Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Participatory Budgeting Today: Proliferation, Compromise, Diversification

This article, by Dave Lewit, AfD ombudsman and chapter organizer for Boston/Cambridge Alliance, will also appear in the upcoming issue of the chapter's newsletter, the BCA Dispatch. To request a copy, email Dave at dlewit [at] igc.org.

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 their 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 compatriots.

www.participatorybudgeting.org (hosted by US’s Gianpaolo Baiocchi & Josh Lerner)
www.participedia.net (hosted by Archon Fung & Mark Warren; in wikipedia format)
www.tni.org/article/facing-problems-learning-lessons (hosted by UK’s Hilary Wainwright; explore sidebar)
www.sasanet.org/documents/Tools/FAQ Paticipatory Budgeting.pdf (UN handbook on PB)
www.ongcidade.org (hosted by Porto Alegre’s Sergio Baierle; click on English Version)

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