In the early 1990s, the southern Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, then-led by the leftist Workers’ Party (PT), garnered international attention for pioneering citizen participation in allocating a chunk of city resources. Nearly 20 years after Porto Alegre first moved toward Participatory Budgeting (PB), the government reports a rise in participation, and attendance at this year’s citywide assemblies has been near capacity, but for many long-time participants the PB process is heading toward stormy weather.
Budgeting in action at Porto Alegre's Dante Barone Theater. (Photo: Michael Fox)
This year’s round of Regional and Thematic Assemblies began last Monday at the Dante Barone Theater in downtown Porto Alegre. These Assemblies set the year’s agenda for the allocation of resources for specific parts of the city budget. The auditorium was packed with more than a thousand lively residents from across the city. In the nearly two-hour long meeting, participants voted for their priorities in the evening’s themes—Education and Sports. They also elected council members to represent them in these areas throughout the year.
But the event lacked the rich dialogue that marked assembly meetings of previous years, and Porto Alegre Mayor Jose Fogaça was noticeably absent, as were some high-ranking members of his cabinet. The meeting showed that gone are the heady days when residents worked closely with the local government in the PB process.
“This government doesn’t say no, but it doesn’t do the job either,” said Antonio Carbonera, a delegate from the Vila Papeleras, whose poor community of recyclers acquired housing through PB a number of years ago. “In past administrations, if they were going to do a project, they came here and asked for our input beforehand. This government doesn’t ask for participation at all. They arrive with the project plans all ready, and then it doesn’t work out and the people revolt.”
Projects are still carried out, and millions of dollars in funds are being allocated, as shown by the 2008 Investment Plan passed out last week. But Carbonera’s complaints are echoed across the city.
“The government isn’t participating much. They’re not going to the assemblies, and investment is way down,” says Simon Langelier, a Canadian Ph.D. student from the University of Quebec in Montreal, who studies PB in Porto Alegre. He estimates only 10% of PB demands were implemented in 2006. Langelier highlighted that during last Monday’s assembly, the government failed to present the balance of the previous year’s achievements and failures—in the past, this was an integral part of the Assemblies.
Lack of accountability is a common gripe. The PT was defeated in the local 2004 elections by Mayor José Fogaça, now of the centrist Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB). The following year, the new administration created a system called Local Solidarity Governance. The new program was designed as a mixed private-public initiative charged with creating parallel projects to those implemented by PB. Activists now accuse Fogaça’s administration of crediting the Local Solidarity Governance for projects acquired through the community-driven PB.
Meanwhile, activists concede participation in this year’s larger PB assemblies is up, but they quickly note local participation—where it most counts—is way down. Local weekly meetings have been replaced with bimonthly meetings in some of Porto Alegre’s 17 regions, and attendance in some cases has gone down from a hundred to only a few dozen people.
PB participants vote in favor of their budgeting priorities. (Photo:Michael Fox)
“Before we got in front of the leaders and they had to listen to us. Now they hide, they don’t come,” says João “Chiquinho” Alberto, an Afro-Brazilian delegate in the Integração dos Anjos community. “Before the city government only did something if participatory budgeting said so.” Indeed, through the PB process a few years ago he managed to gain housing for dozens of families in his neighborhood. Chiquinho adds, “Today the city government has the power, and they distribute the resources that they want, to who they want.”
City residents are nervous about the future of participatory democracy; so nervous, in fact, that the Porto Alegre-based Urban Studies and Advice Center (CIDADE), held an international seminar last October on the “Future of Participatory Democracy.” Conference participants resolved to create a worldwide network to preserve the integrity of PB processes around the globe.
Nevertheless, PB coordinator for the mayor’s office in Porto Alegre, Paulo Silva said at the Monday night meeting that Porto Alegre’s Participatory Budgeting process “has never been so alive, and so plural, as it has been over these last two years.” He applauded the process for including all income levels, its transparency, and the lack “of political or ideological bias.” Silva attributed criticisms of the current process to partisan factions looking for a “political instrument” to discredit the current administration.
Langelier says the problems go much deeper, but acknowledges political jostling has taken its toll. “There’s a lot of conflicts between council members of different political parties,” admits Langelier. “The political parties have a great influence on the council members.”
Beatrize Abrão is a former PB Councilwoman from Porto Alegre’s Southern Region. She stepped down from her Council position in 2006 because of disagreements with the direction of the process, which she called, “co-opted, clientalistic, and in exchange for favors.” Although she only joined the PT in 2005, Abrão argues that PB under previous administrations didn’t have these problems. She acknowledges the PT was the spokesperson for the PB process during those years, “But we never gave privileges to anyone who participated, anyone who wanted to participate could. The doors were open,” says Abrão.
The fate of Participatory Budgeting, or OP in its Portuguese initials, might depend on the outcome of the October municipal elections. (Photo: Michael Fox)
Still, even PB diehards admit the PT began having serious problems at the end of the party’s last administration in Porto Alegre. “That’s why (the PT) lost. They had won four times, they thought their place at the head of Porto Alegre was perpetual; they forgot their base; they isolated their leaders; they began to promote the leaders that were clientalistic,” said Juliano Carriconde Fripp, councilmember of Porto Alegre’s Central region and member of the council’s coordinating body.
With city elections coming up in October, PB activists are hoping for a change that will resuscitate the roots of Porto Alegre’s Participatory Budgeting process, whether through the PT or otherwise.
Chiquinho says he’s considering throwing his support behind the up-and-coming Manuela D’Ávila, a 26-year-old candidate from Brazil’s Communist Party (PCdoB). Despite her young age, she has already served on the Rio Grande do Sul state legislature, and in 2006 was the first member in the history of the PCdoB to be elected to the Brazilian Congress.
Despite conflicts with the city government, and predictions by some analysts that Porto Alegre’s world-renowned Participatory Budgeting process may be nearing a crisis, many PB activists continue their work unfazed, confident in the future of their participatory process and in its solid foundation in Porto Alegre’s grassroots.
After all, as council member Fripp recently pointed out, it is the city’s residents that decide who goes and who stays. “If a (candidate for mayor) gets in front of the TV during the campaign, and says that PB is worthless and that he’s against it, he won’t be elected,” says Fripp. “PB is part of the culture of Porto Alegre, especially in the poor communities, and those are the ones that vote. Those are the people that elect mayors.”
Michael Fox is a freelance journalist based in South America, and a correspondent for Free Speech Radio News (FSRN). Listen to his radio report on participatory budgeting on the FSRN website. He is currently working on a documentary on Participatory Democracy in the Americas, which is set to be released this fall.