Maria José Jaime

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
Fellow since 1994
INESC Instituto de Estudos Sócio-Econômicos
Ashoka commemorates and celebrates the life and work of this deceased Ashoka Fellow.
This description of Maria José Jaime's work was prepared when Maria José Jaime was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1994 .


Building on her previous work in developing a major public policy research and advocacy organization and in launching the Movement for Ethics in Politics (the group that organized the nationwide protests that led to the impeachment of President Fernando Collor in 1992), Maria José Jaime is now coordinating a national campaign against hunger and poverty in Brazil. In addition to mobilizing immediate, concrete actions to alleviate hunger, malnutrition and related problems, the campaign is attempting to stimulate popular demand for public policies that will effectively address the needs of the country's poor over the long term.

The New Idea

When the Movement for Ethics in Politics succeeded in ousting President Collor for corrupt practices, Maria José Jaime played a key role in convincing the Movement to shift its focus to the problem of economic and social inequality as a key obstacle to Brazil's continued democratization. The result was a national campaign of "Citizens' Action against Hunger and Poverty and for Life."The anti-hunger campaign that the Movement launched is now sweeping Brazil. For the first time in Brazilian history, it has brought together civic groups, corporations, social activists and ordinary citizens in an unprecedented display of goodwill through private sector donations, neighborhood soup kitchens, bike-a-thons and cultural events to raise money to feed the poor. Although the organizers of the campaign are fully aware of the palliative nature of such efforts, they see it as a means of heightening awareness of the problems of the country's poor and excluded citizenry and stimulating appropriate public policy responses.In its initial stages, the campaign was developed on a highly decentralized basis, and more than 5,000 committees sprang into action at the state and local levels. But for the continued effectiveness of the campaign both in combating hunger and poverty and in achieving its awareness-enhancing and policy-influencing goals, Maria José recognized that an effective national coordinating framework was essential. Accordingly, in late 1993, she established a national executive secretariat for the Citizens' Action initiative, and now, as its national coordinator, she is helping the state and local groups share their experiences and develop concerted efforts to promote appropriate governmental actions.

The Problem

Over the past decade, Brazil has made remarkable strides in reinstituting democratic governance. Its economic performance over the same period has been less impressive, but significant gains in the past three or four years have set the stage for a sustained expansion of economic activity and for an increasing role in the global economy. Unfortunately, however, continued progress on the political and economic fronts is threatened by severe inequalities in income distribution, the continued marginalization of the majority of the country's citizens and a worrisome lack of concern over those problems on the part of most affluent Brazilians.Income distribution in Brazil is more highly skewed than in any other of the 133 countries for which the World Bank assembles relevant data. The most privileged ten percent of the country's population claim more than half of the national income, while the poorest forty percent of its people account for less than five percent of national income and consumption totals. As a consequence, although Brazil is ranked as an "upper-middle-income" country, hunger and malnutrition are very real and widespread phenomena.The campaign that Maria José is coordinating helps to alleviate those phenomena. But it also addresses the underlying, and more vexing, problems of insufficient awareness and concern for the plight of the country's poor majority and the resultant absence of effective public policies for addressing their economic needs and incorporating them in the country's political and social development.

The Strategy

In 1992, when the Movement for Ethics in Politics (composed of major urban and rural labor unions, organizations of the landless poor, the National Council of Catholic Bishops, the National Bar Association, the National Association of Nongovernmental Organizations and several other national organizations) succeeded in removing President Collor from office, Maria Jose urged the Movement to maintain its structure and focus on Brazil's endemic social problems. That suggestion was well received, and "Citizens' Action against Hunger and Poverty and for Life" was born.As national coordinator of that undertaking, Maria José has a wide array of duties–tracking the work of more than 5,000 state and local committees, facilitating exchanges of experience among those groups, organizing gatherings in which representatives of participating groups debate policy options and arrive at decisions concerning the future course of the anti-hunger campaign, developing joint endeavors among some or all of the participating committees, and mounting sustained coverage of Citizens' Action campaigns and the issues that it is addressing in the national media. In addition, and perhaps more importantly, she is responsible for taking stock of the strengths and weaknesses of the overall endeavor and devising strategies that will enable the campaign to achieve its intended impact on public policy.Among the several nationwide efforts that Maria José is organizing as part of the campaign is a special endeavor focusing on malnourished children. That ambitious effort involves the development, at the community level, of as complete as possible a roster of all malnourished infants and children under five years of age and the elaboration, implementation and monitoring of plans for their rehabilitation.

The Person

Maria José was born and raised in Goiás in the interior of Brazil. The oldest of five children in a family of comfortable economic means and traditional political views, she entered the Catholic University of Goiás at the beginning of the turbulent 1960s. There she was exposed to a new and troubling way of looking at "the Brazilian reality," and she soon found herself deeply engaged both in political causes and in a lifestyle that brought her into sharp and painful conflict with her parents. Strained though their relations became, however, she was always able to count on the unwavering affection and moral support of her family during a period of some fifteen years, commencing with the military coup of 1964, in which she paid a very high price for her political views.While studying in Goiânia, Maria José was an active participant in the Catholic Youth movement, and, as part of an effort to raise the consciousness of impoverished rural workers, she organized and taught adult literacy classes. Upon completing her undergraduate degree, she undertook further studies in Rio de Janeiro and later at the University of São Paulo, where she earned a master's degree in history. During that period, her engagement in student politics intensified, and she became a leading figure in the national student movement's protests against the authoritarian rule of the military regime. For that activity she was forced into a clandestine existence and then into exile, first in Chile and later, in the wake of the Pinochet coup in that country, in Peru and Argentina.Maria José returned to Brazil in 1977, where she was subjected to two trials for her political activities in the 1960s and a fifteen-month period of imprisonment (most of which she spent in a convent or hospital because of ill health). Upon release from incarceration in 1978, more fortunate than many people with similar political backgrounds, she succeeded in obtaining employment as a health sociologist in a large public hospital.The following year, when Brazil's military regime softened its grip on civil society and announced a far-reaching amnesty for past political offenses, new opportunities arose. Eager to resume an active role in the struggle for a more just society, but one outside the ambit of partisan politics, Maria José founded a public policy research and advocacy institute in Brasilia, the nation's capital. During the final years of the military/authoritarian regime and the gradual reintroduction of democratic rule, the institute played an important and sensitive role in helping chart policy options, and Maria José assumed a role of increasing prominence in Brazil's burgeoning community of nongovernmental organizations.In 1991, troubled by widespread corruption and influence–peddling in the administration of President Fernando Collor de Mello, Maria José played a key role in founding the Movement for Ethics in Politics and, through the Movement, in organizing a nationwide protest movement that resulted in the impeachment of President Collor in August of 1992. Her current work in Citizens' Action against Hunger and Poverty and for Life builds on that endeavor.Complementing her pioneering roles in her policy institute, the Movement for Ethics in Politics, and the Citizens' Action campaign, Maria José is also a founder and board member of the Brazilian Association of Nongovernmental Organizations.