Lessons of Porto Alegre
Hilary Wainwright writes in Comment is Free:
Devolving power is one of those feel-good phrases that need to be considered critically if we are to make the most of such announcements. The problem with devolved power is that it can easily be revoked. This is particularly the case if the power and resources of local government are not increased. So how can participatory budgeting – which, Blears insisted, is “not just consultation” – become a foundation stone of a renewed democracy?
It is worth looking more closely at what can be learned from the Brazilian experience. Direct popular participation in decisions over the municipality’s budget for new investments earned Porto Alegre a United Nations prize as the world’s most habitable city, led to a significant redistribution of resources to the poor, and caused such an improvement in the general quality of life that middle-class citizens accepted a tax increase.
As a means of monitoring investments as well as deciding on them, the participatory budget contributed to an impressive improvement in the infrastructure and services as well as in the transparency and efficiency of financial systems. It also proved to be a strong defence against the pressure to privatise public services.