When the People Decide

Women in Porto Alegre sport the logo of “Orcamento Participativo,” the participatory budgeting process that captured the imagination of the World Social Forum.
Photo by Sarah van Gelder

DIRECT DEMOCRACY CONJURES images of crusty New Englanders arguing in town meetings. But it's happening on a larger scale, and it's a growing movement. Porto Alegre, Brazil (YES! Winter 2003) has used participative budgeting to plan its discretionary spending for 16 years. Thousands of citizens sit through meetings, discuss budget priorities, and elect delegates to represent their neighborhoods—all things Americans claim no sane person would do. Porto Alegre is no sleepy New England village; it's a city of 1.5 million.

The result has been increased civic activity and city budgets which fairly address the needs of the whole city, rather than the wealthy and powerful few. The transparency of the process has eliminated corruption, which had nearly bankrupted the city.

Since the participative budgeting program started:

  • There are 120 public day-care facilities instead of two
  • Fifty-seven new schools have opened; twice as many children attend school
  • The percentage of homes with running water and sewer service has gone from 46 to 85 percent
  • The transit system is modern, affordable, efficient, and widely used.
The Porto Alegre budgeting process is now used in 200 Brazilian cities, including São Paolo, one of the largest cities in the world. If participatory democracy can work at that scale, there's no reason it can't work anywhere, including on the national level.
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