Daring democracy -- Porto Alegre, Brazil

by Rebecca Abers

New Internationalist magazine, December 2002


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 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 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.

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