In recent decades, the idea of bringing municipal politics closer to ordinary people has been gaining strength. There has been a growing realization among those impacted by so-called professional politicians of their need for some kind of control or participation to make their voices heard. This is of paramount importance because, very often, politicians distance themselves from the very people who helped them to power. This distance is particularly damaging to the most vulnerable sectors of society, which end up being forgotten in the so-called “political game” that dominates most of the city councils and city halls. The voice of the people is making itself heard in the corridors of power and effecting direct change. This is a trend and a movement whose time has come and which places the citizen at the hub of the decision-making process.
Participatory budgeting — people power working for change
Among the most recent forms of control and popular participation created in order to bring people closer to the political decisions of their cities is the participatory budget. This idea can work and be implemented in various ways. It involves initiatives and practices that allow people access to the municipal budget of their cities, giving them the power to decide where and for which projects the money should be invested.
Participatory budgeting initiatives around the world are implemented in different ways: such as the portion of the municipal budget that citizens have available to them to invest in the projects they deem most appropriate; the ways in which investment and control decisions are made; and which groups are present in the various decision-making meetings that decide which works and areas will be given priority to receive the budget resources.
A brief history
The first implementation of participatory budgeting took place in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, in the state of Rio Grande do Sul, in the 1980s. It emerged as an initiative of the Workers’ Party, who won the municipal elections in the city, as part of the wave of re-democratization that the country was going through after getting rid of a military dictatorship that had lasted more than 20 years.
In the 1990s, the participatory budget initiative spread to the rest of Brazil. In 2012, there were already more than 200 municipalities that had implemented it, making it the country with the largest number of popular [i.e.citizens’] budgets in the world. From Brazil, the participatory budget project has spread to other countries in Latin America, such as Argentina, Peru, Uruguay, Ecuador and the Caribbean. In the 2000s, due to the participation of several countries in the World Social Forum (whose first sessions were held in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre), the idea of participatory budgeting spread to the rest of the world. In Europe in 2010, there were 296 municipalities that implemented it, mainly in France, Spain and Italy. In Africa, also, by 2012, there were 66 to 110 participatory budgets, whose implementation often was achieved with the help of international institutions. In Asia and Oceania there are examples of participatory budgets in New Zealand, South Korea, China and India.
Porto Alegre, Brazil
The seat of the first participatory budgeting, this city had already been the scene of other progressive initiatives in the 1980s, being one of the places in Brazil in which urban movements had most strength. With the re-democratization of the country, participatory budgeting initiatives had already been implemented in some locations in the city, but it was with the coming of the Workers’ Party that the initiative expanded to a municipal scale, having been implemented for three main reasons: to democratize Brazilian society even further, allowing the participation of more excluded and marginalized groups within the political system; to achieve the social objective of reversing priorities in the municipal budget; to allocate to the most marginalized areas and suburbs more municipal funds, thus aiming to eradicate corruption and improve the efficiency of public policies. …
The results have been extremely successful. Initially, it led to greater political participation by traditionally excluded groups, such as low-income people. It also led to a greater participation of women in the political process who over time became the majority in the assemblies, along with young people. The working class also increased its political participation and representation within the entire process. More disadvantaged areas of the city have gained greater investment, with the creation of residential areas for the poorest, health facilities and kindergarten schools. Slum streets have been paved and most houses in more populous neighborhoods have been provided with basic sanitation. …