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July 21, 2015


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Sunday, March 24, 2013

Occupying the Budget: Participatory Budgeting in Latin America and its Global Diffusion


Until recently, most citizens worldwide could have been characterized as apathetic and distanced from their respective governments.  Local, state/provincial and national governments, with the possible exception of Scandinavian governments, had been dominated by elites (either democratically elected or not) with strong ties to the extremely wealthy, corporations and the military.

But, this is starting to change.  Key events around the world:  the Economic Crisis of 2008, increasing income disparity, decreasing lack of job opportunities, political instability, stagnating economies, austerity measures, and a general distrust of the elite have galvanized grass-roots movements around the world.

Citizens are indicating that they no longer want to be bystanders but real participants at all levels of government.  The most vocal grass-root groups have been the Occupy Movements, the Pirate Party, which is primarily prominent in Europe, various groups in the Middle East (the Arab Spring), and the Progressive Movement (in the U.S.).  Theses social movements have spurred numerous Non-Profit Organizations and created a plethora of blogs, webpages and Twitter groups.

A grass-roots movement, which is at the forefront of participatory democracy efforts, is one which advocates greater involvement in local budgeting, and it is termed Participatory Budgeting (PB).  It had its start in Brazil in the 1980s, after decades of military rule.  Although PB was initiated much earlier than the present Occupy or Progressive Movements, it has been adopted into their agendas because of its similar roots.

Thus, in a chaotic manner, alternatives to the traditional form of representative local democracy are taking form.

PB is a structured, deliberate and lengthy process during the year before funds are spent that involves the direct input of citizens for urban projects.  PB, with its roots in Brazil, is currently spreading around the globe.   The use of the Internet is being integrated into the process.  One of the residual effects is that PB has increased public involvement in urban planning and policy.

PB started in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 1989 , soon after cessation of the military rule of Brazil.  It was initiated because of long term pressure by poorer neighborhoods for better infrastructure and the lack of responsiveness for local officials.  There are now 40,000 people in the city involved in the process, and it has spread to many cities in Brazil.  Participatory budgeting is only one of several efforts in increased attempts at participatory democracy throughout Latin America.

The PB process in Porto Alegre has decreased the influence of the very wealthy, allowed transparency, included poor individuals, increased accountability and encouraged increased support of long-range planning.  There have been some problems with the process in Porto Alegre with under-representation of very low-income groups and youth, lack of support from media, and discontinuation of support after key needs have been met.

Since the first experience of PB was introduced, it has spread throughout Europe and North America in some locations.  In North America, participatory budgeting has been promoted through the vehicle of the Participatory Budgeting Project.  Their efforts have resulted in experiments in Chicago, New York, Toronto and Montreal.  In Europe, there are participatory budgeting efforts in Seville, Spain; London; and Newcastle, U.K.  There are also efforts in Africa, Asia and Australia, but with minimal information available.  The most extensive experience with participatory democracy has been in South America.

It is encouraging that there are numerous examples of PB around the world.  It demonstrates that, through the efforts of grass-roots movements, positive change can be achieved.  PB also now has developed and tested procedures for integrating with representative democracies.  Additionally, it has been shown to be workable in developing and developed nations.

What is disappointing is the lack of support for PB in the U.S.  However, through efforts of the Participatory Budgeting Project, PB in many American cities may be initiated.

The Second Participatory Budgeting Project Conference will be held in Chicago, May 3-5, 2013.  Details can be found here.

An expanded version of this article with references will later be a blog entry on one of the author’s blogs:  The Chaotic, Fractal and Complex City.

Ivani Vassoler-Froelich and Dr. Michael A. McAdams are presently working on an edited book containing papers from professionals studying participatory democracy in Latin America.  Expected publication is late 2013.

This article edited by KL Johnson

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Michael Andrew McAdams (20 Posts)