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''Small is Beautiful' : Tracking Direct Democracy in Southern Brazil Printable Version PRINTABLE VERSION
by , Canada May 29, 2005
Human Rights   Opinions


The Brazilian city of Porto Alegre has surprised the ranks of academia by undertaking a spectacular and unexpected return to grassroots direct democracy after a long tyrannical rule. Indeed, many answers to the problems of the ill-adapted Western liberal political model are being successfully addressed in the most unequal country of the world.

Long before the promising ascension of the tumultuous yet constrained Lula to the head of the P.T. did the party engage local administration along new lines. Winning office in 1988 in Porto Alegre, state officials immediately took to the streets the 3 million habitant capital city of Rio Grande do Sul to engage communities into a newly created and soon-to-be-famous citizen-driven institution, the participatory budgeting.

Under this frame, a substantial fraction of the municipal monetary resources are moved to a collective fund, whose allocation is voted upon by representatives of the people each neighborhood. At first considered with a dose of skepticism, the innovative policy gradually smoothed doubts in the minds of critics from all socio-economic backgrounds as the beneficial results came about quickly and clearly. The provision of tangible infrastructure and services was granted to the poorest and most remote parts of the city as their inhabitants organized, chose a leader, set up a list of priorities and geared up to discuss them in an open tribune – needless to say, a valuable commitment.

Here, psychosocial effects on marginalized groups of making the public sphere more inclusive and accessible reach the same level of importance than any material improvement. Based on the methods of famous educator Paulo Freire, who spent his life disseminating the very type of civic knowledge poor people need to emancipate and empower themselves, this state-sponsored stimulation of civil society builds human capital in many fashions. It has been observed that, as time goes by, democratic values, such as the spirit of compromise, the desire of participating in a structured discussion and the concern for fairness have been incorporated by segments of the population that are usually deemed as 'illiterate' and 'backwards'.

But how is that all possible? Well, it necessitates a solid structure – exactly what the 18 million-people megapolis of Sao Paulo developed – for many cities in Brazil now have a participatory budget. As explained by Vadao Tagliavini, an informant working on the training manual for representatives, each city is subdivided in districts, and each district sends delegates (whose number go over 1000 in the Brazilian metropolis) to small sections providing interactive and open courses on issues relevant to the public interest. Everything takes place during the weekends, for a total of 15 weeks. Simultaneously, a group of elected counselors, the ones who ultimately deal in person with city officials to defend their geographical district, undertake a more specialized thematic curriculum, in partnership with government workers and academics. Unfortunately, this whole process is very fragile and can (and has been in the case of Sao Paulo) be dismantled as soon as the P.T. stops being the ruling party.

That said, participatory democracy is not made to replace representative democracy, but it nevertheless stands as a worthy complement. Despite the predictable difficulties encountered when one strives to change a region's political culture, the unequaled degree of transparency made possible by the involvement of so many people in public affairs fostered “the total elimination within the municipal budget of the corruption and clientelism that are entrenched in most of Brazilian government and that corrode budget decision-making in particular” as put by Rebecca Abers, Ph. D., specialist on Porto Alegre. It could be argued that there stands the impetus of making this realization more durable.

Individuals around the world make the goal of popularizing this type of governance their own mission statement; the appeal diffused by the success of Porto Alegre, notably, has translated into a domino of stories of implementation of participatory budgeting schemes in places as diverse as Sevilla, Uruguay, and Florence. In Canada, the progressive city of Guelph overviews a system of allocative budget nearly independent from government funding; Montréal MPs are enthusiastic and supportive of the idea, and researchers across Toronto are lobbying the mayor to have 10% of the budget participatory by 2010. With the World Bank now using the buzzword of 'participation' at several instances and with most NGOs not in disagreement, chances are this initiative will soon reach you, wherever you are.



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Je suis étudiante en économie du développement au Canada, présentement volontaire en prise en charge socioéconomique des personnes vivant avec le VIH SIDA au Burkina Faso. Je m'intéresse particulièment aux mouvements sociaux et aux questions d'équité et d'oppression.
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