Porto Alegre, in southern Brazil, was the first city to practise participatory budgeting

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Brazilian cities pioneer
democratic budgeting

By Janaina Rochido

27 July 2006: To be known as a poor country with problems in areas such as politics and education has been no stumbling-block to Brazil’s pioneering a practice that, little by little, is spreading throughout the world. This is the Participatory Budget (PB). It  is, in general terms, the shared administration between government and citizens where collective decisions are made on how the budget is to be formulated.The first city to employ this practice was Porto Alegre, south Brazil, in 1988, and was initiated by mayor Olívio Dutra, of the Worker’s Party (PT).

Since then, some 300 cities around the world employ the the Participatory Budget. Cities using this process of participation are to be found in various parts of Latin America, as well as in France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, England and Belgium.

This experience represents an ‘about turn’ in city administration. Citizens have the opportunity to participate more effectively, instead of just voting anonymously. Under the scheme, anyone interested can participate individually or through social organisations, such as neighbourhood associations. Delegates are elected to take to the assemblies or meetings the demands of the areas they represent.  PB also works with themes, where issues concerning specific areas such as health, education, social welfare and housing are debated.

An important part of the process is the formation of the Participatory Budget Council whose members are elected each year. They represent the population and have close access to city hall, inspecting the execution of approved works and appraising benefits.

In many cities with PB the process starts around March or April, when the city hall renders the previous year’s accounts and presents the current year’s budget. Afterwards, meetings in the smaller parts of the city begin, with the people determining each area’s priorities. Between June and July they have a second round of meetings, this time defining larger priorities and presenting them to the Participatory Budget Council.

During this time city halls disseminate information and initiate events to stimulate everybody into taking part in the discussions. The next stage of the PB is in September when available resources are discussed and the priorities chosen from the previous meetings. The final stage involves the municipal assembly’s discussion of the budget and the preparation of investment planning for the following year and for execution of agreed works.

Advantages and disadvantages
In its testing phases in several cities around the world, PB has shown itself to be an effective means of improving dialogue between city halls and citizens – enabling the poorest to have a voice. Some city halls, for example, use the criterion of the poorest having the greatest priority in discussions. Another PB advantage is the empowerment that it gives to neighbourhood associations and small organisations. In giving a voice to the citizens, it makes them more conscious over exercising citizenship because they can literally accompany and inspect government actions. It has also been verified that a person participating in PB meetings for some years can attain the political knowledge of a city councillor.

Despite its success, some questions for debate still remain among those who defend PB and those who oppose it. One of the issues is the undue length of time that elapses between a decision and its imlementation. Another is that the number of local people participating in PB is still small, and sometimes does not involve the youngest and the poorest. It is necessary to teach citizens how the practice works – from beginning to end.

In Germany, where PB is being discussed, one major doubt is over a possible diminution of parliament’s decision-making power and possible divergences between German laws and PB proposals.

Specific examples
Each city applying PB adapts the method to its own needs and then improves on it. In Belém, north Brazil, it has transformed its PB into a city congress where the debate reaches a wide urban perspective. In Belo Horizonte, south-east Brazil, its city hall launched the Digital Participatory Budget this year, where citizens can vote through the internet on those works that they think are most needed, using computers installed in several regions of the city. In Villa El Salvador, Peru, the administration has decided to direct its discussions to long-term planning – until 2010.

Another initiative, almost unpublished, already occurs in four Brazilian cities: Recife, Goiânia, Barra Mansa e Icapuí. This is the Children’s Participatory Budget. This idea first appeared to help children and teenagers in social vulnerability. In Recife, for example, schools give children classes in law, social identity, culture, science and technology. Throughout the year, these children also organise meetings to discuss questions that are, later on, taken to the mayor and its secretariat – everything is supported by educative programs.

In the city of Icapuí the process starts with arts and writing workshops; in Barra Mansa, students march in the streets carrying drawings and posters. In Europe, some cities already have their Youth Representation Chambers, which present their demands to the local authorities.

In Brazil, the Children’s PB is similar to the adult version. In the beginning, instructive standpoints are taken – together with the students – followed by the mobilisation of parents and school communities. Next month, meetings and assemblies start in each neighbourhood, where priorities and delegates are chosen. In November, they vote. This application of PB has taught children about citizenship, linking schools and communities.

World Mayor 2023