The country’s Bolsa Familia program – which pays poor mothers to keep their children in school and follow healthcare rules – is reducing poverty.

In the arid, impoverished expanse of northeast Brazil, Cumaru is the town no one’s ever heard of. And once you get here, Maria Joelma da Silva’s house is a 20-minute ride beyond where the paved road ends.

Ms. da Silva gets few guests.

Yet in August, officials from Angola, Ghana, the African Union, and the African Development Bank – here to study Brazil’s social programs – stood in da Silva’s yard gleaning lessons from the small but productive garden that is flourishing where cacti once dominated.

“Everyone talks about how we can’t do anything right in the northeast, but if these people came here from so far away, we have to be doing something important in the countryside,” says da Silva, who has used government subsidies and help from a nonprofit to build a cistern and start a small business selling honey and other crops. Today, she is part of a transformation under way among Brazil’s underclass.

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