Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)

1989

Learning democracy by doing: The Participatory Budget of Porto Alegre

This year, the city of Porto Alegre (Southern Brazil) initiated the participatory budget, an innovative process of local governance. The Participatory Budget (PB) is an open and democratic process of participation that enables ordinary citizens to deliberate and make decisions collectively about budget allocations. This includes neighbourhood discussions and decisions about priorities regarding investments in local infrastructure like pavement, sewage, storm drains, schools, health care, child care, housing, etc. It also includes forums on city-wide issues such as transit and public transportation, health and social assistance, economic development and taxation, urban development, and education, culture and leisure.

The PB goes beyond alternative budgets, which are mainly exercises that do not deal with real budgets but with hypothetical ones. It also goes beyond traditional consultation mechanisms which are often controlled by politicians and characterized by token participation of citizens. The PB is a real decision-making body. It is about ordinary citizens making real decisions about real monies, which are public monies.

In the PB, participation is governed by a combination of direct and representative democracy, and takes place through regularly functioning institutions whose internal rules are decided upon by the participants. There are two operational levels: the Forums of Delegates and the PB Council. There are also plenary assemblies, and a multitude of intermediate sessions.

The type and amount of investments are decided in annual budget cycles. Resources are allocated according to a method based on two main criteria. On the one hand, there are "substantive criteria" decided by the participants to define priorities (e.g. equity criteria, majority criteria, a combination of both, etc.). On the other hand, there are "technical criteria" of juridical, political, technical or economic viability related to laws and regulations, financial resources, technical factors, safety issues, etc.

The PB has four key moments: diagnosis, deliberation, decision-making, and follow-up (control). Each one is important in itself, and connected to the other three. Each year participants review the criteria, rules and procedures, and in light of the experience of the previous year, changes can be made -and often are made- to improve the process' quality and fairness.

The PB is making several contributions to local governance, participatory democracy and social change. For instance, it helps to ensure equity in the allocation of municipal resources. It also contributes to democratize the state, making it more transparent, accountable, efficient and effective in serving local communities. Related to that, the PB nurtures a collaborative model of governance in which municipal government and civil society can work together in a climate of respect and mutual understanding. Furthermore, the PB encourages solidarity and concern for the common good, and promotes community mobilization and active engagement. While all these are very important issues, there is one contribution of the PB that relates directly to citizenship education: the PB is a particularly powerful site to learn about civic and community life, governance, politics, and…yes, budgets! As one PB participant in a popular neighborhoods of Porto Alegre once told me: "This is our school of citizenship."

Indeed, the PB is a place where citizens learn democracy by doing, where they acquire a great variety of political skills, knowledge, attitudes and values, and where they learn to become more democratic, tolerant, caring, and sensitive to other people's needs. It is also a place where citizens increase their self-esteem and political efficacy (that is, the feeling that they can influence the political system). The PB also helps to challenge the assumption that citizenship learning only takes place in schools, and that this learning stops for most people once formal school is finished. In the PB, residents learn to demystify the budget, which before 1989 was perceived as something obscure, highly technical in nature, which could (and should) be done only by a selected group of experts. As communities gain political efficacy, they stop seeing budgets, laws and policies as immanent realities ordered from above, and start believing in their own capacity to change them.

Likewise, because the PB as a school of citizenship makes citizens become more alert, critical and aware, and because it makes resource allocations more transparent, it helps to break with the traditional clientelistic relationship in which politicians and community leaders exchange favors for votes. It also helps to disrupt the double discourse of politicians, who become less able to say one thing and do another. The PB also promotes new values and attitudes, including the preservation of public property, and a reduction in vandalism. In sum, the PB nurtures a virtuous circle between citizenship learning and participatory democracy: the more people participate in democracy, the more competent and democratic they become, and the more competent and democratic they become, the more equipped they are to improve the quality of the democratic process. Here, I suggest, lies the greatest potential of the PB: its modest (but not insignificant) contribution to the development of new political subjects and in the nurturing of a more democratic political culture.

Sources: 

Abers, Rebecca (2000). Inventing Local Democracy: Grassroots Politics in Brazil. Lynn Rienner Publishers. Boulder: Co.

Abers, Rebecca (1998). "From clientelism to cooperation: Local government, participatory policy, and civic organizing in Porto Alegre, Brazil" in Politics and Society 26(4): 511-537.

Avritzer, L.(1999). Public Deliberation in Brazil. [pdf]

Baierle, Sergio (1998). "The Explosion of Citizenship: The Emergence of a New Ethical-Political Principal in Popular Movements in Porto Alegre, Brazil". In Alvarez, Sonia E., E. Dagnino and A. Escobar. (eds.), Cultures of Politics/Politics of Cultures: Revisioning Latin American Social Movements. Boulder: Westview Press.

Schugurensky, Daniel (2004). "This is our school of citizenship:" Informal learning in local democracy. In Z. Bekerman, N. Burbules and D. Silberman (eds.), Learning in Hidden Places: The Informal Education Reader. (Peter Lang, 2004).

Schugurensky, Daniel (2001). The enlightenment-engagement dilemma and the development of the active citizen: Lessons from the Citizens' Forum and the Participatory Budget. Proceedings of the 20th anniversary conference of the Canadian Association for Studies in Adult Education (CASAE).

Schugurensky, Daniel (2001). Grassroots democracy: the Participatory Budget of Porto Alegre. Canadian Dimension, 35 (1), Jan/Feb 2001.

Wampler, Brian (2000). A Guide to Participatory Budgeting, October, 2000. [pdf]

See also: http://fcis.oise.utoronto.ca/~daniel_schugurensky/lclp/poa_home.html 

Prepared by Daniel Schugurensky, OISE/UT, 2004

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