What If Citizens Got To Decide the City Budget? Brazil’s Workers Party Tries "Participatory Budgeting"

Brazil will vote for a new president October 6. If the Workers Party (or PT, for Partido dos Trabahadores) wins, South America’s largest country will be governed by a party that was created by the labor movement and dedicated to building movements of workers and the poor.

In cities where the Workers Party already governs, it is known for a program called participatory budgeting. Resting on the principle that citizens have the right to control how their government spends money, participatory budgeting is allowing thousands of people in over 100 cities to make crucial spending decisions about their neighborhoods and cities.

Although it’s no silver bullet for Brazil’s many problems, participatory budgeting could be one answer to the question: how would a labor party run things differently?


The Workers Party was created principally by the CUT, Brazil’s main union federation and one of its most militant. More often than not, it is a Workers Party city administration that first starts a participatory budgeting program. The oldest and best-rooted was begun in Porto Alegre, a city of 1.3 million, in 1989.

Porto Alegre is divided into 16 districts for purposes of the budget. A council is created in each district as a space for citizens to meet and discuss spending priorities. Meetings are open to all.

Citizens set two priorities: district and citywide spending. District spending focuses on specific public works projects in the neighborhood, such as paving streets or improving sewer systems. Citizens identify three priorities, with funds allocated based on population size and need. Need-based allocation of funds means that poorer neighborhoods receive more money than wealthy ones.

The direct connection between spending in the neighborhoods and the local meetings motivates people to participate. If you don’t attend your district meetings, the streetlights you want for your block probably won’t be installed.

Participation in Porto Alegre has grown from around 1,000 in 1990 to 16,000 in 1998 and 40,000 in 1999. William Goldsmith, a professor at Cornell University, says, “At first, only a minority participated. People didn’t think it would work. During the second round, people saw they would be heard from and more started participating.”

Citizens set citywide priorities at meetings of a citywide council. In Porto Alegre, two delegates are elected from each district. Public employee unions and neighborhood associations, as well as citizens representing specific policy areas (like health or education), also have delegates on the citywide council. For 2003, education is Porto Alegre’s number one spending priority, followed by culture, social assistance, and health.


While citizens from all economic backgrounds contribute to the process, researchers from an organization called CIDADE, which studies and helps support participatory budgeting, found that in Porto Alegre in 2000, the poor made up the majority of participants. Forty percent had incomes of one to three times the minimum wage.

At the first annual meeting that year, “only 2.8% of the leaders of Neighborhood Associ ations were members of unions, and only 9.5% of elected delegates and 13.5% of elected PB council members were union members.”

The program, in effect, is an important way that the PT reaches out to the urban poor and other low-income workers who aren’t union members, a practice consistent with the PT’s history as a broad-based, socially conscious party.

A World Bank study found substantial quality-of-life improvements in Porto Alegre:

* Between 1989 and 1996, the percentage of the population with access to water services rose from 80% to 98%.



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* Those served by the municipal sewage system increased from 46% to 85%.

* The number of children enrolled in public schools doubled.

* n poorer neighborhoods, 30 kilometers of roads were paved annually.

* Tax revenue increased by nearly 50 percent, a fact the World Bank attributes to “transparency affecting motivation to pay taxes.”

As important as the concrete gains are education and empowerment. Brian Wampler, an American researcher, calls participatory budgeting a “citizenship school.” “The deliberation is the key-it’s like a New England town hall meeting,” Wampler says. “Brazil is hierarchical. This program creates the capacity to confront politicians in power.”

It becomes much clearer that spending money one place can pre-empt funds for other programs. Should we spend money on schools or health care centers? Paving roads or installing streetlights? Citizens are forced to confront the tough questions.

CIDADE’s Sergio Baierle gives examples: “If some business group wants to partner with the government, why shouldn’t they have to show the advantages of their project to the participatory budget council?

“The Carrefour Supermarket network did it. They negotiated with the local forum a strategy of preserving local commerce that included a training program for employing local residents.”

Baierle also tells how surprised the Catholic bishop of Porto Alegre was when council members did not simply rubberstamp city assistance for a Church building project. “Some people questioned the Church about the possibility of opening land for housing programs in exchange for their support for the project. Others considered the possibility of opening space for small commerce around the sanctuary….

“He realized that here he was supposed to be an equal participant and that he had to argue with good reasons to convince the audience of the public interest of his proposal.”


If the Workers Party wins in October, the new president, Luis da Silva (“Lula”), will face enormous pressures. On August 7, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) announced a $30 billion credit line for Brazil. But the agreement requires the federal government to keep paying down debt and running budget surpluses. The government will be in a fiscal straitjacket, its spending limited as a condition of the IMF loan.

The Workers Party, according to Wampler, is committed to national participatory programs but it is not clear how the IMF credit will affect those plans.

Even in the cities where it exists, the participatory budget usually only controls around 15% of the total budget. And other cities have not necessarily been as successful as Porto Alegre.

But participatory budgeting has created change-in terms of quality of life and empowerment of poor people-in some cities in Brazil. This is a grassroots program with popular support, and its influence is growing.

Micah Maidenberg is a student at Indiana University and a former Labor Notes intern.