Brazil-inspired people power can transform local politics


OPINION:Local democracy will never work properly unless money for services is raised locally and residents have an ongoing say in how it is spent, writes CLODAGH HARRIS

THE INTRODUCTION of water charges and a site value tax as recently outlined in the Government’s four-year plan, if collected as a source of local government funding, offer us a unique opportunity to renew our democracy, particularly at local level.

Citizens can settle local affairs and control local services through local government or their elected representatives.

Local government is accessible and for many of us, it is our first experience of democratic institutions and processes.

One way in which we could renew democracy in Ireland is to grant citizens a greater say in how public monies are spent at local level.

Participatory budgeting (PB) is widely acclaimed as a democratic co-governance mechanism that allows citizens to control and shape the distribution of public resources through deliberation and negotiation.

First developed in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 1989, participatory budgeting combines popular engagement at the local level with the development and monitoring of a city wide budget, mixing open citizen assemblies with innovative representative forums.

It involves an annual cycle of three levels of citizen participation: popular assemblies; district budget forums and a municipal budget council.

In spring each year popular assemblies are held in the city’s 16 districts at which the previous year’s budget allocation is reviewed. All residents aged 16 and over are invited to participate.

Participants vote on the priority issues for investment in the city and elect delegates to budget forums.

The number of delegates elected to the district budget forums is proportional to the number of citizens and acts as a strong incentive for people to participate. The delegates in the forums work together with the city administration to translate neighbourhood priority lists into an overall list of investment priorities for the district. The forums are open to all citizens but only the delegates can vote.

The citizens participating in the first district assembly also elect two councillors to the municipal budget council which is in charge of deciding the relative distribution of resources across the various districts.

The municipal budget council’s decisions are informed by priority lists and needs-based criteria developed by the forums. The municipal budget council presents it to the full council by the end of September each year.

Porto Alegre’s city council retains the legislative power to veto and alter the budget, and its mayor has the executive power to reject it on limited financial and technical grounds. However, these vetoes have never been used, probably due to the popular will that the budget represents.

Today in Porto Alegre 100 per cent of the total budget is allocated through participatory budgeting, up from 17 per cent in 1992. However, in other cities that have adopted PB, it is used to allocate 2-10 per cent of the overall budget.

A notable feature of PB is that it not only engages large numbers of citizens but it mobilises significant numbers from the poor of the city who are typically politically marginalised.

A Harvard University study in 2002 found that the lowest 5 per cent of the population accounted for 30 per cent of the participants in the popular assemblies.

PB’s success in Porto Alegre has witnessed significant increases in the provision of basic utilities: 98 per cent of all residences in the city now have running water, up from 75 per cent in 1988 and availability of sewage services has risen to 98 per cent from 46 per cent in 1988.

It has also contributed to increases in the numbers of families receiving housing assistance and the number of municipal schools.

What is particularly significant about the budgeting process then is not only that citizens make decisions about public spending, but also that they have agenda-setting power in deciding the rules under which that distribution takes place.

PB has been utilised in over 250 cities in Brazil and adopted in cities across South America. From a European perspective it has been used successfully in the Spanish cities of Cordoba and Seville.

Variations have been adopted in French, German and Italian cities.

If introduced at local level in Ireland, PB would give citizens a link between spending and raising money, and ensuring local decision-making is more transparent, participative and representative.

In a time of citizen frustration, anger, concern and despair, participatory budgeting offers a means of empowering citizens, distributing public resources fairly and reinvigorating Irish democracy at the level closest to the citizen.

Clodagh Harris is a lecturer in the department of government at University College Cork

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