and was re-elected in 2006. “Analysts say it is because of some of his government's social programmes – which benefit tens of millions of Brazilians – that Lula has maintained huge popularity among the electorate … By increasing the minimum wage well above inflation and broadening state help to the most impoverished with a family grant programme, the Bolsa Familia, he has helped some 44 million people and cemented his support among the poor.” [5]


Clear Objectives Good

The broad objectives of the PBF were to reduce the levels of poverty, inequality and hunger in Brazil. The more specific objective was to achieve this through a single CCT programme, consolidating four programmes that were in operation in 2003. The objectives have been maintained consistently since the launch of the PBF, and its impact is measurable through indicators such as the number of families registered and the number of Brazilians living below an agreed poverty line.

Evidence Strong

The PBF was based on four similar CCT programmes in Brazil, which it brought together within a single programme: PBF “builds on the foundations of previous programs and increases their impact through strengthened institutional arrangements, targeting, monitoring, and evaluation.” [6] Also the Brazilian government implemented the Programa do Cartão Alimentação (PCA) pilot before launching the PBF initiative. The  PCA was “managed by the (former) Ministry of Food Security and provided a monthly benefit payment of BRL50 to poor families with a monthly per capita income of less than half the minimum wage”. [7] The PCA sought to promote food consumption, and recipients were supposed
to use the transfer for food purchases.

The principle of a single CCT programme head already been established in Mexico since 1997 in the renamed Oportunidades programme. “Oportunidades focuses on helping poor families in rural and urban communities invest in human capital—improving the education, health, and nutrition of their children—leading to the long-term improvement of their economic future and the consequent reduction of poverty in Mexico. By providing cash transfers to households (linked to regular school attendance and health clinic visits), the programme also fulfils the aim of alleviating current poverty.” [8]

Feasibility Fair

One of the goals of consolidating four CCTs into a single programme was to improve efficiency by reducing administrative costs, strengthening the  financial feasibility. “Federal administrative costs fell from 5.3% of total pre-reform programme outlays in 2002 to 2.6% under the PBF in 2005.” [9]

The operational feasibility had already been established by the existing CCT programmes, and by Mexico’s Oportunidades.


Management Good

The Bolsa Familia Secretariat oversees the PBF and the unified family registry (Cadastro Único), and is responsible for selecting recipients, authorising payments, enforcing conditionality (e.g., children’s school enrolment), monitoring the PBF, and training municipal Managers.

The federal government introduced innovative, performance-based management mechanisms to monitor and manage the PBF. For example, one mechanism promoted incentives for quality implementation “so as to overcome the ‘principal-agent’ dilemma”. [10] Institutional reforms improved the management of the Cadastro Único database while “the very impressive targeting accuracy of the programme [was] achieved through geographic mechanisms and means-testing under the  Cadastro Único, with 73% of the transfers of the PBF going to the poorest quintile and 94% going to the poorest two quintiles.” [11]

Measurement Strong

There were several indicators which were used to measure the impact of the PBF, such as:

  • The types of beneficiary.
  • Levels of family and individual income and poverty.
  • Children’s enrolment education and measures of educational achievement .
  • Health indicators, such as vaccine rates and height and weight relative to age).

Effective monitoring tools and agencies were dedicated to improving the PBF’s performance. “In addition to ongoing monitoring of inputs, outputs, results and processes, the [Ministry of Social Development and Hunger Eradication,] (MDS) is responsible for carrying out or contracting impact evaluations of the PBF. From the time the Ministry was created, [it] has established a special secretariat devoted to information and evaluations.” [12]

4. The IGD monitoring tool only covers certain aspects of BFP implementation (registration, conditionality monitoring information) and is based on administrative data rather than actual field assessments of quality. Additional tools are needed for oversight functions and policy feedback on the quality of decentralized implementation.

Alignment Strong

All the actors, including the federal, state and local government, the monitoring agency, other agencies, such as the General Controller’s Office and the Office of the Public Prosecutor executed their roles effectively and shared a common interest in making the PBF work.

“Such coordination distinguishes Bolsa Familia from its sector-based predecessors. The main players in the federal arena are the Bolsa programme’s national secretariat (which is directly linked to the office of the president), the new [MDS], the sector ministries, and the Caixa Econômica Federal (Federal Savings Bank), in its capacity as the entity operating the Cadastro Único and responsible for payment.” [13]

The federal government also collaborated well with the World Bank and academic specialists in its analysis and design of the PBF.