Ricardo Libel Waldman578
The participatory budget, first adopted in Porto Alegre, Brasil, in 1989, is an informal consultation procedure in which the city government hears proposals from citizens on issues such as sanitation, housing, pavement, education, social assistance, health, public transportation and traffic, leisure areas, sports and leisure, public lighting, economic development, youth, culture and waste management. Public officials provide technical information to city residents who are divided into groups by region and by issues. Delegates are elected to vote on priorities, which are graded from one to four. The city government has no legal obligation to accept the priorities voted by residents, although the city's organic law requires popular participation in the allocation of the executive budgetary resources.
The aim of this paper is to discuss the role of participatory budgeting in approaching social and ecological justice issues. The participatory budget has important features that point to sustainable governance, such as the ethical commitment to justice and the perception that general participation will not be able to solve all justice questions alone, and thus should be limited, not only by individual ‘and social rights, but also by environmental data.
The great challenge for Porto Alegre is how to ensure genuine and growing participation when the municipal government is required to set limits and when complex information is mostly held by the government and is unavailable to citizens. In addition, this process should undergo statutory regulation so that its misuse is reduced. In this case, participation will increase, but the problems mentioned above may dampen citizens’ enthusiasm and decrease their awareness of relevant information.
The participatory budget in Porto Alegre, capital of the State of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil, is an example of governance that can actually contribute to the solution of social and ecological justice issues. Its history began in 1989, when it was implemented by the Workers Party in the city to effectively include historically disenfranchised groups in the political debate.
There were other participatory budget experiences before, such as the one in Pelotas, a city in the same Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul, but Porto Alegre was the first major city to adopt the process, and its endurance and results have drawn worldwide attention. From fewer than 1,000 participants in its first year, the procedure involved more than 20,000 people by 2000 that directly participated in deciding where the city government will invest its money. In 2008, 10,079 people have officially participated. More than 100 cities in Brazil have adopted it with different degrees of success.
The government of the State Rio Grande do Sul extended participatory budgeting to the decision about State's budget, when the Workers Party was in office from 1998 to 2002. The procedure was highly criticized; the opposition won the next election, and the program was discontinued.
In the past two years, participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre has been conducted by a government controlled by another political party, which cannot be classified as left wing although it calls itself socialist. The participatory budget ensured that several areas of the city, mostly those inhabited by poor people and usually forgotten by municipal governments, had their demands heard and their quality of life improved. This is a major step towards governance that can effectively deal with social justice and, at some level, ecological justice. Therefore, this case study will discuss the role of participatory budgeting in approaching social and ecological justice issues.
Participatory budget is an informal consultation procedure as there is no statutory obligation of the city government to accept the priorities selected by participants, although the city's organic law requires the participation of residents in the allocation of the executive budgetary resources. The government hears citizens' proposals on issues previously selected by the administration, such as sanitation, housing, pavement, education, social assistance, health, public transportation and traffic, leisure areas, sports and leisure, public lighting, economic development, youth, culture, and waste management. Proposals are voted, organized, selected according to technical criteria, and then sent to the Legislative Council as part of the official executive budget for approval.
The procedure works through cycles from March to January. Starting in 1994, changes in the Internal Regiment (the set of rules that governs the participatory procedure) for the next term have been voted at the end of each cycle. Residents are divided into 17 groups by regions, where regional assemblies are conducted. Since 1994, six other issue-oriented assemblies have been conducted yearly to discuss issues that affect the whole city. Technical information is provided by assigned public officials.
The main governing bodies of the participatory budget are:
Participatory Budget's Council: It coordinates the budgeting procedure and supervises the implementation of the participatory budget decisions by the government, according to relevant budget statutes.579 It defines its own bylaws. It is composed of councilors elected in the regional and issue-oriented assemblies, members nominated by associations, and non-voting members appointed by the municipal government. Its members are appointed every July by the Municipal Assembly*.
Regional Assemblies: Starting in 2008, there are 17 regions; each region holds an Assembly, which is a meeting of residents of that region. The Assembly elects priorities among the issues previously selected by the city government, the region's representatives (councilors) in the Participatory Budget Council, and the delegates (one for each ten participants). Delegates have several functions, mostly related to organizing procedures in the region. The delegates are chosen among representatives of associations and other entities according to the proportion of their participation in the assembly. The number of delegates of a given association is proportional to the number of members present at the Regional Assembly. The Assembly also presents specific demands, such as paving of a given street.
Delegates' forums: Meetings of delegates from a given region or assigned to discuss a given issue.
Issue-Oriented Assemblies: Meeting of citizens to discuss and plan issues for the whole city rather than according to regional priorities. Created in 1994, they have the same functions as the Regional Assemblies.
Municipal Assembly: Meeting of all citizens. It appoints the members of the Participatory Budget Council. It is where the final order of priorities and demands (based on criteria that will be explained later in this paper) is presented to the population.
Priorities are voted and graded from one to four. Delegates are elected to determine the order of the priorities according to the following criteria: a) each priority receives a grade value, from one to four; b) all priority grades are added, and the three priorities with the highest grades are then distributed to regions; and c) this distribution depends on general and technical criteria, which are voted by the Participatory Budget Council. The influence of the local government plays a major role in determining this criterion.580
The Participatory Budget Council votes the executive budget bill that will be sent to the municipal legislative council, and follows up its execution. This is the same procedure followed for all executive budgetary bills. Therefore, the process involves citizens, community leaderships, and government officials, and goes beyond writing a budgetary bill to include the follow-up of implementation after approval by the legislative council. From 1990 to date, 1,211 demands related to all participatory budget issues and areas have been approved and fully implemented. The city's Secretary for the Environment was responsible for the implementation of 241 of these demands, mostly conservation issues and creation of parks. Additional ecological justice demands were met, such as the 24 demands related to the revitalization of the Guaíba Lake, whose official name is Guaíba River. These results are promising considering the number of repressed demands that may be easily seen as more urgent by citizens, such as daycare and health centers.
As a result of this process, the poorer areas of the city have received more public housing, pavement, and services. This is explained by the fact that several sectors of society, mostly those represented by (poor) community leaders that participated in the political struggles for democracy and rights before the Constitution of 1988 was passed, used this new political space to press for their demands. The city government, especially in the early days of participatory budgeting, tried to promote the participation of representatives from social movements and neighborhood associations.581 At any rate, most participants are poor people.582
The participatory budget is ethically oriented, and this ethical orientation is not only formal. Its purpose is not only to ensure that all participate under equal conditions, but it is also material since the three general criteria to distribute money are selected by the people: a) lack of services or infrastructure (weight = 4), b) population (weight = 2); and c) the priorities chosen by the region (weight = 5). The purpose of the criteria is to help poor people to improve their quality of life. The lack of services and infrastructure is an objective criterion whose weight is greater than that of the ‘population’ criterion and similar to that assigned to strict majority criteria, such as the priorities chosen by the region. It should be noted that, although the majority criterion is an important standard, some goals of the procedure are previously determined and are not subject to the will of the majority.
Moreover, members of the Participatory Budget Council must have previously been delegates, which is a relevant ethical feature. Council members should have experience. This is a merit criterion, which suggests that besides being popular, representative councilors should have some specific knowledge based on experience and constructed in courses attended when they were delegates.
Another important feature, related to the merit criterion, is that the participatory budget is based on reality. There are technical criteria that objectively determine whether a given priority is feasible or desirable according to facts and laws. For instance, a proposal to regulate real estate property rights is unacceptable if it refers to an area of risk for its inhabitants or the environment, and a proposal to create popular daycare centers depends on the availability of land that belongs to the demanding organization or the city. The government also analyzes the technical viability of the demands.
The participatory budget is informal, the government does not have to implement it, and participation is not mandatory. These features favor the misuse of participation: because not everyone is required to participate, it is easy to organize a group of people to participate in favor of some interests. Such groups may participate in decision making when those opposed to the interests under discussion are not represented because they are not informed that an assembly is going to be held or are unaware of its importance. Such a feature favors those who are organized, but makes it more difficult to include those who are not yet part of ‘organized civil society’. Also, it leaves room for a certain type of blackmail every election: if the opposition wins, popular participation will be discontinued!
The procedure is not error proof and leaves room for contradictions between free democratic debate and distortions of the procedure through undue government influence, mainly because of the differences in level of information and availability of infrastructure between citizens and the state.
Informality also makes it more difficult to maintain stability of rules and to hold those who decide – a small part of the population with no legal mandate – accountable for their decisions. Such characteristics are central to the rule of law, which, in turn, is crucial for sustainability.
The participatory budget is reason for hope because it is a form of governance in which the people and the government can work together for social justice and can use information and education for ecological justice. People are increasingly aware of the importance of protecting the environment and of the fact that such protection sets limits to what human beings may want for themselves. The main virtue of participatory budgeting is that, while democratic, it accepts more or less objective criteria to guide democratic decisions. Therefore, fairer decisions, not only in terms of equal participation, but also in terms of its results, may be made.
For clarity purposes, it is worth listing four sustainability-friendly features of the participatory budge.
1) The need for environmental protection is part of political deliberations, and some criteria in the procedure are about legal and non-legal limitations of deliberation.
A deliberation that disrespects environmental law, for instance, or that is unsustainable because it will raise pollution levels or the production of hazardous wastes should be dismissed. There are channels to do thisin the participatory budget procedures, but there is no guarantee that the right choice will be made.
The crucial aspect, however, is that the system ensures that scientific information will somehow limit democratic decisions to the extent that sustainability, like civil and fundamental rights, is essential to democracy. Democracy should be protected from itself, because it is not an end in itself, but a means for human beings to live the good life, which is, among other things, a life of respect and integration with nature.
2) Sustainable governance must be conceived at a global level, but state and local governments should have autonomy to determine global sustainable governance.
The Brazilian federal system places environmental issues under the common power of federal, state and local governments. Local autonomy cannot mean indifference to global issues, but global policies should allow room for people to adjust these policies to their actual conditions.
3) Informed participation is essential.
Participants who are well-informed and well-educated, both technically and ethically, are essential for a sustainable government. The success of governance at all levels depends on the public debate about the definition of the common good. The Participatory Budget Internal Regiment makes provisions for the formation and information of people who are more directly involved with the procedure (counselors and delegates).
4) A participatory decision-making process ensures common ownership of decisions.
Everyone who takes part in the procedure may think of the results as his or her decision. Objective criteria also ensure that the procedure is consensus oriented, as people can easily see if a region actually has less of a given service or infrastructure that was recommended in participatory budgeting.
Some important features of the participatory budget point to aspects of sustainable governance that should not be ignored: the ethical commitment to justice and the perception that the popular will alone cannot solve all justice questions and should, therefore, be limited not only by individual and social rights, but also by environmental data.
The great challenge for Porto Alegre is how to ensure genuine and growing participation when the municipal government is required to set limits and when complex information, which citizens in general do not have, is mostly held by the government. Related to these issues is the need for statutory regulation of the process so that the misuse of the participatory space and its possible negative effects on participation are reduced. Participation will increase, but the problems mentioned above may dampen citizens' enthusiasm and decrease their awareness of relevant information.
For sustainable governance in general, the questions raised by Porto Alegre's case are similar: 1) how can we ensure effective democratic governance that, at the same time, incorporates values that do not depend on human points of view, although the human point of view is the only one through which we can see the world? And 2) who is going to be responsible for safeguarding these values?
578 Ricardo Libel Waldman has a Master in State Law and Jurisprudence at Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul and a member of the IUCN Commission on Environmental Law, Ethics Specialists Group. He is Assistant Professor at Pontifical Catholic University and Adjunct Professor at University Centre Ritter dos Reis. He lives in Porto Alegre, Brasil.firstname.lastname@example.org
579 In Brazil, there are three types of budget statutes: one plans the State's inversions in the period of five years; another defines budgeting criteria for the next year (for instance, what proportion of State revenue will be spent by each branch of governmental power; and the last establishes the specific revenue and expenditure for the next year.
580 Sobottika, E., ‘Orçamento participativo: conciliando direitos sociais de cidadania e legitimidade do governo’. In Civitas, Porto Alegre, Vol. 4, No. 1, Jan. –Jun., 2004, p. 9.
581 Sobottka, E., ‘Orçamento participativo: conciliando direitos sociais de cidadania e legitimidade do governo’. In Civitas, Porto Alegre, Vol. 4, No. 1, Jan. –Jun., 2004, p. 9.
582 Verle and Brunet apud Sobottka, E. ‘Orçamento participativo: conciliando direitos sociais de cidadania e legitimidade do governo’. In Civitas, Porto Alegre, Vol. 4, No. 1, Jan. –Jun., 2004, p. 10.
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