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Participatory Budgets - A Tool for Participatory Democracy

Francoise Lieberherr, February 2003
rban News No 7

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bulletAn innovation from the South
bulletPrimarily a Brazilian phenomenon
bulletFrom definition to aim
bulletA well structured process
bulletThe Participation pyramid - an original structure
bulletAnnual budget cycle
bulletDemocratic, re-distributive and technical lines
bulletMultiple participatory models
bulletAn evolving system
bulletParticipation - a school of democracy
bulletThe real-life advantages of participatory budgets
bulletFurther reading


Participatory budgets were launched and implemented over 10 years ago in Brazil as part of the political renewal inspired by the Worker's Party. The project takes on even greater importance in light of Lula's recent election as the county's new President.

Participatory budgets allow for joint management by municipal executive bodies and participatory pyramids made up of all social players. By launching them, municipal government pave the way for a new form of government based on popular participation and civic commitment, in which the civil society acts as an alternative power. Resulting intense discussion between elected representatives, civil servants and citizens, and more transparent management, may deeply modify municipal politics. Participatory budgets may also represent an interesting development for our western democracies, which often limit citizens to a uniquely electoral role.

Citizens in Porto Alegre, Belem and Santo Andre in Brazil and Villa El Salvador in Peru are beginning to wield power through the participatory process, which boosts their capacity to steer and control public finances. Participatory budgets have a strong social content - the players involved are empowered by the participatory process, and public policies are re-directed for the benefit of the poor. They also have strong political content, generating a new form of citizenship for the common good.

With these highly structured and innovative participatory budgets, municipalities in Latin America have shown considerable institutional creativity and renewed the spirit of democracy.

An innovation from the South

The first important point is that the participatory budget is a new concept devised in Porto Alegre, Brazil after the 1988 municipal election, which brought to power a left wing coalition led by the Workers Party. Second, this innovative experience originated in the South and is now gradually making its way to Europe. This means that it upsets the usual relationship of domination and dependency that exists in much international development co-operation work. Thirdly, participatory budgets, which are gaining ground in Brazil and the rest of Latin America, go beyond our western concept of representative democracy, since they imply that the population participates directly and takes decisions relative to the municipal budget.

Primarily a Brazilian phenomenon

Following the first initiatives going back to the 1980s, a growing number of municipalities have launched participatory budgets - 12 in 1992; 40 in 1996; 140 in 2000 and approximately 200 in 2003. Most of these i.e. 85 percent are located in Brazil. The Workers Party is still the main driving force behind the movement, but certain participatory budgets were accepted in municipalities with a different political orientation. Perhaps one could say that Brazil functions as a laboratory which experiments with participatory budgets in a specific social and political context: social dynamics that revolve around budgetary issues since the 1980s, greater municipal resources resulting from decentralisation, the growing importance of left-wing parties in municipal governments, and the Brazilian tradition of popular education to act as leverage. Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia are currently conducting similar experiments, and a certain number of similar projects are being launched in Europe, in Spain, Italy, Belgium, France and Germany.

From definition to aim

"The participatory budget is a process of direct, voluntary and universal democracy, providing the population with the opportunity to discuss budgetary issues and public policies, and make the relevant decisions. The citizen does not only vote, but gets more closely involved " (Uribatam de Souza)

Going beyond this rather instrumental definition, we can say that participatory budgets are based on four principles. These are:

bulletre-directing public resources for the benefit of the poorest;
bulletcreating a new relationship between municipalities and citizens (i.e. a new form of governance);
bulletre-building social ties and social interest; and
bulletinventing a new democratic culture and promoting active citizenship.

An ambitious project indeed! For Latin America it also represents a first far-reaching attempt to break out of the cronyism that determines political life and bring about more social justice by endowing all citizens - rich or poor - with decision making and supervisory powers.

A well structured process

Far from amorphous and disoriented, participatory budgets are set up along well structured lines, including the necessary bodies, functional rules and principles embodied in municipal regulations. In Belem, for example, the project involves four specific levels:


The executive

comprising the mayor and deputy mayor, both elected by direct universal suffrage, and all public administrative bodies, agencies and municipal services named by the mayor. It promotes the participatory process.

The legislative

i.e. the municipal assembly elected by the population by proportional vote; it may different political orientation from the executive.

Civil society

i.e. all inhabitants willing to take part in assemblies, either directly or indirectly via formal groups (neighbourhood associations), or informal ones.

The participatory pyramid

the fourth level, which forms the interface between the executive and civil society. It is organised along two lines: territorial (by sectors) and thematic.

The Participation pyramid - an original structure

The participatory pyramid functions at three levels, with one integrated system.

The first level is the micro or local and involves small groups made up of buildings, streets or neighbourhoods; participants discuss concrete problems and the resulting necessary interventions; they establish priorities and designate speakers to put proposals to the higher level.

The second level involves sectors (10 to 15 on average) and themes (5 to 6), the number of which may vary according to the size of town or city. Plenary sectoral assemblies may bring together up to 2,000 participants, who compare the strengths and weaknesses of each neighbourhood, define global priorities for the sector, and designate delegates to the sectoral forums and the members of the participatory budget council, who discuss the main budget lines with the executive. Plenary assemblies on specific issues are held in parallel with sectoral meetings; these also elect their delegates to the thematic forums and the members of the participatory budget council.

The third level is the participatory budget municipal council. It is the top of the pyramid. Its members are named for one year; they represent sectors and themes, as well as the municipal executive, public services and associative movements. Meeting several times a month, the council supervises participation and ensures communication between the municipal administration and the participatory pyramid.

Annual budget cycle

Generally speaking, the participatory budget represents a continuous process that covers the entire year.

In Porto Alegre, the initial preparatory cycle takes place in March and April; the executive reports and accounts of the previous budget and presents the budget of the current year at the first section of the sectoral and thematic plenary assemblies. Some of the delegates are elected at this time.

A second intermediary cycle takes place between March and June; this is self-managed by the participatory structure. The many neighbourhood meetings in which the population expresses its point of view are held at this time; priorities are then set in the forums and presented to the participatory budget council. This is the high point of the popular participation process.

The third cycle in June and July comprises a second round of sectoral and thematic assemblies that are the same as the 2nd cycle. During the first three cycles, special buses to inform and involve children, and various cultural and theatrical information sessions are organised to promote the process and stimulate popular interest in a festive atmosphere.

The fourth cycle last from July to September; it involves the start-up of the participatory budget council, and a discussion of the budget to be presented on the basis of the priorities established and evaluated by the council.

The fifth and last cycle lasts from October to December; it involves a regular discussion of the budget by the municipal assembly, and the preparation of investment planning and of the following year's budget cycle by the council.

Democratic, re-distributive and technical lines

Over and above the structures described above, the participatory dynamics in Porto Alegre obey three major principles that correspond to highly complex ways of functioning.

In brief: an approach which favours the majority and its demands, based on the number of participants, and on formal budget distribution criteria based on the most pressing citizen's demands.

A distributive justice approach that grants a bonus to neighbourhoods with the smallest or the most disadvantaged population. Here too, criteria are defined according to citizens' priorities, the lack of basic services and infrastructure, and population.

Finally, a technical approach guided by the municipal services. These first establish a preliminary evaluation of lacking equipment, project feasibility and the financial viability of investments. Their powers are limited and controlled by the participatory budget council.

Multiple participatory models

Although they are all grounded in a relatively simple general principle, a comparison of municipal regulations shows us a variety of participatory municipal council budget forms. They are set down in manuals, which address the population and are clearly formulated. They are meant to ensure that regulations fixing the number of delegates to each body, the role of the public authorities, the prerogatives and powers of the participatory budget council and the forums are clear and transparent.

Depending on the model, the amount involved may vary from a few percent of public investment to the entire municipal budget (e.g. Porto Alegre). Data indicate 3 to 15 percent range of overall municipal budgets, often corresponding to the essential part of available investment funding. The number of meetings and participants also varies from municipality to municipality (from a few percent to 35 percent of the population), as does the comparison of councils, which may be more or less complex.

An evolving system

The participatory budget experience in Brazil testifies to strong innovative and adaptive potential. In each town or city, past experiences are followed by annual modifications to the structure. The process that depends on the executive may be interrupted and re-started in the following legislative period. Alternative forms have been implemented, such as the participatory budget municipal council for the young in Bara Mansa (state of Rio de Janeiro). In 1999, 7000 young people defined their priorities. On a vaster scale, also in 1999, the state of Rio Grande do Sul set up a participatory budget at state level.

Statistics illustrate the importance of this project in 2000, some $USD 400 million were discussed in 648 public municipal meetings and 22 regional thematic assemblies in the state's 497 municipalities, involving approximately 300,000 persons and electing 14,000 delegates for three priorities (education, agriculture and transport).

Participation - a school of democracy

Participatory budgets are harbingers of democracy. Although they are not models to be copied mechanically, they create room for reflection and experimentation that infuses local authorities and political action with renewed legitimacy. In the effort to make public spending more transparent, they serve as an instrument to re-direct local policies for the benefit of the poor and affirm popular rights, i.e. the rights of all citizens to responsibility and autonomy.

Participatory budgets are harbingers of democracy

The key elements of this experience are reinforcing social ties and citizenship, promoting social justice and the common good.

However, one should not adopt a naively romantic stance and overlook the difficulties and limits of this democratic experiment. It is true that participation is limited to just a fraction of the population, and that it is difficult to mobilise the young and the very poor. Multiplying small-scale meetings alongside the general assemblies is only a partial remedy. Participatory budgets, that aim to have a short term impact by solving specific problems in the neighbourhoods, have not yet found coherent ways of linking this aim to long term investment planning.

Finally, those who lose their cronyism advantages in the participatory system have a tendency to boycott it. Locally elected representatives no longer profit by their intermediary status towards citizens who now exercise their rights, and public markets controlled by delegates leave no room for corruption and pay-offs. There are questions that require answers:

bulletHow should participation be structured to avoid a monopoly by the middle classes or by small groups?
bulletHow can one avoid local patriotism and work for the common good?
bulletHow to avoid populism?

Participation is a promising opportunity, with new experiences and innovations developing apace. The city of Belem transformed its participatory budget into a city congress in order to extend the debate towards a more global urban perspective. Belo Orizonte launched a participatory budget on subsidised housing. In Villa El Salvador (Peru), a predominantly working class city on the outskirts of Lima, the municipality first set up a long-term development plan (2010). The population then voted this on. After which a participatory budget was established with two additional functional criteria: sectoral poverty and tax payment rates, to encourage the population to meet their fiscal obligations.

In 2000 in the same city, together with the United Nations' Urban Management Program, organised the first international seminar on participatory budgets and set up an ad hoc working group. These initiatives are likely to be continued within the projected World Participatory Budget Observatory. Nonetheless, these budget-related projects should be part of the larger participatory instruments that are being implemented in Latin America: urban consultation processes, round tables, zones of special real estate interest, to name just a few.

The real-life advantages of participatory budgets

Let us hear what local players have to say about the real-life advantages of participatory budgets. While walking through his neighbourhood, a delegate in Porto Alegre tells his daughter:

"Before, the ground was bare here, and we walked in the mud. Now we have water, sewers, paved streets and buses. All these things are good for the health. Soon, there will be a school in which you will receive an education to build citizenship. Education enables the world to improve."

Olivio Dutra, first Workers Party mayor of Porto Alegre (1988) and father of the participatory budget project, believes that:

". all inhabitants have rights which they must claim. The participatory budget program enables millions of persons to exercise their civic rights on a day to day basis. This reinforces democracy."

Further reading

The above information on participatory budgets has been prepared from a number of sources:

bulletA presentation by Yves Cabannes, Regional Co-ordinator of the Urban Management Program (PNUD-UNhabitat) at a workshop organised by the Swiss Agency for Development and Co-operation (SDC) on 14 November 2002;
bulletA field visit by Francoise Lieberherr to Belem and Guarulhos (Sao Paolo), Brazil;
bulletA review article in Politis (36) Participatory Economic Solidarity, October-November 2002; and
bulletFrom Porto Alegre, the Hope of a Different Democracy by Marion Gret and Yves Sintomer (Paris, Decouverte, 2002)

Francoise Lieberherr the editor of SDC's Urban News can be contacted at:

E-mail: francoise.lieberherr@deza.admin.ch



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