Observatori Internacional de la Democracia Participativa (OIDP)
Ayuntamiento de Barcelona
Dirección de Participación Ciudadana
Llacuna 161, 3a planta
08018 - Barcelona
Tel: +34 3 291 84 56
Fax: +34 3 291 84 57

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South American cities spearhead
development of direct democracy

By Nick Swift and Guy Kervella

5 December 2003: At a time when many ordinary people in nominally democratic countries feel themselves bereft, in practice if not in theory, of influence in the political processes of their communities, cities in Europe and South America are seeking to rediscover the meaning of local democracy together through an organisation called the Observatori Internacional de la Democracia Participativa (OIDP), the literal translation into English of which is International Observatory of Participatory Democracy.

The OIDP was created in 2001 by cities in over 20 countries with the aim of exchanging information, experiences and ideas pertaining to involving their citizens in the life of their respective municipalities. In November 2003 Lille, France, was host to 400 representatives from 114 cities in 24 member countries at the OIDP’s third conference.

Experiments in three cities demonstrate both the common overall goal and the variety of priorities through which it is being sought.

For three years now people who live in Sao Paulo, Brazil (population 10.5 million), have been told that elected municipal officials want to know how they think 10 per cent of the city’s budget, coordinated by sociologist Felix Ruiz Sanchez, should be spent. In that time, 150 new schools and five hospitals in the neighbourhoods most in need of them have been material products of the new participatory democracy in Sao Paulo. Already in 2003, some 80,000 Paulistas have come together in over 450 local community gatherings, and revealed poverty, education and the environment as their greatest concerns.

Five other municipalities in the area of Villa Gesell, a seaside resort in Argentina whose population of 30,000 swells into seven figures in the holiday season, have gone from watching and admiring to emulating that city’s government in making more frequent its participatory meetings. Villa Gesell’s conferences, featuring representatives of the municipality, headed by Luis Baldo, and of the neighbourhoods and an academic, have resulted in evolution of the city’s infrastructure to better accommodate the needs of tourists.

The second urban area of Mons, Belgium, home to some 15,000 to 18,000, has been selected as the laboratory for an experiment in participatory budget-shaping in the spirit of the one in Sao Paulo, overseen by Alexandre Seron and Mayor Elio di Ruo, who doubles as president of the Belgian Socialist party. Mr Seron sees participatory democracy as potentially a definite improvement on the representative kind. The first project arising out of 80 meetings over a year and a half in Mons is a community newspaper.

Participatory budgeting leads to
social inclusion in Porto Alegre
More than ten years ago, the city of Porto Alegre, in southern Brazil, began an innovative experiment that gave community input a crucial role in municipal management. First tried in 1989, ‘participatory budgeting’ gained popularity and was eventually adopted by almost 180 Brazilian municipalities and several other Latin American countries.

The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) recently commissioned a study of the system by the Center for Urban Development Studies of the Harvard University Graduate School of Design to assess the extent to which participatory budgeting is fostering the efficient, democratic allocation of resources and citizen involvement in the planning and management of the localities that use it. The result demonstrates that participatory budgeting is an effective instrument for empowerment and contributes to the IDB’s goal of enhancing social equity.

In a workshop organised by IDB’s Sustainable Development Department, Mona Serageldin, Associate Director of the Center and project team leader, presented her report. The assessment drew on extensive field research in Porto Alegre, other cities and the state of Rio Grande do Sul, the only state to have successfully implemented participatory budgeting.

Ms Serageldin explained how Brazil’s 1988 Constitution gave new authority and a share of national tax receipts to municipalities, prompting some mayors to institute reforms and innovations for sound municipal governance. Subsequent constitutional amendments included the Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2000, which introduced fiscal accountability and transparency at all levels of government, through such measures as public access to fiscal and budget information.

Now required to ensure citizen involvement in local decision-making, municipalities began to experiment with different systems. Porto Alegre’s experiment was so successful that the city gained international recognition as a leader in democratic transparency and accountability in local governance.

The cornerstone of the system is community meetings. These begin in the early spring with preparatory meetings at which the municipality reports on execution of the previous year’s budget and investment plan, and local priorities are discussed. Then two types of meeting are held: at “thematic plenary” meetings, local residents review the state budget and vote on their priorities for investments; at “regular plenary” meetings, they elect delegates who will represent them.

In June, the delegates hold a ‘forum of delegates’ to review projections of the city’s income and expenditures. The delegates also visit the sites for which funding has been requested for works and services in order to assess needs. Then they decide which projects take priority in each area of investment according to specific indicators and a scoring system. Also in June, the newly elected city participatory budgeting council (COP) takes office and submits the priorities to the city government.

During the second half of the year, the COP works with the municipality to harmonise the priorities established by the community delegates with the infrastructure needs identified by the city. Together, the COP and municipality prepare a budget plan and investment and services plan, which are submitted to the mayor and city council for final approval.

In the discussion that followed Mona Serageldin’s presentation, an economist asked whether participatory budgeting was economically efficient. Serageldin stressed that the system is an instrument for social inclusion, not economic efficiency, and her study showed that participatory budgeting has indeed achieved this goal. For example, in the state of Rio Grande do Sul, the neediest groups, which were estimated at 10 per cent of the population, are now receiving 56 per cent of the state housing budget. Since participatory budgeting for housing was introduced in 1996, she pointed out, there has been no squatting because people feel included.

World Mayor 2023