SAO PAULO, Jan. 30 (UPI) -- Brazil Thursday officially launched its aggressive hunger-eradication program, which will attempt to feed 10 million Brazilians in the next few years.
The program -- dubbed "Zero Fome" (Zero Hunger) -- is months in the making and has been President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva's No. 1 priority since he assumed office Jan 1.
Brazil's new, leftist president -- the nation's first in almost 40 years -- campaigned on a platform that called for widespread social reform in Brazil, where the economic divide between the wealthy and poor is one of the largest in the world.
A former metalworker and union leader, Lula, as he is known, himself grew up in a Sao Paulo "favela," or slum, and quit school as a young boy to work and help his family make ends meet.
At Zero Fome's outset, Brazilians deemed poor enough to qualify for program benefits -- those earning about a dollar or less a day -- will receive a magnetic card that will enable them to withdraw funds to purchase food at select stores and distribution centers.
"We need to defeat hunger, poverty and social exclusion," said Lula Thursday from the capital, Brasilia. "Our war is not going to kill anyone ... it will save lives."
The effort won't be easy, however, considering the dismal poverty statistics and budget constraints Lula faces in 2003, as there is little room to allocate additional funding for the program. According to government statistics, an estimated 45 million out of 175 million Brazilians are malnourished.
In an effort to supplement Zero Fome's financial needs, Inter-American Development Bank President Enrique Iglesias said earlier this month that the IDB would allocate $12 billion to fund this and other projects.
The United States has also pledged between $6 billion to $10 billion over the next three years. Several members of the European Parliament also pledged their support Thursday for Lula's initiative and called for the European Union to create a fund for combating hunger and misery in developing nations.
Lula recently returned from a week in Europe where he met with German and French leaders and attended the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
Though the meetings were dominated by talk of a possible confrontation with Iraq, the Brazilian leaders used the opportunity to plug Zero Fome and called on industrialized nations to make the battle against hunger the world's top priority.
While lauded by many, Lula's plan for eradicating hunger has come under some fire for being too reactionary to the poverty situation and for indulging in the type of populist ideals that prompted the military to seize power in 1964.
Others have condemned the program mentioning the possibility of corruption when determining who receives assistance and the possible birth of a black market for federal food cards.
Lula answered some of his critics Thursday saying that the program is not just about feeding Brazil's hungry but part of a larger effort to improve the lives of impoverished segments of society.
"These emergency donations are necessary, but everybody knows that they will not put an end to the problem," he said. " It is necessary to give someone fish and then teach him how to fish."