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Predicting future impacts on SDGs in Brazil’s uncertain times

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In Brazil, social programmes have had an impact on eliminating disease. Photo: Tiago Zenero/UNDP Brazil

Bolsa Familia, Brazil’s highly acclaimed conditional cash transfer programme has been an inspiration to many developing countries. But today, in the midst of the country’s worst political and economic crisis in decades, the future of this social protection system is becoming less certain. 

The programme’s successes are well-known. It has helped to nearly eradicate extreme poverty and reduce inequality across the country. It has increased school attendance, reduced infant mortality and improved public health. It is a powerful force for women’s empowerment, with targeted benefits for pregnant and nursing women; 93 percent of card holders are women.

Perhaps less known is the programme’s attention to data. In 2007, the Cadastro Unico was created as a single registry database to track socioeconomic and household data of low income families. Far-reaching efforts were made to verify potential beneficiaries for social programmes, with over 1,200 crews visiting homes across the country, deep in the Amazon and other rural areas. Today, the Cadastro Unico tracks more than 103 million people (around half of the country’s population) as recipients of Bolsa Familia and 13 other social programmes.  

This extensive database has proven essential for optimizing programme delivery, ensuring services are delivered to the right people in the right places in a timely manner. But it has also been a treasure trove of hard data. This data has enabled in-depth analyses of the wide range of impacts conditional cash transfers have had on the lives of millions of people over the past decade.

Tuberculosis rates, for example, provide an interesting litmus test. Tuberculosis is largely a disease of poverty and can be associated with several SDG areas such as inadequate health care, poor nutrition and overcrowding in households.

In Brazil, conditional cash transfers have contributed to improved living conditions and Bolsa Familia beneficiaries have been shown to have higher tuberculosis cure rates. Bolsa Familia has increased the stability of household income, enabling more consistent access to better foods, and increased the use of health care services beyond the programme’s required health visits.

For a policy maker, this is powerful evidence of the impact these social programmes have on eliminating disease. One limitation, however, is that it comes after the programme has already been in place for over a decade. For countries going through social, economic or political crisis, it could be more helpful to use the data to predict the impacts of decisions made today.

A microsimulation study, supported by the UNDP RIO+ Centre, has done just that. The tuberculosis cases captured under the Cadastro Unico were separated between those who received cash transfers and those who did not. Using additional data sources, this methodology estimated that if Bolsa Familia payments were to stop, tuberculosis prevalence in 2025 would be approximately six percent higher than if the program continued.  Conversely, an expansion of the cash transfers would contribute to a 33 percent lower prevalence in 2025. The study also offers policy makers the option to test different programme options, altering the variables to estimate and compare the various outcomes.

Microsimulations such as these offer a powerful tool for policy research and analysis on social policies.  But the methodology depends on the availability of detailed, consistent data sources like those found in the Cadastro Unico. The database offers an important opportunity for Brazil to contribute to the SDG agenda and to the data revolution for a more sustainable future.

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