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 haven’t 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 state’s 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 they’d 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 Brazil’s 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 S‹o Paolo, one of the world’s 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 corporate profits.

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.1

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.2

Anyway, the “Alternatives for the Americas” document, driven by worries over NAFTA and the proposed FTAA, reorients FTAA’s 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 don’t think that the group’s able coordinator, Felicity Hill, made it to Porto Alegre, so I don’t 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.3 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. It’s called Participatory Budgeting. “Participatory What?? Give me a break,” you may say, "I’m not an accountant." Well suppose I put it this way—How would you like to distribute 200 million dollars to your fellow citizens?4 That’s 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 budgetingötwo 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 C—rdoba, 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 percent.

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.5

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 person’s 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 follows: “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.”6

SŽrgio 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.”7

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 city’s 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 year’s 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 district’s needs. Representatives from each of the city’s 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 district’s demands and elect councillors to serve on the Municipal Council of the Budget, beginning in May or June.8

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 city’s 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 city’s 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.9

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, that’s the process. It’s 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 what’s 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.10

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”.11 Curitiba is a top-down model city, an architect’s dream made real. Perhaps we will have here a test of democracy versus meritocracy. Curitiba’s beauty and efficiency is already compromised by its builder’s toleration of right-wing death squads—Jaime Lerner is now governor of Paraná, of which Curitiba is the capital.12

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.13 Workers Party candidates may not be immune from bullets paid for by privileged political rivals, especially as the party’s 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 Budgeting.

So, can Brazil’s 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 today’s 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 decide.14

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 hasn’t 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.15 Local church-based organizations like GBIO—the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization founded by Saul Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundation—have had success on sectoral issues like housing, and might be expanded.

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.16 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 Alegre’s, and hope to gain credibility by phantom allocations to a number of key municipal districts, using some of Porto Alegre’s 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 NAFTA’s 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

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. SŽrgio 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.