Participation lite: the watering down of people power in Porto Alegre

1 May 2006
TNI
Daniel Chavez
Six years after he first reported from Porto Alegre for Red Pepper, Daniel Chavez returns to the home of 'participatory budgeting' in Brazil to find a struggle taking place over the soul of local democracy that has great relevance to debates in the UK over 'localism' and 'community empowerment'

Between 1988, when the radical Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT, the Workers' Party) won the election for mayor, and 2004, when its candidate was defeated, the government and people of Porto Alegre, the capital of the state of Rio Grande do Sul, developed an exemplary model of democratic local government. I wrote about it for Red Pepper ('Cities for People', June 1999), describing how the idea of the 'participatory budget' was transforming urban residents who had been powerless under the rule of authoritarian and corrupt elites into active subjects with growing power over the decisions shaping their daily lives.

Through 16 years of trial and error, citizens, public servants and elected politicians negotiated a city-wide system of open, participatory decision-making over new public investments to replace the secret, centralised and corrupt ways of traditional local government. In the process the citizens and their local organisations built up what seemed to be a source of public power with a dynamism independent of any particular government. The popular roots of the participatory budget gave it a real influence over government and marked a genuine innovation in democratic practice. It is this popular decision-making power that is now at stake in a very practical conflict over the meaning of participatory budgeting and participatory government more generally. And important though this conflict is for the 1,360,000 inhabitants of Porto Alegre, it also has significance for urban politics across Latin America and the rest of the world.

By the time Porto Alegre was hosting the first World Social Forum in 2001, it had become a global beacon for participatory democracy, winning 'best practice' recognition from mainstream international development agencies such as the World Bank, the United Nations Development Programme and UN-Habitat. In Latin America it is practised - depending on how one defines it - in between 250 and 2,500 municipalities. The smaller figure refers to those cities where the process was implemented as a local government initiative, while the larger number would include all the municipal governments recently required by national laws to consult civil society on budget priorities, as is now prescribed in Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Peru.

The appeal of Porto Alegre has also reached Europe. The potentialities and limitations of participatory democracy in Europe have been tested with mixed results in places as diverse as the small town of Grottamare, on the Adriatic coast, and Seville, the capital of Andalusia. The EU has even allocated substantial funding for the creation of a co-operation network (Urb-Al) between European and Latin American municipalities focused on participatory budgeting. Currently this has 252 members from Latin America and 122 from Europe.

How far the participatory process elsewhere involves the kind of shared power between government and autonomous popular bodies essential to the Porto Alegre model and how far it is merely a process of consultation varies enormously. There have been strong efforts by the World Bank and other mainstream 'development' institutions to attempt to 'pasteurise' the lessons from Porto Alegre, suppressing its original political objectives of deepening democracy and strengthening popular power, by presenting participatory budgeting as just another managerial technology for efficient government. Nowadays, in parts of Latin America and in Europe, even conservative and neo-liberal municipal governments are implementing what they call 'participatory budgeting', all too often as a source of democratic legitimacy as they implement market-driven policies. At the same time, however, the original objectives of the Brazilian left are being taken up by leftists around the world. For example, Ubiratán de Souza, former head of the planning and budget office in Porto Alegre, is currently advising on the extension of participatory budgeting in the framework of the Bolivarian revolution of Venezuela.

The international conflict over the prospects and potential of participatory democracy is nowhere more intense, appropriately enough, than in its birthplace. The heterogeneous local coalition that took office after the PT's electoral defeat in 2004 launched a new institutional scheme called governança solidária local (local solidary governance), which has been praised by the World Bank and the EU but strongly criticised by local NGOs, other civil society organisations and by many of the most active participants in the participatory budget process itself.

During the election campaign, the new mayor, José Fogaça, committed himself to maintaining the PT's participatory budget programme, and also to political and logistical support for the World Social Forum. The catchphrase of Fogaça, a member of the Partido Popular Socialista (PPS, the Socialist People's Party, founded by former communists and until 2004 an ally of the PT in the federal government) and his coalition of 12 parties was Fica o que está bom, muda o que é preciso ('Let's keep whatever is working and let's change whatever is not').

The PT remained the largest single party in Porto Alegre, winning 47 per cent of the vote. Fogaça narrowly won the mayoral election with a strategy that played on a desire for change after 16 years of continuous petista (that is, PT-led) administration while explicitly recognising the left's record of good government. According to Sergio Baierle, one of Brazil's sharper political analysts, 'it wasn't the participatory budgeting process nor the World Social Forum who were defeated in 2004, but the government led by the PT.'

After more than a decade in power, focusing on the social and political dimensions of municipal rule, the left had not paid enough attention to financial sustainability and growing administrative problems. The PT began to lose its political hegemony, first among the middle class and then among those who had been the main beneficiaries of the strategy of 'inverse investment priorities' (prioritising the poorer neighbourhoods and social sectors). The PT mayoral candidate, former mayor (and current PT secretary general) Raul Pont, also pointed to disenchantment with the federal government as contributing to the setback. In his view, 'the anti-PT feeling promoted by the conservative sectors converged with falling expectations and hope after the changes that were expected when Lula took office never materialised.'

The declared commitment of the new mayor to participatory budgeting seems hollow when you look at his background and that of the main figures in the local administration. Fogaça was for many years a paid consultant for Fiergs, the industrial federation of Rio Grande do Sul and the face of big business in the state, and Grupo RBS, the powerful private media conglomerate that controls TV broadcasting and the press in southern Brazil. The new policy co-ordinator of the municipality, César Busatto, was finance secretary in the state government between 1995-1998, when he had been responsible for extensive privatisations and generous fiscal incentives for large corporations.

In recent months César Busatto has given several keynote presentations on citizens' participation at international conferences in Latin America and Europe. But most of the social activists I interviewed in Porto Alegre at the beginning of March - many of them members of the Participatory Budgeting Council, the nucleus of the participatory process, composed of delegates elected from different regions to decide on final budget priorities and negotiate with the muncipal government - saw these frequent declarations as mere pleasantries without substance.

The fate of the participatory budget under the first year of the new administration justifies these doubts. The title of an article published in the December 2005 issue of De Olho no Orçamento (Watching the Budget), a bulletin published by Cidade, the most active local NGO in the field of urban politics, says it all: 'Formality maintained, without the effective contents of direct participation.' The article documents a serious deterioration in the participatory process. Members of the Participatory Budgeting Council complain that the government no longer provides adequate information, that elected and appointed officials no longer attend the local assemblies and that there is generally a decline in accountability around the administration of financial resources and carrying out of public works. These complaints imply a return of the traditional clientelism that used to permeate politics across Brazil, with the vereadores (city councillors) and municipal staff once again doing deals to arrange individualised delivery of public works and services in exchange for political allegiance.

Another sign that the original democratic purpose of the participatory budget is not safe in the hands of the new administration is the recentralisation of decision-making power in the hands of government officials. Felisberto Luisi, a social activist with over a decade of engagement in the process of participatory budgeting, gave me an example: 'Before, the plano plurianual (multi-year investment plan) was discussed by the Participatory Budgeting Council, but in 2005 that plan came already written by the government and we were allowed only two meetings for deliberation. The mayor's office and the Cámara Municipal (City Council) are beginning to take back the power that had been granted to the people.'

Government officials retort that the new commitment to 'local solidary governance' means that deliberation will no longer be restricted to the municipal budget. It will also include the 'social budget' to be contributed by civil society organisations and the business community of the city, including financial, physical and human resources. They also insist that the new strategy aims to include those 'excluded' from the participatory budgeting process - referring to private companies, foundations, universities, churches and public agencies of the state and federal as well as the municipal government. In this context, popular organisations become just one actor among many. Cidade argues that this is tantamount to rejecting 'the importance of the principle of popular sovereignty that always characterised participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre'.

At the same time Fogaça has implemented fiscal austerity measures that put financial stability before the social needs of the poor. Public services are being corporatised, including in the housing and water and sanitation departments, which increasingly operate as private companies. The municipality now also offers tax incentives to large corporations and promotes public-private partnerships as the way to foster urban development.

In spite of the municipal government's efforts to entice the private for-profit sector to be a partner in 'local solidary governance', few of the allegedly excluded sectors have taken an active role. The forums created by the municipality have been attended mostly by representatives of the government and of low-income neighbourhood associations, with thin participation from other sectors. The popular sectors that had sustained participatory budgeting in the past years have turned these meetings into confrontations with the new mayor and his team, pressuring them to meet the obligations of the participatory budget process and subverting their intended new role.

Any politically-aware Briton travelling to the south of Brazil these days would soon realise that there are many similarities between the 'new localism' promoted by New Labour in the UK and Porto Alegre's local solidary governance. Both approaches appear to encourage the devolution of decision-making closer to 'local communities'. In Britain, representatives of the voluntary and community sector are requested to participate in new institutional arrangements such as local strategic partnerships, foundation trusts and neighbourhood management initiatives, with the promise of positive outcomes for service users and the community as a whole. In Porto Alegre, local solidary governance was conceived, in the words of César Busatto, as 'an executive, non-deliberative forum; it is a network created to foster joint responsibility agreements (between private, government and voluntary and community sectors). In this space there is no conflict, no elections, no delegates.'

In Britain, Brazil and elsewhere, however, the real aim seems to be the shift of responsibilities away from the state through 'partnerships' that in practice are a new form of privatisation. This requires the subordination of popular organisations to the rules and interests of the most powerful - large private business, in particular.

At an EU-sponsored international conference (Urb-Al) in Porto Alegre at the beginning of March, members of the Participatory Budgeting Council openly challenged the views of municipal officials and academic 'experts' who had questioned their experience of building participatory democracy.

The supporters of participatory budgeting are divided, though, and many of the most experienced activists have lost their connections with the wider community, contributing to the 'NGO-isation' of the urban movement. At least two new NGOs have been created by past and current members of the Participatory Budgeting Council, with competing strategies and views on urban politics. From the outset, the new political administration has tried to incorporate grassroots leaders and technical staff formerly affiliated with the left, offering them leading positions in the new government.

On the political front, too, the situation is not optimistic. By the late 1990s the left had become increasingly bureaucratised; the Workers Party had tried to compensate for the loss of its social base by co-opting social leaders, starting a cycle that weakened both the party and the movement. More fundamentally, the PT - weakened and atomised by the electoral defeat in Porto Alegre and the wider crisis of the party across Brazil caused by the mensalão (last year's revelations of systemic political corruption by elements of the PT leadership) - has not been able to develop a coherent strategy to deal with the new situation.

In short, after the local defeat of the left in 2004, Porto Alegre has become the scene of a sharp conflict between opposed political strategies. Analysis of the conflict unfolding in the city can help to decode the rhetoric and realities of the latest global wave of 'citizens' participation' and 'community empowerment'. Only by debating the promises and limitations of experiments in popular participation such as this one will we be able to radicalise urban politics and build the foundations for deeper and stronger democracies.