Participatory budgeting has spread across the world with successful cases in Vancouver as well as cases in Europe, but did you know that it all originated in South America?

This participation method is a democratic practice in which a government gives citizens the opportunity to take part in deciding how a percentage of the annual budget is distributed amongst their community. Participatory budgeting began in Porto Alegre, Brazil and has maintained a strong presence and impact in countries across the continent ever since.

Born in Brazil: Porto Alegre

After the authoritarian rule of Brazil ended in 1985, the new institutions felt the need to re-establish trust and dialogue with their citizens. Decentralizing governance was seen as a means to avoid authoritarian excesses and develop citizen engagement locally. With this goal in mind, the plans for participatory budgeting were born.

The 1988 Constitution of Brazil introduced various participation methods to stimulate civic engagement, one being participatory budgeting. Porto Alegre, a city holding a population of 1.3 million in the south of Brazil, was the first to launch a participatory budget in 1989. The process was challenging at first: the administration as running the project on limited funds, and the novelty of the process was such that new internal processes had to be designed. More importantly, participation wasn’t representative: the city’s poorest citizens didn’t have access to information and were cut off from the project. Faced with this issue, local government enlisted community organizers to visit the city’s poorest neighborhoods in order to find leaders and spread information about the process.

Once the participatory budgeting process began, two sets of plenary assemblies took place in the 16 districts of the city.

  • In the first assembly, the local government disseminated general information about the city budget and meetings were held in each of the neighborhoods for citizens to share their priorities.
  • During the second assembly, each district elected four delegates, two members and two alternates, to negotiate among the other districts to form a more solidified list of city-wide priorities.

The municipal budget council finally decided how the budget was distributed amongst the districts based on priorities. In the first two years of participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre, under one thousand people participated. That number jumped to over 20,000 participants in 1992 after the Workers Party won reelection. The participation numbers hover around 30,000 participants today and the city typically delegates around 10 percent of its annual budget toward participatory budgeting.

The spread of participatory budgeting

Following the success of participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre, cities across South America began to incorporate it into their own local governments. Currently, Latin America holds nearly one-third of the world’s participatory budgeting examples.

Villa El Salvador, Peru

Villa El Salvador, a city in Peru with a population of 300, 000 people, put participatory budgeting to the test in the year 2000 as part of an urban development plan after the fall of an authoritarian regime. The participatory budgeting process was a 6-month long ordeal where 42 workshops took place among 1800-2000 community leaders.

“We all – citizens, entrepreneurs, NGOs, authorities – have to consider ourselves protagonists of change, with a shared responsibility to develop our city.”
 â€“ Martin Pumar, Mayor of Villa El Salvador

A poll consulted 48,000 citizens aged 16 years and over to collect data on citizen priorities. The outcomes were then discussed amongst 200 community representatives from various community organizations. A third of the annual city budget, amounting to $570,000, was dedicated to participatory budgeting.

A participatory budget law was passed in 2003 and reformed in 2009 to define a four-step participatory budget process used by the city’s administration. The impact of participatory budgeting in Villa El Salvador can be seen in the strengthened self-esteem in the participants, especially women, and also created an interest in community development. This fulfilled many of the pre-set goals of the participatory budgeting process that were to strengthen local governments as a place of democracy, strengthen citizen participation, promote communication between institutions and citizens to create a plan for the development of the city.

Buenos Aires, Argentina

In Buenos Aires, Argentina, a city of 3 million inhabitants divided into 16 administrative units, participatory budgeting was added to the city’s constitution in 1996. Following an economic crisis in 2001, Buenos Aires used participatory budgeting to restore citizens’ trust in the government. An opening plenary occurred, where those who wanted to participate registered in order to later be able to vote on priorities and elect neighborhood delegates. After the opening plenary, the 16 districts were further divided into 3-4 subunits where priorities were discussed through commissions. Priorities included: education, healthcare, security and community control, culture, socio-economic development, public works, and the environment.

All of the information collected at neighborhood committees was reported at the closing plenary and voted on to rank preference. Priorities of each district were then submitted to the General Direction of the Participatory Budget, where they were added into the Matrix of the Participatory Budget, sent to the city government, and finally incorporated into the budget.

Buenos Aires practiced participatory budgeting until 2006, participation numbers ranging from 4,500 registrations to 14,000. The downfalls to the process were inadequate training of representatives and dissemination of information; therefore, it lost traction. However, participatory budgeting has been revived in 2017 with Buenos Aires dedicating $30 million of the local budget to 25,000 ideas crowdsourced from citizens.

MedellĂ­n, Columbia

From 2004 to 2007, MedellĂ­n, Columbia was plagued with violence, gangs, and drug trafficking. Endemic violence, corruption and the lack of adequate social structures eroded the trust placed by citizens in their local government. In order to reverse this trend and foster positive dialogue, the city implemented participatory budgeting in 2007, requiring 5 percent of the city budget to go toward projects from participatory budgets.

The first step to the participatory budgeting process in MedellĂ­n is citizens meeting and identifying the current problems and priorities that exist in their neighborhoods. From there, they select delegates who are trained and further dissect the priorities of those that they represent, eventually expressing their decisions at the Local Action Board for the Municipal Administration to add to the Annual Plan to eventually be approved by City Council for the following year’s budget.

The participatory budgeting process in Medellín allows the voices of the citizens – regardless of race, gender, sexuality, socio-economic status, etc. – to be heard. Today, 5 percent of the local budget is delegated to participatory budgeting, amounting to 50 million euros spread amongst the 16 municipalities.

Lessons Learned

Introducing a new practice to a government process comes with a lot of trial and error. Porto Alegre kicked off the chronicle of participatory budgeting with a huge success, but that is not the case for every city.

There is a range of motivations behind enacting participatory budgeting in a city. Governments can use them to involve citizens in local decision-making, strengthen civic engagement, calm civil unrest or rebuild trust.

The outcomes of participatory budgeting are also circumstantial, based on the context in which they were enacted. The lack of funds, lack of internal support and organizational issues can prevent participatory budgets from having a lasting impact and even deteriorate the relationship between citizens and their governments. Before launching a participatory budgeting process, governments should ensure that there are enough means to see the project through and that there is the political will to implement the topics defined by citizens. Successful participatory budgeting processes can be a means to increase trust and harmony between governments and citizens, creating more informed decision-making and a stronger democracy.

This summer CitzenLab launched in Chile! We work with local partners to contribute to the development of digital democracy. This has already resulted in several projects, including a participatory budgeting project in Peñalolén.