By John Fitzpatrick
If you visit Brazil as a tourist or on business you will get no real idea of how poor and underdeveloped the country is. You will see signs of poverty and misery, such as favela shanty towns, beggars, and children living in the streets, but these are only the tip of the iceberg. Poverty, malnutrition, illiteracy and lack of access to decent housing, water and sewage treatment are prevalent in both urban and rural areas. Tackling these problems is beyond the ability of the federal, state and city governments, regardless of their political hue. The reason is simple – lack of money. The government taxes companies and individuals at extremely high rates but this does not bring in nearly enough resources to end social misery. One of the reasons is because most Brazilians are too poor to pay tax or they work in the unofficial sector, which accounts for at least 35% to 40% of the official economy. If the government were able to regularize this sector, it would have access to billions of dollars in extra revenues. Corruption is another chronic problem which means that public funds are often diverted into illicit bank accounts and often whisked abroad.
The authorities cooperate with international organizations like the World Bank and UNESCO, as well as church groups, NGOs and other voluntary bodies, but this is still not enough. The government also borrows from domestic and foreign investors but these loans have to be repaid with interest and the nation is highly indebted. In short, Brazil is bust and nowhere near eradicating its social problems and ending the wide gap between the poor and better off.
Private individuals and companies are aware of this problem on a daily basis. Middle class people pay taxes for public schools, hospitals, and security services but do not benefit because they are inefficient and unsatisfactory. The better off people end up sending their children to private schools, taking out private health insurance policies and hiring their own security. By doing so, they are freeing up resources for the government bodies, subsidizing the poor and preventing the current bad situation from becoming much worse.
At corporate level, virtually every company has some kind of social responsibility program. Some of the larger concerns even have foundations and institutes with full-time professional staff and annual budgets worth millions of dollars. These help educate and look after the health of hundreds of thousands of young people and adults all over the country. As well as education and health, companies sponsor environmental, cultural and sports initiatives. I will not single out any company but you only need to visit their sites to see the size and scope of their activities. Some companies even publish separate social reports along with their annual business activities report.
This kind of corporate action is different from western Europe or North America where good corporate citizenship tends to concentrate on other areas, such as the environment. It is impossible to imagine a big German or British industrial company running a large hospital, as one of the Brazil’s biggest conglomerates does in São Paulo. The social responsibility displayed by domestic and multinational companies in Brazil belies the politically correct view that they are only interested in profits and exploiting people.
Looking After Cerebral Palsy Sufferers
However, tens of thousands of charitable organizations do not have a big sponsor and rely on individual donations and voluntary workers. An example of one such body is the Sister Clara Fraternity (Fraternidade Irma Clara or FIC) which looks after cerebral palsy sufferers in São Paulo. This organization operates under conditions which would make most Europeans and North Americans shudder. It is based in cramped, narrow quarters under a viaduct in the Barra Funda region, with traffic thundering by literally above its head. The FIC looks after 36 patients, most of whom are children. The infrastructure is old and inefficient due to the location. However, all the clinical, social and living conditions have been approved by the statutory health and government agencies, as well as by professional bodies representing nurses and doctors. The center spends a huge amount of money to meet all the requirements the government imposes on it even though the authorities do not reciprocate.
The sad truth is that these children would have nowhere else to go if the FIC did not exist. Many have been abandoned by their families who could not look after them while others are wards of court sent there by judicial order. Most are very badly deformed, cannot walk and require intensive treatment. Most cannot speak and communicate in other ways – by smiling, crying, raising their hands or rolling their eyes. Three quarters of the patients require help just to masticate their food since they have little strength to swallow. Others are incapable of any movement and have to be shifted around regularly to prevent bedsores and related conditions. Albino Campos, director of communication, says that adult visitors are often so shocked when they see the children that they cry. Despite their plight, the children are conscious of what is happening, said Cibelle do Nascimento who edits the FIC’s newspaper. Volunteers are told not to patronize them. They are interested in television, football and music and have their favorite players and singers,” she added.
Eight children are able to go to a special school nearby. This is a private school and charges around R$1,800 (US$640) a month but the FIC has some full and half-time scholarships. The other children spend their time at the center, taking part in activities and receiving remedial treatment. They are cared for 24 hours a day by a team of 55 professional and auxiliary staff, including doctors and nurses, supported by volunteers.
Those with families receive visitors and sometimes they are even taken to see their families. These visits bring hope to everyone, not just the patient, Mr. Albino said. “The members of one very poor family put a lot of work into cleaning and tidying up the shack where they lived when the child paid the visit and one of the uncles even stopped drinking for a week. This shows that places like the FIC can help everyone involved.”
It costs R$150,000 (around US$53,000) a month just to keep the center running. Since the FIC receives no financial support from any government body it must raise this money itself. It has no political, religion or corporate links, although it wants to develop corporate partnerships. Money is raised in various ways, through appeals, fund-raising events, bazaars etc. It also receives donations of food, drugs, clothes and other items from well-wishers and supporters, and runs a thrift store. It publishes a magazine, which has a circulation of 7,000 copies, and has a site in Portuguese and English. Most of the funds come from Brazil but it has also received help from people in the United States, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Belgium.
A rehabilitation center, containing a heated swimming pool and physiotherapy facilities, was opened in May 2000. It took several years to raise the money and organize donations of construction material for this project but it was worth the effort. This more modern part of the center has provided hope for many children. Nurse Luciana de Giussio spoke of one girl who was successfully treated for a severely curved spine. However, dramatic successes like this are few. “Just moving a finger which had been paralyzed is a breakthrough in some cases,” she added.
New Center Planned
The FIC is planning to build a new center nearby at a cost of at least R$5 million (around US$1.78 million). The land has been donated by the city government but the cost of construction and maintenance will be borne by the center. The aim is to accommodate patients in the new center in more modern conditions and use the existing center for out-patients receiving day treatment. This would allow the FIC to reach more patients at a lower cost.
The organization was founded 22 years ago and is run by an elected board of directors. It has won a prestigious Brazilian national award for its efficiency and international registration by the US Charity Aid Foundation (CAF). This registration is particularly important since it means that Americans can donate funds to the FIC through the CAF and receive a tax benefit from the US authorities. Non-Americans can also make donations directly through the CAF. Its site is www.cafonline.org
Cerebral palsy is a good example of a disease which penalizes the poorer section of society. The usual cause is not genetic but an accident during birth, especially involving asphyxiation. The diagnosis in most cases can be made at birth but Brazil’s, inefficient public health infrastructure does not provide conditions for that. If a child is born under healthy conditions, where the mother has had pre-natal exams and support, nutritious food, good living conditions and is in a healthy psychological state, the chance of an accident can be reduced. Even if the worse happens, the babies can still be well treated. However, this does not happen with children born in cases where the mother has had no pre-natal treatment or post-natal support. These babies end up having severe brain palsy. Parents are usually traumatized when diagnosis is made and often the father just abandons the baby with the mother.
Every year 40,000 children are born with cerebral palsy in Brazil. That’s why places like the FIC will continue working for a long, long time and take on the burden which is assumed by governments in more developed countries.
If you are in São Paulo, you can visit the FIC at Avenida Pacaembu, 40 from Tuesday to Sunday between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. It is located under the Viaduct, close to the Barra Funda metro and near the Memorial da Amrica Latina. You can also visit its site at www.ficfeliz.org.br and make a donation or become a volunteer. Telephone: (55) 11 3666 2727.”