Fifty thousand residents of Porto Alegre—poor and middle class, women and men, leftist and centrist—now take part in the participatory budgeting process for this city of a million and a half people, and the numbers involved have grown each year since its start in 1989. Then, only 75 percent of homes had running water.
Today 99 percent have treated water and 85 percent have piped sewage. In seven years, housing assistance jumped from 1,700 families to 29,000. In 12 years, the number of public schools increased from 29 to 86, and literacy has reached 98 percent. Each year the bulk of new street-paving projects has gone to the poorer, outlying districts. In addition to these achievements, corruption, which before was the rule, has virtually disappeared.
Democracy is thriving as citizens gain competence in talking with the mayor, specialists in agencies, and fellow citizens of different means.
The participatory budgeting cycle starts in January of each year with dozens of assemblies across the city designed to ensure the system operates with maximum participation and friendly interaction. One study shows that poor people, less well-educated people, and black people are not inhibited in attending and speaking up, even though racial discrimination is strong in Brazil.
One experienced participant described the dynamic as follows: “The most important thing is that more and more people come. Those who come for the first time are welcome. We let them make demands during technical meetings—they can speak their mind and their anxieties. We have patience for it because we were like that once. And if a person has an issue, we set up a meeting for him, and create a commission to accompany him. You have the responsibility of not abandoning him. That is the most important thing.”
Power and learning
Each February there is instruction from city specialists in technical and system aspects of city budgeting.
Regular folks learn fast because what they are learning empowers them to change conditions that limit or extend their lives. This is perhaps an extension of the teachings of Paolo Freire, the Brazilian educator who enabled peasants to quickly learn to read by making use of materials about power, landlords, and politics, and by a learning process of liberation as well as deliberation.
In March there are plenary assemblies in each of the city's 16 districts as well as assemblies dealing with such areas as transportation, health, education, sports, and economic development. These large meetings—with participation that can reach over 1,000—elect delegates to represent specific neighborhoods. The mayor and staff attend to respond to citizen concerns.
In subsequent months these delegates meet weekly or biweekly in each district to acquaint themselves with the technical criteria involved in requesting a project be brought to a district and to deliberate about the district's needs. Representatives from the city's departments participate according to their specialties. These intermediary meetings come to a close when, at a second regional plenary, regional delegates prioritize the district's demands and elect councillors to serve on the Municipal Council of the Budget.
The council is a 42-member forum of representatives of all the districts and thematic meetings. Its main function is to reconcile the demands of each district with available resources, and to propose and approve an overall municipal budget. The resulting budget is binding—the city council can suggest changes but not require them. The budget is submitted to the mayor who may veto it and remand it to the Municipal Council of the Budget, but this has never happened. If there are residual problems, the council works out changes, returning to their neighborhoods for feedback.
The internet provides an ongoing vehicle for involvement in participatory budgeting, which the city now extends to city planning features like land use and long-term major investments. The city posts progress reports, budget updates, and a calendar of all meetings.
An important by-product of the participatory budgeting process is a burgeoning of civic activity. As participatory budgeting developed, the numbers of political, cultural, and neighborhood groups has doubled, especially in poorer districts where results of self-generated new city expenditures are remarkable. People in wealthier districts also like what's going on. The value of their properties in poorer districts is rising. A new city “energy of accomplishment” spawned a campaign to get property owners to pay their taxes, and it worked.
A livable city
Porto Alegre is one of the most livable cities in Brazil. The experiment has spread to more than 100 cities in Brazil and also to Montevideo, Uruguay and Cürdoba, Argentina. Here are the words of participant Luis Carlos Pereira about the changes he's seen in his neighborhood: Before participatory budgeting, “there was no sewer, school, health clinic, or transportation. Now, a reservoir has been built with 6 million liters of water, the streets have been paved, and a school opened.”
Eloah dos Santos Alves, a white-haired woman from the Leste region of the city, says “I have participated in the participatory budgeting process since 1989. In general, 85 percent of the needs have been met. We have a recycling warehouse, schools, day cares, and medical clinics. And I would like to let everyone know that I have never been treated differently for not being part of the PT”—the Workers' Party, whose candidate, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was elected president of Brazil on October 27, 2002.