Brazil has recently adopted participatory budgeting (PB) as part of its democratisation programme. But does PB increase the capacity of excluded social groups to influence the decision-making process in the allocation of public resources? This report from the University of Birmingham on PB in Recife, Brazil argues that it does. Also, PB increases access for the poor to basic urban services.
The democratisation of local governments in Brazil was a protracted process that started in the 1980s. During the process the municipal governments became important loci of innovations. Although the 1980s were marked by stagflation and fiscal problems, sub-national governments were granted more fiscal autonomy. The incomes of the poor declined, as a result of austerity measures, but social spending rose and poverty came to the fore as an important issue. PB is one of the important innovations implemented in almost a hundred municipalities in the country that seeks to promote a more transparent and equitable pattern of social spending.
Recife is one of the pioneers in this process and provides an opportunity to look at a number of issues, which cannot be adequately addressed in other case studies. Here, a few participatory arrangements were put in practice, during the transition to democracy. Others were created after democratisation along with PB. These innovations were key to ensuring a voice for the communities in decision-making. Most actors committed to promoting participatory mechanisms argue that their ultimate objective is to expand the range of questions discussed in the programmes. They view these initiatives as a learning process leading to a gradual but radical transformation in urban governance. PB is limited in its magnitude and scope, although the variability between cities is significant.
- It never involves more than a quarter of capital expenditure and its focus is infrastructure and physical rehabilitation of local schools and health facilities.
- There is potential for participatory budgeting to go beyond participation in decision-making.
- For the latter to be effective, however, more than voice in policy-making is required. There have to be mechanisms that link policy implementation and outcomes to decisions and sanctions.
- Accountability stands at the centre between political participation and government performance.
- The budget laws, as approved by the legislature, represent a historical advance in terms of democratisation of urban governments. But there are important limitations to budget laws as accountability mechanisms.
- PB plays an important role in reducing the space for intra-executive bargaining with councillors and private interests.
Although some of the claims and results related to PB deserve more careful reflection and research, PB does increase the capacity of excluded social groups to influence the decision-making regarding the allocation of public resources. In addition:
- It increases the access of the poor to basic urban services and contributes to making local expenditure reflect the priorities of the poor.
- While the accountability mechanisms in the programme are fragile, it allows for consultation and deliberation on the use of public resources.
- Although resources allocated through PB are small, in an extremely unequal society like Brazil, these programmes are one of the few ways of transforming public investments from favours into rights.