The populist dance of Participatory Budgeting numbers in Porto Alegre

By Sérgio Baierle:

Every year is the same civic governmentality routine.  The local government begins the Participatory Budgeting cycle with a fireworks show. The real content of participation doesn’t matter. The show is the government. The measure of success for Participatory Budgeting (PB), as stated in the multi-year plan, is solely the number of participants in the assemblies. In other words, what counts is getting people there, it doesn’t matter how. Popular sovereignty? Forget it. Even speaking at meetings is controlled. You need to sign up a week before at the regional administration office. Some years ago, we at CIDADE have suggested an audit of PB numbers, comparing the proposed figures for works and services in the Investment Plan with its actual execution, item by item. Nobody gave a damn about our claim of transparency. It seems that none of the real players are interested. The present government, for obvious reasons, doesn’t want to hear about it. They have aborted by forceps all essays of investigating corruption on public contracts in the City Council. Not so surprising, it does not attract the political opposition, perhaps because the very idea of opposition has just turned a kind of electoral jelly, with rare exceptions. Unfortunately, little seems to matter to many community leaders, whose CBOs and NGOs are dependent of contracts with the City Hall for poverty management outsourced services. It would remain the participatory victims, but since when demagogy and cheap populism are considered as political crime in this country?

Now in April 2012, for the second time in seven years of this same government, the PB Works & Services Monitoring Page in the internet was taken down by City Hall authorities (link Monitoring Works: / ). The reason is again the same: the very poor PB performance. This time, the website was dropped a week after our journal De Olho na Cidade  showing that, between May 2011 and March 2012, only 80 PB proposals were performed from a total of more than a thousand delayed. More than that, we show that only one refers to the main priority of PB participants: Social Housing. What work was this? The building of emergency houses. For those unaware, an emergency house is a 12 square meters hut, without water or electricity services, beside which stands a chemical toilet (usually used by several families). The worst is witness a PB counselor, during a recent PB meeting, arguing in favor of one thousand emergency huts more, to account for the evictions coming with the FIFA 2014 World Cup. This has nothing to do with active citizenship, it is participatory exclusion! Saying “NO” is forbidden, you can only negotiate the terms of your surrender. The PB promise of a plebeian public sphere has become a place where the subaltern cannot speak.

The first response to our critics came from the Porto Alegre Housing Department (DEMHAB). An article published in Jornal do Comércio and signed by Jorge Dusso, the principal, claims that the City Hall does have a Social Housing policy. What is the argument? First, that it should be considered the work in progress to resettle the families of Vilas Dique and Nazareth, 2 bulldozed shantytowns to give room for the local airport expansion. 798 families of a total of 1,476 still lack their new unities in the new area where they are being removed, as well as the 1,291 families of Vila Nazareth, whose new units not yet started to be built. There is also an uncertain number of units to be built to address the evictions of more than one thousand families around Moab Caldas Avenue (mobility work linked to FIFA 2014 World Cup). Second, DEMHAB claims that one should also count the units built under the national government housing program called Minha Casa Minha Vida (My Home My Life) – MCMV. 492 units under this Program have been built in Porto Alegre for families with income up to 3 minimum wages (Residential Camila and Repouso do Guerreiro: 192 and 300 units respectively). Porto Alegre got the worst performance among all state capitals under MCMV, by the way.

The first argument is a doubly evasive answer, because when it comes to results, you cannot answer confusing works completed with future forecasts. Even considering the 618 units delivered since 2009, linked to the expansion of the airport area, you cannot consider as a PB work or as a social housing policy, demands coming from corporations like the INFRAERO, who runs the local airport. The social enters here just as a compensation for gentrification, not as a request from below. There is no plan here, just a business desk.   The promises for families threatened with forced evictions around Moab Caldas Avenue, similarly, do not respond to a PB demand, but to Real Estate gentrification interests in the region. The same applies to another case, Vila Chocolatão (181 units), removed from downtown to the northeast region of the city.

As for the second argument, that the MCMV also respond to the demands of the PB, it lacks not only showing the link between local PB and national MCMV, but it needs also to explain how the selection of candidates among the 54,000 subscribers of MCMV in Porto Alegre is working. Moreover, since the areas designed by the City Hall for the national Program MCMV (up to 3 minimum wages) are on the outskirts of the city’s outskirts, the result will not be social inclusion, but the reproduction of the Brazilian old pattern of urban segregation, requiring decades to provide adequate services and infrastructures in these new areas. Popular protagonism: zero.

So, in fact, there isn’t a Social Housing policy in Porto Alegre. What exists is business desk where corporations and governmental agencies present their proposals and eventually pay for them. For DEMHAB the only remaining task is to “Remove to Promote”, the old DEMHAB slogan used during military dictatorship. At that time, 14,400 families were evicted from downtown areas in 10 years (1965-1975). It seems that currently DEMHAB strives to beat its own record, but in less time.

In the 2012Investment Plan (IP), only published now in April, the Mayor Fortunati claims to have performed 155 PB demands of the 2011 IP. We counted only 80. If the government had the dignity to put back the website for monitoring PB works and services performance, including the missing years of 2011 and 2012 (they were not yet included), we could recheck the situation. When the 2011 IP was announced by April 2011, it was to be the “Redemption Plan”. The PB Council Sheriff , Mr. Paulo Silva,  used to arrive at the preparatory meetings saying that the IPs, who people insisted on bringing under their arms, were mere “illusions plans”, but  that 2011 IP would be for real. From the total of 683 works and services registered in the 2011 IP, only 265 were new, the others were those the government accepted to rescue. The rest was to forget.

Well, when the PB Works & Services Monitoring Page was online last March, we have identified 1,074 PB works and services delayed. Now, since the 2012 IP brings 565 brand-new itens to that list, we estimate a legacy of more than 1,500 jobs delayed to be left to the next government, based on the recent year’s performance. Municipal elections will happen in October, 2012.  If this is not a cheap populist regression that PB was supposed to overcome, is what?

Apropos, the 2010 Census showed that Porto Alegre has 48.600 unoccupied residential properties (8% of all existing residential units). The housing deficit in the city is estimated 38.000 units. Technically, it wouldn’t be necessary to build a single house to zero out the deficit.

April, 2012.

A Portuguese version is available at Cidade.


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