Impressive improvements in the nutritional status of the Brazilian children are shown by the data from the national surveys of 1975 and 1989. Many would doubt that such unusual changes could ever occur in a country like Brazil, characterized by an extremely concentrated distribution of income that excludes the poor from the prosperity of one of the largest economies of the world. Moreover, the information on child survival indicates that sharpest improvements occurred during the second half of the seventies - after the period of remarkable growth rates - and continued into the 1980's, when the country enters in recession.
It is difficult to provide a comprehensive evaluation of the factors that operated to produce these unexpected results. In this sense what follows are some conjectures based on our conceptions about the Brazilian process of social development.
At a general level, the processes of economic growth and urbanization of the Brazilian society brought up social demands and political pressures that could not be restrained for a long period of time; for instance the labor and grassroots movements, that gradually, throughout the second half of the seventies, provided the freedom and voice to fight for better wages and public infrastructure; and the fight of the civil society for free elections.
On the economic side, even though showing an important concentrating tendency, in regional and personal terms, the Brazilian economic growth of the early 1970's produced at least two important pre-conditions to the achievements analyzed in this paper. Firstly it actually brought gains to the very poor reducing substantially the proportion of individuals living below the poverty line, and secondly it made viable the social investments necessary to the implementation of some important public policies.
Nonetheless, income-related factors can only provide a plausible explanation for the changes occurring up to the 1980's. When, as during the last decade a stagnating (and again income concentrating) economy coexists with still improving indicators of well-being, these income factors lose their explanatory power. In this sense, any improvement in child nutritional status during the eighties would have to be essentially explained by a greater access to the set of public services. The entitlements framework provided the analysis of these other links, particularly through the behavior of indicators (of expenditures and/or production) in areas such as health, education, sewerage, and water.
It should be noted that the overall path followed by Brazil is not one of a planned strategy of social development through coherent and integrated programs, but rather an erratic and passive course of chain reactions to the incentives and constraints conferred by the social and economic environment. In this sense, the policies implemented are often ineffective in reducing inequalities and disconnected from any process of strategic planning. In fact, the existing structure inside the Brazilian State, responsible for the interface between the different kinds of pressures that come out of society and the sphere of strategic economic planning, tends to promote minor personal, political or regional interests. During the military regime, on the one hand, this structure was unnecessary, since the power structure in itself suppressed and/or filtrated the social pressures.1 In democratic regimes, on the other hand, the lack of an efficient interface between society and the State leaves a fertile ground for populism and results in a chaotic and inconsistent government action.
1 The undemocratic characteristic of the regime blocked the learning process so necessary to the organization of the social demands.The fact that a solution to the large social and economic inequalities has not been actively sought could largely explain the escalating inflationary process, if the latter is seen as the result of a distributive conflict. The political freedom and the increasing social participation of the economic agents unfold pressures for larger shares of the economic output. Incapable of dealing with these pressures, expansionary measures are put by the government into effect without a real base on which to stand, resulting in a growing inflationary tension. The regrettable side of this mechanism is that this inflationary process, as the evidence suggests, is not only the main deteriorating factor of the welfare of the poor, but also an obstacle to the expansion of the economy in itself.
In this sense, Brazil has reached a point in which a systematic and courageous search for the solutions to the existing contrasts cannot be postponed. If twenty years ago the social and economic inequalities were elements for the accumulation of capital, nowadays they are more than ethical issues and have become impediments for a sustainable process of economic development.