Professor Rafi Bar-El with residents of Ceara: Both macro and social indicators point to the fact that the state has really achieved a better situation than it had a few years ago.Despite their vast geographical differences, Israel and Brazil have a lot in common when it comes to development. According to Professor Rafi Bar-El, one of the world’s leading experts in economic regional development, that similarity has enabled his Israeli team of researchers to help the Brazilian state of Ceara break its increasing cycle of poverty.

Since 2000, Bar-El, head of Ben-Gurion University’s (BGU) Department of Public Policy and Administration, has spearheaded an ambitious program funded by the World Bank to spur regional development and alter the way the government and its citizens interact.

Ceara, with a population of eight million, is located on the northeast coast of Brazil. A look at its biggest city Fortaleza – with two million inhabitants – might give the impression that everything is fine. But although the state’s economy has developed rapidly in the last few years, this boom has done nothing to reduce poverty in rural areas.

“During the last decade, Ceara achieved economic growth but poverty remained at the same level. While the economy was growing, people were staying poor,” Bar-El told ISRAEL21c, chalking up the problem to a few factors.

Like Israel in its maturing years, Ceara’s rural population was hurt by agricultural technological developments which required less manpower to produce more crops, Bar-El explained. The resultant migration of unemployed workers to the cities in search of work only exacerbated the poverty and led to urban overcrowding.

Bar-El and his team, including Dr. Dafna Shwartz, the director of the Bengis Center for Entrepreneurship & High Tech Management at BGU, had worked on a number of similar regional development projects in Israel, and were also participants in the Israel 20/20 long-term development master plan.

But it wasn’t only Bar-El’s reputation that got him involved with rehabilitating Ceara, it was his past.

During the 1970s, Bar-El was in Brazil doing research on the problems of rural industrialization. “It turned out that one of the people I had worked with then and stayed in touch with became secretary of development in the government in 2000. And because one of their priorities was to solve the problem of poverty, he got in touch with me,” he said.

“After visiting and assessing the problem, I built a whole program focusing on regional development, with specific actions to be taken in terms of education, help for small businesses, support for technology and urban development.”

The ultimate goal? To achieve economic growth without increasing inequality in the process.

After a marathon meeting with World Bank officials and experts from MIT who had their own ideas on how to handle the situation – an encounter which Schwartz described as “intense”, the Israeli team’s plan was adopted, and funds were allocated.

“I built a team including Daphna, and we put the plan into action,” said Bar-El, who added that since 2001, he’s averaged four trips a year to Ceara, including a recent two-month visit.

The results – according to Schwartz, it’s like night and day.

“The government of Ceara has adopted our plan completely. It’s changed the whole attitude of the government and the people. They’ve changed their budgets to allocate a specific amount for the periphery, and have also appointed a secretary for regional development [a position] which didn’t exist before,” she told ISRAEL21c.

In addition, nine regional councils have been established – composed of about 50 economic, social and political leaders – which meet regularly and advance the proposals the Israeli team brings forth.

On a more micro-level, Bar-El listed a number of achievements which have affected the people of Ceara.

“We’ve built a support program for remote, rural small businesses – these are people who not only don’t know what to do, but don’t even know how to ask. We’ve established a program of urban reorganization and another for improvement of technology. In three of the regions, there’s been a position appointed along the lines of a ‘chief scientist’ who’s helping businesses and industrialists to improve their technology and creating a link between economic activities, the universities and other institutions,” he said.

But the bottom line of all these initiatives and programs is that the economic inequality which prompted the establishment of the initiative is being rectified. Bar-El said that evaluation which has been conducted and is being published this month points to a huge success for the program.

Poverty and economic inequality have decreased – much more rapidly than in other states in Brazil. There has also been increased economic growth and a rapid closing of the gap in terms of education. “Both macro and social indicators point to the fact that the state has really achieved a better situation than it had a few years ago,” he said.

While the uphill battle is over, Bar-El said that the initiatives must continue for the region to prosper. But he was gratified that his team’s role is gradually diminishing.

“We pulled the trigger, but they’re in charge now. We’re just helping them with evaluating, guiding, answering questions. But it’s primarily being operated by the government now. It’s a happy situation in which your kids don’t need you anymore,” he said.

Both Bar-El and Schwartz also expressed satisfaction over creating a bridge between the people of Ceara and their government.

“Some of the small businesses in their evaluation said that for the first time, they feel a personal contact with their government – that the government is doing something for them,” said Bar-El.

Added Schwartz, “We’re regularly going to the field to visit people who need the help the most. It was gratifying to hear a villager say, ‘not only is the government doing something for us, but we ourselves are involved and helping ourselves.'”

The success of the Ceara-BGU project has inspired other governments to approach Bar-El about initiating similar programs. Bar-El is already in talks with other states in Brazil, and interest has been shown by both Thailand and Argentina.

While he’s eager to help, Bar-El admits it all comes back to an issue of funding. “There needs to be funding in order to make it work. In Brazil, we’ve been lucky to have the help of the World Bank,” he says.