JOBS and even sewers are scarce in Formosa, Brazil, the sun-baked scrubland town of cattle farms and narrow, dusty roads. But if work and water often fail, there is at least one thing here that is sure as sunrise: When the schoolhouse opens in the morning, Rosemary Goncalves, 15, will be waiting at the door.
“She hasn't missed a day in more than two years,'' said her mother, Gail dos Santos, 35, as the two stood outside the family's toolshed-size hovel.
Only a few years ago, Rosemary could cut class with the best of them, earning some money here and there doing odd jobs for one of the wealthier farmers in town, unloading packages for the general store or just hanging out with friends who were taking the day off from school, too. Both her parents had dropped out of high school, so truancy was never as much of an issue in their household as hunger.
But then the governor of the federal district of Brasilia began offering stipends to poor parents whose children regularly showed up for school. It's not much – US$5 (RM20) per child per month for up to three children per household. But in this hardscrabble town in central Brazil, 25km northeast of Brasilia, the capital, that's enough to fill empty stomachs and classrooms. And in a country where the minimum wage is the equivalent of about US$75 (RM285) a month, it's a significant sum.
“A lot of the kids in town who didn't go to school before go to school every day now,'' said dos Santos, who has worked as a maid but has been unemployed for most of the last three years. She has two other children for whom she receives the monthly stipend, a total of US$15 (RM60).
“All my kids' grades have just shot up. A little bit of money can make a huge difference for families as poor as we are.''
Brazil's school stipend programme is a strikingly promising and innovative social programme, a relatively small public investment that goes a long way toward addressing hunger, literacy, child labour and exclusion.
Since it began as a pilot programme in Brasilia and satellite towns like Formosa seven years ago, the effort has nearly doubled the number of children attending school here, officials added. And though research remains incomplete, many educators and activists expect commensurate increases in literacy and nutrition.
“It is a quantifiable and unequivocal success,'' said Cristovam Buarque, Brazil's Education Minister, who was governor of Brasilia when the pilot programme began. “The problem with education in Brazil is largely the problem of access,'' he said. “If kids don't go to school because they have to work, and they have to work because they have to eat, then you can't begin to talk about education until you figure out a way to get them to walk into the schoolhouse door every day.''
But the school stipend initiative (known here by its Portuguese name, Bolsa Escola) also represents the central dilemma for Brazil's president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a former metalworker and union leader, who is trying to combat a budget deficit while promoting social programmes.
Lula, as the president is widely known, was elected six months ago after a campaign in which he pledged to repay the country's US$260bil (RM990bil) foreign debt while also focusing on the hungry, jobless and illiterate.
Brazil must pay about US$43bil (RM163bil) in yearly interest payments on its foreign debt, about three-quarters of its annual US$60bil (RM228bil) in export earnings. Yet Lula is committed to maintaining the US$700mil (RM2.66bil) yearly school stipend programme even as he continues to seek billions of dollars in budget cuts.
Education Minister Buarque and other proponents are seeking even more funding for the stipend programme, which currently has a nationwide enrolment of about five million families and nine million children.
For the programme to be really effective, particularly in the densely populated urban areas, stipends should be increased, Buarque said.
“It will be truly a pity if we cannot increase the stipend,'' Buarque said. “Just a real shame.'' – LAT-WP