Deliberation and Participation, A Look at Porto Alegre’s Budget

In the Boston Review, Gianpaolo Baiocchi looks at the experiment in participatory governance, one of many in the world, in Porto Alegre:

Marco is a self-employed handyman in his mid-30s who moved to the city of Porto Alegre from the Brazilian countryside eight years ago. A primary-school-educated son of a farmer, he’d had few opportunities in his small town and had heard about the city’s generous social services. He borrowed money for bus fare and landed in Porto Alegre, where he found construction work. But when his wages wouldn’t cover rent he headed for one of the squatter settlements on the outskirts of the city. He soon moved in with a companheira who sewed clothes and ironed from home. In time his life became more settled, with incremental improvements to the house, small but growing savings, and brisk business owing to his good reputation in the community. Marco’s story of migration, squatting, and survival was unremarkable—until he attended a local meeting on how the city government should invest its money in the region…

Over the years Marco became increasingly involved, bringing many new faces to meetings, helping to start a neighborhood association, and realizing his dream of legalizing the land title to his settlement. Today he and his neighbors are part of a cooperative that collectively owns the titles to the land. And Marco, who had never before participated in a social movement or association, spends hours in meetings every week and can often be found explaining technical details or the exact role of a certain government agency to newcomers.

Participatory budgeting, popularized in Brazil by the Workers’ Party, or PT (Partido dos Trabalhadores), is today practiced in some 200 cities there and dozens of others in Europe, Latin America, and Africa. It has deeply transformed the nature of civic life in Porto Alegre, where one of the first experiments in participatory budgeting was introduced 16 years ago.