PARTICIPATORY DEMOCRACY in PORTO ALEGRE
by Dave Lewit, Alliance for Democracy
Ramapo College, 27 Feb 2002
A few days ago I heard Episcopal Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa speak in Boston. His
sermon was all about inclusion-- that we must relate to everyone as brothers and sisters, and
not sideline or demonize anyone. Before he started this sermon he greeted everyone present
with a warm thank you for helping to free South Africa--particularly black South Africans
-from the agony of the Apartheid system. Because he repeated freedom several times
without going on to give us an update on that freedom, I shook my head in disbelief. The
American press and television havent featured this, but the hope for freedom with the
withdrawal of a chastened Apartheid government has for several years soured and turned to
bitterness as the new government with Nelson Mandela and then Thabo Mbeki adopted the dogma
of neoliberalism--the dogma of free trade, deregulation, and privatization of state enterprises
like airlines and services like electricity, clinics, drinking water, and mail delivery.
Poor South Africans, who are most South Africans, have had their water and electricity shut off,
their hopes for housing and schools frustrated, their urgent need for HIV-AIDS medicine
frustrated, and so on. These services for which poor people look to the state have been denied to
those who cannot pay unwelcome bills, even though unemployment grows and the state seems to
be reluctant to generate jobs or to ensure basic income. The states actions are consistent with
the neoliberal requirements of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in order to
obtain big loans--a dynamic which has devastated Thailand, Indonesia, Brazil, Russia, and
Argentina and threatens India, Mexico, and so on. For trade in crops, minerals, and
manufactured goods the World Trade Organization demands the same policies which in the end
benefit shareholders in North America, Europe, Japan, and other wealthy countries while
putting the two-thirds world on an economic treadmill. In other words, neoliberalism-
adopted by the South African government in the absence of effective opposition--is a policy of
exclusion, not the inclusion which Bishop Tutu extolls. It is this policy of growth with profits
for the few which has been promoted so blithely by the so-called World Economic Forum, an
annual winter gathering of elites from around the world in Davos, Switzerland, moved this year
to the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York City.
Two years ago certain people in Brazil and France realized that theyd had enough of that latter
day colonialism and decided to stage a World Social Forum at the same time as the World
Economic Forum. They were spearheaded by ATTAC--a French organization dedicated to a
world-wide tax on all international money transactions in order to dampen speculation and to
fund human services or debt retirement--and PT, the Partido dos Trabalhadores or Workers
Party of Brazil, particularly the PT people in the city of Porto Alegre in the south of that vast
country, bordering Uruguay and Argentina. Since the fall of Brazils 20-year dictatorship in
the mid 1980s, the people of Porto Alegre have elected and re-elected PT mayors, while the PT
has also triumphed in many other cities including São Paolo, one of the worlds largest. So
Porto Alegre sponsored and helped to underwrite the World Social Forum in its first year and
again this year.
The motto of the World Social Forum is Another World Is Possible. This appeals to a lot of
people. Last year the organizers expected 2,000 and 12,000 came. This year they expected
20,000 and more than 60,000 came. Next year the WSF will again be in Porto Alegre, and in
2004 it may be in Kerala, India--though will Kerala be able to lodge 100,000 eager delegates?
However that may be, Porto Alegre received this multitude of delegates with open arms. The few
police in evidence were mounted and ceremonial, and there were no soldiers. The march through
the city to the parade grounds, with red banners fluttering, was more like a pleasant stroll than
a demonstration. At the mildly warm parade ground, a determined group had a hard time
inflating a giant hot air balloon bearing the words--in Portugese and English: Your mouth,
fundamental. Speak up, folks, no matter what clown is in the White House. Our social
concerns are paramount.
Another World Is Possible. Did World Social Forum II come up with viable alternatives to
the near-global overlay we refer to as the neoliberal agenda? Actually, the World Social Forum
did not act as one body, did not generate a single document or endorse resolutions as one body.
Instead this forum was more like the Forum in ancient Rome--a place where many views that
broadly fit the motto could be heard and argued in relation to all sorts of expected and unexpected
conditions. Of the 800 or 900 panels and workshops scheduled on dozens of globalization
topics, only a few could be considered alternatives in the sense of a social or political blueprint.
The International Forum on Globalization, a group of advocate-experts based in San Francisco,
including Vandana Shiva of India, Maude Barlow of Canada, Walden Bello of the Philippines,
Colin Hines of the UK, and Martin Khor of Malaysia, and others, offered the document
Alternatives to Economic Globalization. It recommends replacing IMF and the World bank
with an International Finance Organization under the United Nations, several regional Monetary
Funds, an Organization for Corporate Accountability under the UN, and an International
Insolvency Court. It recommends strengthening the International Labor Organization, the UN
Conference on Trade & Development, and the UN Environmental Program.
The Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies, represented by John Cavanagh who is also in
the International Forum on Globalization, led people-oriented organizations in Canada, Mexico,
the US, and South America in developing Alternatives for the Americas. Such a semi-global
proposal makes sense especially in view of FTAA--the proposed Free Trade Area of the
Americas. FTAA, if it comes about, will be based on NAFTA--the North American Free Trade
Agreement--which for seven years now has imposed its corporate iron maiden on Mexico,
Canada, and the US, forcing their Congress or Parliament to alter or repeal laws. Under NAFTA
foreign corporations have sued for as much as a billion dollars annually to compensate them for
business lost or potentially lost to restrictions on trade on account of national concerns for
health, labor rights, clean environment, or any other measure which might stand in the way of
Some of you may have seen the Bill Moyers show Trading Democracy on public TV a few
weeks ago. This dealt with the enforcement features of NAFTA wherein corporations, for the
first time in history, have the right to sue national governments--not their own, mind you, but
governments of one of the other two countries in the Area. They can sue their own government
only under the old rules where that government is sovereign and must give its permission to be
sued by a private organization, and where long-standing constitutional process rules. But of
course they could get one of their foreign subsidiaries to sue under the NAFTA rules. A
corporation (or conceivably an individual) could sue a foreign government in a NAFTA court or
arbitration tribunal where the rules are different--the hearing is closed; there are no
rules of evidence or limits on the otherwise narrow outlooks of the three-man arbitration panel
of trade specialists. (After all, what does arbitrary mean?) Like public relations or
propaganda, the plaintiff corporation gets to decide what evidence or other information, if any,
it will release to the public.
The NAFTA tribunal trumps the constitutions of the constituent countries. The ruling of its
arbitration panel is binding on the country--they must pay the so-called damages or suffer an
official trade boycott from all other countries in the Agreement, which would upset any or all
sectors of their economy. The corporate-driven negotiators of FTAA, the Free Trade Area of the
Americas, want to extend these provisions of NAFTA to the whole Hemisphere. There is a form of
corruption here where, like all recent economic treaties, big business lobbyists secretly get to
draft proposals and stay cozy with Treasury and State Department negotiators while union and
civil society representatives are virtually excluded. When they change jobs, government
negotiators like government regulators often are welcomed into corporate headquarters.
Anyway, the Alternatives for the Americas document, driven by worries over NAFTA and the
proposed FTAA, reorients FTAAs economic concerns with investment, finance, intellectual
property rights, agriculture, market access, services, and dispute resolution, and adds human
rights, environment, labor, immigration, gender, and the role of the state--which are, after
all, emphasized by long-sidetracked United Nations agreements. This document elaborates
objectives of a democratic hemispheric economic system, but does not design institutions or
specify their functional relationships which would enable the system to operate.
At the UN Millennium Forum of Civil Society which met in New York in May of 2000, a group of
37 citizens from many countries produced from scratch a plan called Facing the Challenges of
Globalization, in three days of intensive meetings. Quite comprehensive, it says many things
that the UN should do, that governments should do, and that organizations of civil society should
do. It often specifies roles for such institutions as the UN Economic & Social Council, the UN
Conference on Trade & Development, and a UN International Local Employment & Trading System
(UNILETS). I dont think that the groups able coordinator, Felicity Hill, made it to Porto
Alegre, so I dont think it was represented there.
Over a period of three years I led a diverse group of 14 citizens in debating and constructing A
Common Agreement on Investment and Society as an Alliance for Democracy project, but in the
welter of presentations at Porto Alegre I was unable to squeeze in a workshop in time to be listed
in the program. This proposal is the most specific of these four, describing six new
international institutions and how they may complement one another and interact with
corporations, governments, and civil society. The focus of this system is a network of
eventually thousands of Local System Organizations, locally and democratically controlled and
cooperating with one another and with international agencies including the UN. The general
idea is that localization is the answer to overbearing globalization. The various alternatives
above share this idea, more or less.
Keep in mind that all these documents are for discussion--they are offered as models or
springboards to help local or regional groups get insights into new ways of organizing people and
resources and ideas about systems to benefit all people in a region. No powerhouse of a Congress
is going to take one of these plans intact and spring it on a large population in any democracy.
The ANC in South Africa did that, but their neoliberal plan was backed by some of the most
powerful governments in the world, while plans coming from alternative philosophies are not
widely known and have only potential support.
The main reason I went to Porto Alegre was to hear more about a local alternative to corporate
driven globalization-- an alternative which looks very powerful, very fair, and engages huge
numbers of citizens--a hothouse of democracy. Its called Participatory Budgeting.
Participatory What?? Give me a break, you may say, "Im not an accountant." Well suppose
I put it this way-- How would you like to distribute 200 million dollars to your fellow
citizens? Thats the amount of money the city of Porto Alegre spends in an average year for
housing, public transport, street paving, garbage collection, clinics, hospitals, sewage,
environment, social housing, literacy, schooling, culture, law & order, et cetera. What is to be
done, and exactly for whom? It seemed to me: here is a Local System Organization already
working. Here is a local alternative to top-down, back-scratching, back-room, police-backed
elite business as usual. So in four conference days I went to four sessions on participatory
budgetingtwo large panel sessions, one workshop, and one informal consultation, and one large
panel on participatory democracy more generally. I was not disappointed. In the consultation I
also got some key references-- you can read three very good research and theoretical articles
about PB in Politics & Society, for March 2001--just a year ago.
Before I go into exactly how it works on the ground, let me say that this social experiment has
been very successful, and has spread to more than 100 cities in Brazil and other places like
Montevideo, Uruguay and Córdoba, Argentina. Something like 50,000 residents of Porto
Alegre--poor and middle class, women and men, leftist and centrist--now participate in the
budgeting cycle of this city of a million and a half people--and the numbers of participants have
grown each year since its start 12 years ago. Each year the bulk of new street-paving has gone
to the poorer, outlying districts. When PB started, only 75 percent of homes had running
water, while today 99 percent have treated water and 85 percent have piped sewerage. In seven
years housing assistance jumped from 1700 families to 29,000. In 12 years of participatory
budgeting the number of public schools jumped from 29 to 86, and literacy has reached 98
Apart from such concrete achievements in addressing inequality and exclusion, corruption-
which before was the rule--has disappeared. Democracy has thrived not merely in numbers
participating in various discussion or deliberative bodies, but has included competence in
talking effectively and sympathetically with the mayor, specialists in agencies, and fellow
citizens of different means. Locally, it has been proven that another world is possible.
Here are the words of Luis Carlos Pereira, who has participated in theme conferences on
education and on sports & recreation: In the Partenon region [of the city] he says, there
was no sewerage, school, health clinic, or transportation. Since PB, a reservoir has been built
with six 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 PB process since 1989 as a community and party militant, today
representing PPB. In my region we have done many good things. In general, 85% 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 leading party.
The Participatory Budgeting process has been quickly and flexibly institutionalized. The cycle
starts in January of each year with dozens of assemblies across the city to review the system
and discuss the by-laws, and to become familiar with how the meetings are facilitated for
maximum participation and friendly interaction as well as accomplishment of meeting purposes.
One study of participatory budgeting 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 despite the myth of one big happy family. The major impediments to
participation are a persons time and schedule, such as when the children must be fed. This has
to do with the dynamic of the assemblies as a cultural institution, almost like a church which
has sprung up in a few short years. One experienced participant described the dynamic as
The most important thing is that more and more persons come. Those who come for the
first time are welcome; we have a lot of patience for them, there is no problem, 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 he 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.
Sérgio Baierle, director of the civic organization CIDADE, believes that civil society can indeed
rise above the apathy and distraction fostered by the mass media. Boycotted for years by the
main newspapers, radio stations, and television networks, he says, the Participatory
Budgeting [process] has itself become a popular media form.
During 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 which limit or extend their lives, on a level with their professional or
vocational learnings. This is perhaps an extension of the teachings of Paolo Freire, the
Brazilian priest who enabled peasants to learn to read fast through materials about power,
landlords and politicians, and by a learning process of liberation as much as deliberation.
In March there are plenary assemblies in each of the citys 16 districts or regions.
There is also a series of thematic assemblies, each dealing with a different theme like
government, transportation, health, education, sports, culture, or economic development.
These large meetings, with occasional participation of upward of 1000 persons, elect delegates
to represent specific neighborhoods and to review the previous years projects and budgets. The
mayor and staff attend these meetings to reply to the concerns of citizens about projects in the
district. In subsequent months these 40 or 60 delegates meet in each district on a weekly or
biweekly basis to acquaint themselves with the technical criteria involved in demanding a
project as well as to deliberate about the districts needs. Representatives from each of the
citys departments participate according to their specialties. These smaller intermediary
meetings come to a close when, at a second regional plenary a vote among regional delegates
serves to prioritize the districts demands and elect councillors to serve on the Municipal
Council of the Budget, beginning in May or June.
This 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 propose and approve an overall municipal budget in conjunction with members
of the administration, detailing what each district gets. An essential aspect of this work is
making sure that each district gets city funds according to their needs as the local assemblies see
them. The Council has worked out a matrix of weights according to absolute need and also
priority among the several needs a district votes, balancing across the citys 16 regions, and
they do the necessary arithmetic.
The budget resulting from this discussion, deliberation, and arithmetic is binding in that the
regular City Council, which the Workers Party does not control, 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. The mayor puts the staffs of the
citys departments to work to implement the budget. If there are residual problems the Council
works out changes in the rules of the whole process, returning to their neighborhoods for
feedback. For instance, in recent years some of the changes have broadened the powers of the
Council to cover city personnel expenditures, and changed the criteria for assessing how
resources are to be allocated to each of the districts.
I should add that the internet provides an on-going vehicle of involvement in participatory
budgeting, now extended by Porto Alegre to city planning features like land use and long-term
major investments. The city posts progress reports on all city projects along with budget
figures and expenditures, and a calendar of all meetings. Two hundred thousand residents have
access to the internet, allowing them to interact with city officials and district participants as
well as to follow the process through internet links with each project.
Okay, thats the process. Its inclusive, well-structured, and responsive as a start to a more
democratic and dominant civil society-- in the face of old class divisions and the corporate
driven institutions and practices of neoliberalism. It has begun to overcome the message I saw
on a union-sponsored billboard along the parade route in Porto Alegre: NEOLIBERALISM IS
MASS PRODUCTION (and they show a cemetery full of little stone crosses)--IN BRAZIL,
30,000 CHILDREN DIE ANNUALLY BEFORE THE AGE OF 5. ANOTHER WORLD IS POSSIBLE.
An important by-product of the participatory budgeting process is a burgeoning of civic
activity. As PB 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 whats going on. The value of their
properties in poorer districts is rising. A new city energy of effectance, we might call it,
spawned a campaign to get property owners to pay their taxes, and it worked.
Porto Alegre is one of the best cities in Brazil in which to live. It will be interesting to see how
this plays out in comparison with Curitiba, about 400 miles to the north, much touted by
Hawken, Lovins & Lovins in their book Natural Capitalism. Curitiba is a top-down
model city, an architects dream made real. Perhaps we will have here a test of democracy
versus meritocracy. Curitibas beauty and efficiency is already compromised by its builders
toleration of right-wing death squads--Jaime Lerner is now governor of Paraná, of which
Curitiba is the capital.
The concern and comparison are real. A strong ally of the Workers Party, the dominant party in
Porto Alegre and the state of Rio Grande do Sul to which participatory budgeting has spread
(with 320,000 participants!) is the MST, the landless farmers movement. Often, when these
displaced people have formed communities and have occupied idle farmland, some have been
murdered by pistoleros hired by wealthy landholders, just as shop owners in Rio de Janeiro
have hired paramilitary groups to shoot and kill 5000 street kids. Workers Party
candidates may not be immune from bullets paid for by privileged political rivals, especially as
the partys perennial presidential candate, Lula da Silva, may have a good chance of winning
this October in view of what happened in Argentina as well as the success of Participatory
So, can Brazils participatory democracy experience help the democracy movement in the
United States and around the world? We have plenty of grounds to criticize traditional
representative democracy. The principal issues may be capability of popular mobilization and
engagement in local governmental processes. Mobilization may be easy once some popular
process gets results --consistent results.
There are some major differences which will make difficult any direct translation. One thing
which has made substantial results possible in Brazilian municipalities is a provision of their
1987 constitution requiring a certain percentage of national revenues to be turned over to the
municipalities. We used to have revenue sharing, but todays North American cities and
towns are more on their own for resources. As in Montevideo, citizens may lose interest in
participation in city budgeting unless substantial allocations can be made to projects they
Another major obstacle is our lack of popular progressive political parties. The success of
participatory budgeting in Brazil has been exclusively in those cities which have elected labor
or progressive popular front governments. I hasnt hurt that southern Brazil has been home to
Italian anarchist immigrants and German socialist immigrants. The so-called Republicrat
monopoly in Washington would not necessarily preclude independent party activity at the local
level here, but only a few cities like Milwaukee have elected such governments. Also, the
distance and language barriers against interaction with Brazil are formidable in building a
party, though Sister Cities might present an opportunity. Local church-based
organizations like GBIO--the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization founded by Saul Alinskys
Industrial Areas Foundation--have had success on sectoral issues like housing, and might be
Perhaps the best connection would be in the development of the struggling international labor
solidarity movement, though North American unions--a small minority of them--are only now
beginning to reach out. If they would partner with the likes of GBIO they might achieve working
momentum as a multi-issue group capable of gaining a city hall. Until then the smartness
of participatory budgeting remains to be demonstrated in the US. Perhaps civil society in a few
cities might organize a shadow PB to unofficially develop a city budget similar to Porto
Alegres, and hope to gain credibility by phantom allocations to a number of key municipal
districts, using some of Porto Alegres methods.
We have a tradition of the New England Town Meeting. We have many energetic anarchist youth
to whom PB may appeal. We are often democratic as parents. We are a nation of local problem
solvers. We widely accept the win-win strategic approach. It took Brazil years of
organizing under the dictatorship before the PT and its coalition partners could succeed.
Brazilian and North American conditions may be converging. The income gap is widening here
and we are experiencing the development of a Big Oil and Big Media dictatorship. When we admit
to widespread corruption, albeit a legal variety where candidates and media support
corporate influence and where corporations essentially buy regulatory agencies, the US public
may begin to experiment with local populist parties.
If civic politics is chemistry, then what or who are the catalysts to start the action?
1. [Howard Mann] International Institute for Sustainable Development. Private Rights, Public
Problems: A guide to NAFTAs controversial chapter on investor rights. Winnepeg: IISD, 2001
2. William Greider. Who Will Tell the People: The betrayal of American democracy. New York:
Simon & Schuster, 1992, p.398-
3. Both "A Common Agreement on Investment and Society" and "Facing the Challenges of
Globalization" may be accessed at www.thealliancefordemocracy.org
4. Gianpaolo Baiocchi. Participation, activism, and politics: The Porto Alegre Experiment and
deliberative democratic theory. Politics & Society, 29, 2001, 43-72.
5. Porto Alegre Agora, Jan-Feb 2002, p.8-9.
6. Baiocchi, op. cit., p.65
7. Sérgio Baierle. Participatory budgeting in Thermidor. Unpublished ms. March, 2002
8. Baiocchi, op. cit. Also see Archon Fung & Erik Olin Wright, Deepening democracy:
Innovations in empowered participatory governance, Politics & Society, 29, 2001, 5-41 and
Patrick Heller, Moving the state: The politics of democratic decentralization in Kerala, South
Africa, and Porto Alegre, Politics & Society, 29, 131-163.
9. Baiocchi, op. cit., p.47.
10. Ibid., p.62.
11. Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins & L. Hunter Lovins. Natural Capitalism: Creating the next
industrial revolution. Boston, Little Brown, 1999.
12. Paraná Committee of World Social Forum 2002. The Violence Sponsored by the
Government of Jaime Lerner. WSF, 2002, 15 pp.
13. Instituto del Tercer Mundo (Montevideo, Uruguay). The World Guide 2001/2002. Oxford
(UK), 2001, p.133.
14. Benjamin Goldfrank. The fragile flower of local democracy: A case study of
decentralization/participation in Montevideo. Politics & Society, 30, 2002, 51-83.
15. Daniel Kemmis. The Good City and the Good Life: Renewing the sense of community. Boston,
Houghton Mifflin, 1995.
16. Gyula Nagy. Winning a living wage ordinance from the grassroots. Labor Notes, Jan. 2002.