Participatory Budgeting. Porto Alegre, Brazil.
Counterproposals that Outmaneuver Reform.

Researcher and PI: Dr. Jeffrey Rubin. Associate Professor of History; Research Associate, Institute on Culture, Religion, and World Affairs (CURA), Boston University.
Researcher: Sergio Baierle. Director, CIDADE-Centro de Assessoria e Estudos Urbanos, Porto Alegre, 1990-2012.

Project Description:

Until the 1980s, poor residents of Porto Alegre were as marginalized from urban planning and budgeting decisions as most poor populations worldwide. Then, between 1989 and 2004, the leftist municipal government of Porto Alegre created and administered a process of participatory budgeting that enabled residents of the city's neighborhoods to decide how the budget for local infrastructural improvement and services would be spent. Twenty-five years later, participatory budgeting has become a globally-recognized model for linking democratic procedures to improvements in popular well-being, drawing on pre-existing networks of neighborhood associations to develop new forms of citizenship. Meanwhile, Porto Alegre's private sector struggles to accept the benefits that participatory budgeting has brought and seeks to replace it with a model based on corporate social responsibility.

Between 1989 and 2004, the leftist municipal government of Porto Alegre, Brazil, created and administered a process of participatory budgeting that enables residents of the city's neighborhoods to decide how the budget for local infrastructural improvement and services will be spent. Through innovative procedures of discussion and decision-making, participatory budgeting develops democratic skills among the city's citizens, including those who live in Porto Alegre'svilas, or shantytowns, and in poor neighborhoods far from the city center. As part of the participatory budgeting process, neighborhood residents have supervised the implementation of infrastructural projects and held municipal officials accountable for the results. By implementing this project successfully and inclusively, participatory budgeting has become a globally-recognized model for linking democratic procedures and improvements in popular well-being.

Many observers have seen participatory budgeting as a form of deliberative democracy, where citizens come together in the public sphere to debate, revise their views, and develop practical policies. The year-long cycle of meetings, culminating in the formation of a city-wide Participatory Budgeting Council, enabled the "voice of the people" not only to be heard, but to exercise decision-making power. Compared to the back-room deals characteristic of Porto Alegre's City Council in the past, participatory budgeting more fully recognized the dignity and subjecthood of individuals and their capacity to participate actively in collective self-government. At the same time, as participatory budgeting endured as the privileged location for the allocation of resources, activist leaders developed languages and practices for gaining funds for their own neighborhoods and building local organizations with particular goals. At times these new processes enhance voice and accountability at the local level, while they can also channel and constrain local deliberation, forming NGO-like nodes of professionalization and expertise that are potentially at odds with broad democratic participation.

In securing widespread support for participatory budgeting, the PT city government needed to overcome skepticism about the program's usefulness, differential organizational capacities in neighborhoods, and hostile media and private sector responses. It achieved these goals by skillfully revising the program's institutional structure and procedures over time, publicizing participatory budgeting effectively throughout the city, combining social movement and electoral mobilizational styles, and establishing links to national and international city planning and progressive networks.

Businesspeople in Porto Alegre responded to participatory budgeting with a combination of hostility and tolerance. Over time, businesspeople came to see and value the improvements in infrastructure that made the vilas visible and connected them to the rest of the city. Businesspeople speak of the importance of "listening to the client," in terms of learning about city residents' needs so as to carry out effective planning and governance, and some of them acknowledge that residents of vilas come together in participatory budgeting to make decisions and thereby exercise a degree of power they did not previously possess. At the same time, however, businesspeople share two deeply negative responses to participatory budgeting: they claim that it was entirely manipulated by the PT; and they do not recognize the agency, capacity, and dignity on the part of city residents, particularly the residents of vilas, that is arguably the most significant achievement of the program. While the few businesspeople who attended participatory budgeting meetings acknowledge that the process was open to them and responsive to their needs, this direct experience with participatory budgeting did not lead them to evaluate the program differently from their counterparts who never attended meetings.

Businesspeople in Porto Alegre claim with great vehemence that they were never "invited" to participatory budgeting, which was in fact open to all. Businesspeople also note that in participatory budgeting meetings they can be outvoted, observing that "for every one of us, there are ten of them." When asked if he was worried about encountering violence when he attended participatory budgeting meetings in a poor neighborhood, an older businessmen responded tellingly "Why should they be violent toward me? They can outvote me." Indeed, businesspeople dislike participatory budgeting because it is democratic, and they can be outvoted in open meetings that use a language with which they are unfamiliar.

In response to the infrastructural and vote-getting successes of participatory budgeting, businesspeople in Porto Alegre have developed a counterproposal of "social responsibility" that also attracts votes in city-wide elections, providing two victories, in 2004 and 2008, for a centrist, pro-business mayor. This counterproposal is presented as more universal than participatory budgeting (because it does not privilege the poor); individualist (the doctor donates medical care, the entrepreneur donates business know-how); and post-democratic (because it is made up of tri-partite boards and does not involve the PT or any other political party not in the government coalition). Businesspeople are invited, and together with representatives of the now-centrist government, they constitute two-thirds of the representatives in social responsibility fora and meetings, which occur on an ad hoc basis and operate in a language of planning dominated by technical criteria. Porto Alegre's new social responsibility program, according to one of its architect, avoids the polarization of democracy, so that businesspeople, who feel comfortable there, "have it made in the shade."

In Porto Alegre, business hostility to Participatory Budgeting is coupled with the development of counterproposals that take some of the progressive reform's goals and accomplishments into account, but fail to offer deep recognition to poor people as autonomous subjects.

Businesspeople neither "see" nor understand the actions through which marginalized people become engaged citizens through Participatory Budgeting, and they reject the idea that poor people should exercise political power. While accepting some of the material and participatory components of Participatory Budgeting, businesspeople use counterproposals to try to sustain and re-exert control over regional decision-making.