Brazil is usually cited in the Western press for its formidable economic problems, spiralling urban violence and dramatic environmental destruction. But it should be getting international recognition for something equally noteworthy – its building of urban democracy.
While in most of the country people are pessimistic about the capacity of government to improve their quality of life, one city has become a hallmark of positive political transformation.
Porto Alegre is a regional capital of 1.3 million people which since 1989 has been governed by the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT or Workers’ Party), Brazil’s largest Left-wing party. Its flagship policy – the Participatory Budget – involves thousands of city residents in decisions about municipal expenditures. In a country where public funds are typically spent through a mixture of corruption, patronage and obscure technocratism, this is a revolution in political practice.
It sprang from a political party’s desire to live up to its policy platform, an aim seldom achieved in the world of politics. Since it was formed in the 1980s, the Workers’ Party proclaimed its commitment to both citizen participation and redirecting government priorities toward the poor. But when it was elected to municipal office in January 1989, the party found an administration deeply indebted, lacking basic supplies and with buildings and machinery in shambles. At the first neighbourhood assemblies to discuss the budget, community leaders called for hundreds of investments. Not a penny was available.
The local government spent its first year controlling costs and passing tax increases in city council but opinion polls showed high levels of dissatisfaction. So a group within the administration proposed both participatory decision-making and that priority be given to basic infrastructure in the poorest neighbourhoods. This translated as a total commitment, backed by funds, to the decisions made by the neighbourhood budget assemblies.
Since then, residents have met in their neighbourhoods annually to discuss needs for community infrastructure, electing delegates to each of 16 ‘district budget forums’. Through intense and often conflictual negotiations among neighbourhood representatives, these delegates list priorities for each type of capital expenditure such as basic sanitation, street paving and parks. Every year, open assemblies in each district also elect two members to a city-wide Municipal Budget Council which devises criteria for distributing funds among districts and approves an investment plan that respects the priorities of each one.
This policy gained such popularity in its first years that the administration expanded the programme beyond neighbourhood issues when it was re-elected in 1992. A year later, a series of Thematic Forums were created to discuss city-wide expenditures in areas such as urban planning, transportation and economic development. These forums also elect members to the Municipal Budget Council.
As it has grown, the Council has gained force. Not only does it now approve the entire capital budget but it also deliberates on all city expenditures. Over time a series of other participatory councils have also been created to discuss more qualitative aspects of city programmes on issues such as housing, health, culture and the environment.
The timing was ideal for building support for the idea. The first half of the 1990s was a period of great popular outrage in Brazil against government corruption, leading to the impeachment of President Collor de Mello. By contrast, at a local level, the Participatory Budget demonstrated that the administration was committed to change by challenging ‘back room decision-making’, mobilizing large numbers of people and visibly improving the quality of life in the poorest neighbourhoods. While opposition politicians privately questioned participatory decision-making, which effectively eliminated them as patronage brokers, they were forced to approve the investment plans since their own supporters were increasingly participating. After just one electoral term, all candidates promised to maintain the Participatory Budget.
As the policy began to gain international recognition, the government also gained local popularity for being innovative and responsible. Those people participating in the Municipal Budget Council gained a certain ‘moral authority’. This helped garner the support of groups that still questioned the policy, such as technical personnel within the bureaucracy who doubted the ability of ordinary people to make budget decisions. The result was a bureaucracy that worked better, responding with agility to the demands of budget participants.
One of the outstanding achievements of the Participatory Budget has been its effectiveness in bringing the poor into public decision-making. The poorest neighbourhoods participate in much greater numbers than middle-class ones where streets have already been paved, sewers built and children are sent to private schools. Surveys show assembly participants have lower incomes and education levels than averages for the city as a whole.
However, the most enduring value of the Participatory Budget is that citizen participation has now become a way of life, accepted by people as well as politicians as the modus operandi in all realms of public decision-making. What is more, citizen groups have grown and strengthened in response to increased opportunities for effectively influencing government actions. Contrary to the common assumption that civil society must strengthen before government will improve, in Porto Alegre a state-initiated policy that has encouraged civic organizing has helped consolidate the new practices at all levels.
While promoting citizen participation may often seem politically risky, in Porto Alegre it has helped build political success for the Workers’ Party. Since 1989 the party has been re-elected three times and has gained a reputation for effective administration elsewhere. Today it governs five cities of more than a million people, including São Paulo, as well as three states. Its local successes have directly challenged the idea that the Workers’ Party – a party once identified with radical social movements – does not know how to govern. These successes have served as credentials for the Workers’ Party in this year’s national election campaign, which delivered the presidency to the party’s leader, ‘Lula’ da Silva.
By 2000, more than 100 Brazilian cities were implementing the policy (about half of which are not Workers’ Party controlled). Not always have the results been so impressive as in Porto Alegre. In most cases participatory control has remained limited to a small portion of expenditures. Even so, it is clear that the policy has a tremendous potential to mobilize: in major Brazilian cities such as Belém, Brasília and Belo Horizonte, participatory budget programmes have involved hundreds of thousands of participants. In São Paulo alone, 55,000 people participated in budget forums this year.
But simply copying Porto Alegre’s budget policy is unlikely to have the same results elsewhere. What mobilizes people in one place might not in another; what is politically popular changes over time; what is practically possible also varies. Other reform-seeking governments need to identify their own opportunities for transformation. However, what they can learn from Porto Alegre is that successful change probably has modest origins. Initially focusing on neighbourhood-based investments and ensuring that at that scale participant decisions were respected, both the governing party and the idea that participatory politics can work gained enormous credibility. Surely there are possibilities for such ‘small starts’ in many other places.
Representative democracy means decisions of ‘public interest’ in our transport, environment, economy, education and health systems are left to elected politicians and bureaucrats. Left, then often neglected. But many ordinary people are no longer prepared to be mere spectators in this system. They are standing up to say: ‘Hold on. WE are the Government!’ And, sick of being faced with government programmes and policies that are failing to deliver, they are taking control – often with spectacularly successful results.
As, for example, in Porto Alegre with its participative budget. Although its success can theoretically translate into any area of regional or national government, the best examples are currently at a local level. And it’s not only South Americans who are nurturing this spirit of people participation. Just south of Seville in Spain, is Las Cabezas de San Juan – an area with 16,000 people and with a 30-per-cent illiteracy rate. It adopted its first participative budget last year. They call it ‘the sharing’. Municipal government has taken public administration to the streets and hired artists to make a film inviting people to get involved. Implementing a 3-tiered process, 15-per-cent of the population actively participated in the budget and then in some neighbourhoods went on to decide new environmental rules, traffic regulations and ways to use public space.
So while participation may centre around budgets, the decisions people are making are not just economic. Rather, budgets are providing the money so that ordinary people’s decisions across all areas of public life can become a reality. Probably the largest process of this kind to have taken place in the world today is in the state of Kerala in India. From 1996 to 2001, 35-per-cent of the state government development budget has been given over to local communities to spend as they choose. Championing the slogan ‘power to the people’, over two million of Kerala’s thirty-one million people have been mobilized to give birth to health, agriculture, childcare, work, education and anti-discrimination initiatives: each individually tailored to the needs of their local communities. According to anthropology professor Richard Franke, the process has cut down corruption and vastly improved public services in areas such as roads, irrigation, drinking water, sanitary latrines and school and hospital construction.
Participative processes like these are injecting the concept of democracy – which in many countries has shrivelled to a right to vote – with real teeth again, giving people an active role in discussing and deciding how they want to live. Indeed, this form of democracy need not be linked to government budgets if they aren’t available. With a bit of creativity, money normally reserved as profits in private business can be used instead. In Australia community banks are mushrooming. Local people are shareholders and with bank profits they are building medical centres and other community infrastructure that they used to wait despairingly for their governments to provide.
This is decision-making from the ground up: properly resourced communities coming together to identify shared problems and then doing something about them. And there’s no reason why it can’t extend into any area of present government decision-making: school curricula, hospital locations, public transport needs and so on.
It is a future now waiting for those who want to stand up and claim it.
More reading: RN Abers Inventing Local Democracy: Grassroots Politics in Brazil (Lynne Rienner, 2000); and Archon Fung and Erik Olin Wright ‘Experiments in empowered deliberative democracy: introduction’ and other related papers posted at
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