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Last Updated: Friday, 6 July 2007, 10:14 GMT 11:14 UK
Budget democracy not new in Brazil
By Gary Duffy
BBC News, Brazil

The UK government is proposing to give people more influence over the way local council budgets in England are spent - an idea that has been around for some time in Brazil.

Refuse collectors in London, England
People could decide how money is spent on services in England

The best known example of this is in Porto Alegre, the capital of the state of Rio Grande Do Sul, and a city which has one of the highest standards of living in the country.

Porto Alegre is the birthplace of the World Social Forum, set up in 2001 to provide an alternative voice to the World Economic Forum in Davos.

But in terms of giving a greater voice to its own people, the city is also associated with an innovative form of "participatory budgeting" that began in 1989. It is sometimes known as "popular administration".

Essentially the scheme aims to involve thousands of people in making decisions about at least some of the spending by their local authority.

It was developed by the Workers Party of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, and other activists, but its strength was such that it has continued even after the party lost power in the city in 2004.

The policy works through public forums in which people can control and guide some of the local budget, specifically money that is set aside for improving quality of life in the area.

The reason the model works in Porto Alegre is that it keys into issues that are important in people's lives
Rebecca Abers
University of Brasilia

There are 16 forums in total, divided by geographical area and there is a parallel process which looks at particular issues or needs.

Each district elects two members to a special budgeting council which helps oversee the process. When both the community and the local government have decided on their priorities, the proposals are sent to local councillors for a final decision, but they normally accept the recommendations.

Local people can also have a say on how and when the proposals are carried out, and the government participates in the whole process providing technical advice if needed and presenting its own requirements.

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva
The scheme was developed by President da Silva's Workers Party

In the first year of operation, early priorities included sanitation and paving and there was often a vigorous debate.

But the scheme was so well received in its initial years, the discussions were opened up to include issues such as transport, urban and economic development, education and culture.

In the year 2000 alone, the process is said to have involved around 30,000 people. In recent years decisions have been made involving hundreds of millions of dollars.

The priority given to sanitation appears to have achieved results - 98% of the city is now connected to the drinking water system for example. In 1989, only 46% of the population had sewer connections, now it has almost doubled to 85%.

Rally at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre
Porto Alegre is the birthplace of the World Social Forum

This kind of local democracy has spread to over 100 municipal areas in Brazil, some reports say more, and to many other places in Latin America, but there are also indications that it has not always had the same results as in Porto Alegre.

"The main weakness is that it is very hard to replicate this - it is not just a question of getting the model right," Rebecca Abers, professor of Political Science at the University of Brasilia, told the BBC News website.

"What they are doing in Porto Alegre is discussing the infrastructure that many cities in England probably already have. The main danger is thinking you can copy the model without adapting it to local circumstances."

"The reason the model works in Porto Alegre is that it keys into issues that are important in people's lives."

Agreement 'difficult'

Rualdo Menegat, a professor at the Institute of Geosciences at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, sees strengths and weaknesses in this kind of decision making.

"What is very good about this is the process of popular participation," he said.

"It established a process that involved all social classes in the city.

"What is not good is that the participative budget made it hard to get a view from the whole city, you sometimes got the perspective of one neighbourhood, and it was difficult to get agreement."

It seems this experiment in democracy has a mixed track record in Brazil, but now in one part of the UK at least, the government believes it is an idea whose time has come.


SEE ALSO
Brazil launches slum reform drive
03 Jul 07 |  Americas
'Alternative Davos' to be annual
29 Jan 01 |  Business

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