Reducing Poverty through Community Action in Northeast Brazil

August 13, 2012

In Rio Grande do Norte state, Brazil, education gives younger women greater access to rights and opportunities.  

World Bank Group

  • 18 municipalities adopted a monitoring system for droughts.
  • 6,000 people were actively engaged in local emergency committees.
  • 500,000 people benefited from the completion of structural mitigation measures in 58 municipalities.


Between September 2002 and December 2010, the World Bank’s Rio Grande do Norte Rural Poverty Reduction Project delivered socio-economic investments in water supply, electricity, agro-processing facilities, livestock and food production to 2,100 community associations representing 400,000 poor rural people, creating 12,000 jobs and improving beneficiary families' incomes and social welfare.


The Project utilized the Northeast Brazil “brand” of decentralized community-driven development. Under this model, rural communities – represented in participatory municipal councils with majority community membership – select, prepare, implement, operate, and maintain priority investments. 

Core principles of this mechanism stress beneficiary management of resources, simple, explicit and verifiable poverty targeting, transparency, and partnership with local authorities and with civil society.

The expected and actual outcomes of this approach were sustainable investments capable of generating jobs and income; improved family wellbeing from clean water and electric power; social capital formation reflected in the empowerment of poor communities to independently and collectively promote their own development post-Project; and, the evolution of the municipal councils into clearing houses for debating and accessing other complementary public programs and resources – the “integration” effect designed to maximize project impact.


The effectiveness of the Rural Poverty Reduction Project is highlighted by the following outcomes:

  • 2,700 subprojects benefited 90,000 poor rural families – comprising about 450,000 people – and created around 12,000 jobs;
  • 53,000 families obtained water supply providing better health, hygiene and drought security, and increasing productivity;
  • Under the Gender Action Plan Pilot, incomes increased an average 150 percent (before inflation) and agricultural productivity leapt 360 percent for beneficiaries of joint water/productive investments;
  • Over 35% of productive subprojects were presented and executed by women’s associations or associations with a minimum 66 percent female membership; women implemented 404 productive subprojects (e.g., vegetables, honey, crafts) benefiting 11,600 families or 58,000 people;
  • Successful, innovative investments in musical solidarity bands benefited 100 young musicians from poor rural families, 65% of which went on to study music at university level post-project;
  • Communities’ capacity to manage their own development grew, boosted by the Project’s creation of 2,100 community associations and the empowering experience of collectively selecting, preparing, executing and operating their investments whether in basic infrastructure or productive facilities designed to improve incomes and create jobs;
  • The community associations’ newfound role in the municipal councils improved local governance and enhanced the relationship between poor communities and state and local authorities.

Bank Contribution

The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD) contributed two loans each of US$22.5 million. The IBRD provided 77 percent of total resources under the original loan and 74 percent under additional financing, and the state government contributed the balance.


The Bank’s primary partner under both project phases was the State Government of Rio Grande do Norte through its Secretariat of Planning. The Project relied upon partnerships with state and local agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to leverage technical assistance and training services for the councils and community associations.

Two separate partnerships with the Institute for Sustainable Development and Environment and the State Secretariat for Labor, Housing and Social Assistance resulted in an innovative environmental education and awareness-building program and an anti-desertification pilot project in the semi-arid Serido Region. 

Finally, the Bank leveraged Gender Trust Fund resources totaling US$35,000 under the World Bank’s Gender Action Plan for studies and pilot subproject investments.

Moving Forward

After the project’s completion, all subprojects (except electricity) were released to the respective community association that will operate and maintain the investment according to project rules and training.  Meanwhile, the state government is collaborating with the Bank to develop  a new operation with three components:

(a) Inclusive economic development, building on the established participatory mechanisms and socio-economic infrastructure as the foundation for a tighter focus on small farmer production and competitiveness;

(b) Public sector modernization, mainly within the State Secretariat of Planning; and

(c) Human development, focusing on health and education and coordinated by the responsible sector agencies.


Gender, Water and Ethnic Group Preservation: Quilombola Community

Dona Gumercinda, 83 years of age, from the Quilombola community of Sítio Pega, Portalegre, which is located in a region long-afflicted by extreme water shortages, says: “Water was always a misery here.  Things started to improve when the project helped our association build a well … then a reservoir, and then a viaduct to bring the water to our houses.  Now, it’s wonderful. The person who looks after the system does a good job and the water comes fast, when you want it.  No-one questions paying R$10 a month.  He doesn’t have to come and charge us – we give it to him. Before, people left the community because there was no water.  Now, no-one is leaving and some are even coming back”.  Her daughter adds: “The water helped us organize ourselves… we meet more often. Our next financing is cows”.

Music: An innovative approach to retain young farmers in rural areas

Raquel, assistant to São Tomé´s band conductor, says: “Here, there was never any cultural life. I did not even know what music was about. With the band, my father said I would learn how to play concertina but I took the admission test to play the saxophone and failed my first attempt.   I tested for all the instruments, and still did not pass. Luckily, one day a clarinet player had to leave and I was invited to replace her, without having to face an admissions contest! This was how I got to start my clarinet playing career in the band…”

Sandra, mother of two Portalegre band musicians: “I am certain beyond any doubt of the following: the band led them to grow not only in stature and knowledge, but also in spirit. One of my sons surprised me by being the first to talk. He used to be very shy ….”

Food Security: A leap longer than legs? The irrigated community garden of Ipoeira, in Severiano Melo

Francisca says: “I had no job, nothing. Now I earn my own money; I do not have to wait for the money provided by my husband! Sometimes I do not even think this is real and I ask myself: is it really true?”