Daring democracy -- Porto
by Rebecca Abers
New Internationalist magazine,
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
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 decisionmaking. 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 Sao 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 Belem, Brasilia and Belo Horizonte, participatory
budget programmes have involved hundreds of thousands of participants.
In Sao Paulo alone, 55,000 people participated in budget forums
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.