Participatory Budgeting Today: Proliferation, Compromise, Diversification

By Dave Lewit, Alliance for Democracy, 25 August 2010:

In 25 years the great democratic participatory budgeting (PB) 
experiment has spread from southern Brazil to more than a thousand 
municipalities all over the world, and yes, it has been adopted not 
just by cities but by schools, housing colonies, student governments—
wherever there are large constituencies who want their organizational
money to be spent fairly.  And yes, poor people as well as middle 
class turn out by the thousands to decide how to spend public money… 
but children?

The children involved were Sebastian, Bethan, Chloe and Kieron—all 
under 5.  They were supported by Jo Walkden, one of the teaching staff
 at the Walkergate Children’s Centre in Newcastle, England.  “They were
 asked if they would like to design and choose the equipment for an 
outside play area for babies in the nursery.  The process was broken
down into small steps. First the children took photos of the equipment 
they liked.  They took photos of the babies playing and observed the
 toys and types of play they liked.  The children visited the Babies’ 
Garden, which at that point was just a grassed area.  Next they looked
 at their photos and thought about what the babies might like in their 
outdoor area. They looked at the catalogues and chose equipment they 
thought the babies would like to play with.  They counted out the
 money for the equipment, an innovative way of dealing with the
 spending’ side of the project.  The equipment and  structures for the
garden were then ordered and installed.  The children were able to see
t heir project become a reality.”  (—Jez Hall, UK)

That, in a nutshell, is the PB process.  The classic case of Porto
Alegre, Brazil, involving 50,000 residents and $200 million per year
peaked around 2004.  Then the sponsoring Workers Party (PT) was voted
 out of office locally because of corruption at the national level and
disappointment with President Lula da Silva’s bows to the market
system.  The incoming neoliberal “Socialist Popular Party” watered
down and partially privatized the city’s PB, and renamed the process
supposedly for “good government”—hoodwinking many poor participants by
tying benefits to limited “entrepreneurship”.

But the 16 years of PB success (e.g., ending local corruption,
 redressing inequality) in hundreds of Brazilian municipalities rang
 bells in much of Latin America and parts of Europe, Canada, Africa,
Asia, and even Polynesia, thanks in part to the United Nations’
Habitat program (see Resources, below).  Toronto Community Housing, 
for example, has been using PB for nine years to generate projects and
 distribute now $9 million (in 2009) for upgrading hallways, kitchens,
 and bathrooms; a computer resource center; playground improvements;
 and so on—tenants’ choices.  A school in British Columbia has used PB,
 and the cities of Guelph and Montreal, for example.

The first municipal PB in the United States was undertaken only this
 year, with 1600 residents of Chicago’s 49th ward (northeast corner)
 deliberating and voting infrastructure innovations to cost $1.3
million, the sum allocated to the ward’s alderman Joe Moore to do with
what he wanted—and he wanted the people to decide.  There was much
 committee activity and research, but limited to infrastructure projects
—the city had ruled out adding services and personnel. Like most PB 
programs so far around the world, neither revenue inputs (taxes, fees,
 state enterprises) nor planning were authorized.

A conference earlier this year in Berlin, Germany, revealed great 
variations in PB in different places.  Seville, Spain, sought social 
justice and empowerment, sticking pretty much to the Porto Alegre
 model.  Seeking modernization, German usage was mostly online, risking
 abuse, bypassing real (face-to-face) deliberation and largely 
deferring decisions to city officials (budget “consultation”).
 Africans sought “good government” (minimizing corruption) and new ways 
of raising revenue.  In Spanish cities PB decisions were binding, not 
mere recommendations to the city government.  Providently, most
projects have welcomed evaluation and improvement in process from year 
to year.

In any event, a big determinant of PB success is the amount of money
 the participants have to work with—$1 million vs. 200 million makes a
difference in participation.  And of course, whether the participants’
 decision is binding and implemented.  Nevertheless, PB is giving
 millions of people around the world the experience which can turn hope 
into living democracy for themselves and hundreds of millions of their

Resources (hosted by US’s Gianpaolo Baiocchi &
Josh Lerner) (hosted by Archon Fung & Mark Warren; in
wikipedia format) (hosted by UK’s
Hilary Wainwright; explore sidebar) Paticipatory Budgeting.pdf Paticipatory Budgeting.pdf (UN 
handbook on PB) (hosted by Porto Alegre’s Sergio Baierle; click on
English Version)

This article will appear in two Alliance for Democracy print
publications, Justice Rising and BCA Dispatch

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