Vera Cordeiro shares her journey of the fight against poverty in an interview with Brazil Journal

In an interview with Brazil Journal, published on September 24th, Dr. Vera Cordeiro, Founder and President of the Administrative Council of the Dara Institute, shared her three-decade-long journey of a fight against poverty and promotion of health and human development of Brazilian families.

Reflecting on her long-standing commitment in addressing inequalities, Dr. Vera emphasizes the importance of approaching poverty as a multidimensional issue: “If you don’t look after the family as a whole, the deep-seated causes, you are just putting makeup on poverty”

It was from this perspective that, in 1991, she founded the Dara Institute, a civil society organization that has garnered support from renowned global foundations, such as Ashoka, Avina, Skoll, Schwab, Brazil Foundations and Catalyst 2030. Over the years, in collaboration with the families served, Dara Institute has developed the Family Action Plan (Plano de Ação Familiar – PAF), encompassing initiatives in the areas of health, education, income generation, housing and citizenship.

The PAF has transcended the institution’s boundaries and has inspired other organizations worldwide. In Brazil, it has become a public policy in Belo Horizonte, and this year, in Itu, São Paulo, as part of the Cuidar Itu Program, developed by the City Hall with the support of Instituto Tecendo Infâncias.

However, as Dr. Vera points out, “poverty is not just the lack of money. It’s multidimensional. It is the absence of dignity and self-esteem; it is the absence of family and psychological harmony.” It is this poverty, in all its dimensions, that Dara Institute, alongside numerous volunteers and sponsors, continues to combat.

You can read the full interview in English down below.


Dr Vera’s exit strategy from poverty

Giuliano Guandalini – 24 September 2023 – translated by Peter Lenny MCIL
In the 1980s, Vera Cordeiro, a general practitioner who had set up the department of psychosomatics at the Lagoa federal hospital in Rio de Janeiro, perceived that the extreme poverty framing some children’s lives thwarted all efforts to cure their infectious diseases and trapped them in a routine of readmissions.

“I was treating a girl called Priscilla for pneumonia, but pneumonia was just the tip of the iceberg”, Vera told Brazil Journal.

To tackle that iceberg, Vera founded the Dara Institute, a social assistance and entrepreneurship organisation that, year after year, has been considered one of the world’s leading NGOs. “Underlying that pneumonia, there was domestic violence, there was a dwelling in the Rocinha favela that, on rainy days, threatened to collapse”, says Dr Vera, as she is better known. “That child was not eating properly and her mother had no money even for transport, far less to pay for medicines”.

Last year, for the tenth time running, Dara was considered Brazil’s best NGO (and the world’s 21st) by The Dot Good, a Swiss organisation previously known as NGO Advisor.

For years, the Institute has been able to count on the support of two of the world’s leading social action foundations, Ashoka and the Skoll Foundation, and last year was selected for a donation from MacKenzie Scott, who reinvented herself as a philanthropist after her divorce from Jeff Bezos.

Dara is recognised for the outstanding results of the social assistance methodology that Vera and her collaborators developed. Instead of concentrating on one single problem of a family in a vulnerable situation, the programme acts on several fronts.

Looking at life histories like Priscila’s, Vera understood that, when treating needy patients, “the medical act was not being completed”. Something different had to be done “outside the walls of the hospital”, so as to help these people actually overcome the diseases brought on by poverty.

Together with a group of volunteers (and at first, her own money), Dr Vera embarked on the work of screening and assisting the most vulnerable families who came through the public hospital.

The – initially, rather improvised – site they chose used to be the Lage Park stables, where, for some time, volunteers had been sowing clothes for needy children. The money came from the pockets of the volunteers themselves, whip-arounds and even raffles of stuff that Vera and her colleagues would bring from home.

That was the embryo of the Associação Saúde Criança (“Brazil Child Health”), founded in 1991 and renamed the Dara Institute in 2020.

As the wife of an IBM director and mother of two girls, Vera says she knows very well what it means to live in Rio de Janeiro, where the haves and have-nots straddle a social abyss deepened by the collapse of the military regime’s “economic miracle”.

In the 1990s, Vera recalls, social organisations tended to choose a focus, like hunger, health or education, “but I realised I had to stay unfocused. If you don’t look after the family as a whole, the deep-seated causes, you are just putting makeup on poverty”.

The work, which mobilises lawyers, social assistants, architects (and even doctors), gave birth to Dara’s methodology, the Family Action Plan, which acts on five fronts: health, education, income generation, housing and citizenship.

The Institute has always been careful to measure its outcomes, but a McKinsey consultancy helped refine its assessment methodology.  In 1997, Vera gave a talk at an event in Comandatuba and wound up winning 5,000 hours of McKinsey’s services, pro bono.

At that same event, Vera met up with an old school friend, André Lara Resende, then chairman of Brazil’s economic and social development bank, the BNDES, and got another push towards scaling up her organisation.

“I said to him, ‘André, I need money.  I’m a doctor and I want to end poverty in Brazil’”, tells Vera. “The ‘S’ in BNDES is for ‘social’, so it has to do something”.

Lara Resende went to see the programme and helped her obtain a R$500,000 grant, which was invested in professionalising the group.

A milestone in international recognition for the Institute came in 2013.  Three researchers at Georgetown University assessed the long-term impact of its work by looking at families after three and five years of their having completed the Dara programme – and found significant improvements in the social indicators. The study’s findings were enough to warrant an article in the New York Times.

Their analyses showed a 92% increase in family income and an 86% reduction in hospital readmissions. The children’s average hospital stays had shortened from 62 days to 9.

School enrolment of smaller children were up from 10% to 92% after the families had gone through the programme and the percentage of adults in employment had risen from 54% to 70%.  Most families came to have homes of their own.

Achieving such strong indicators took dedication, time and money. Typically, the work would take two years.  The assistance involved periodical meetings to follow the families’ progress and financial aid to complement their income.

Today Dara cares for 1,600 families at an average cost of R$1,200 per family per month.  Over the years, 85,000 people have received help from the Institute.

“The government’s family allowance scheme is extremely important, but we’re the family allowance with an exit strategy”, says Vera.

Besides having inspired a series of institutions, the Dara methodology has become public policy on the work done by social assistance centres in cities like Belo Horizonte.

Now the Family Action Plan is to be a applied at Itu, in São Paulo state, where a pilot project started in early September with 60 families.

That project, which will involve five government departments working together, forms part of the Cuidar Itu (“Itu Care”) programme, which was recently enacted into law by the town council.

The programme will be supported by consultancy and monitoring by Tecendo Infâncias (“Weaving Childhoods”), a philanthropic organisation set up last year by [brewery billionaire] Adriano Schincariol together with his wife and children. The family drew on Dara’s experience and knowhow.

“Extreme poverty is not as ever-present in Itu as other places, but there are areas where families are in extremely vulnerable situations”, says Adriane Menna Barreto, who had worked at Dara and is now executive director of Tecendo Infâncias. “These are people who are sometimes ashamed to contact a public service centre and don’t even know they are entitled to social services”.

As Vera explains, poverty is not just the result of lack of money. Poverty “is multidimensional.  It is the absence of dignity and self-esteem; it is the absence of family and psychological harmony”.

From 1975 to 1998, Dr Vera worked at the Lagoa Hospital. Today, at 73, she chairs the Dara board and gives consultancies, as she has just done at Itu – and goes on asking for contributions, as she has done for the past 30 years in her struggle against the iceberg of poverty.