Many of us in Canada are inspired by the spirit of Brazilian participatory democracy. But we generally know few details. At the upcoming World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, activists and organizations from around the world will gather to learn more. To get a better handle on the reality of participatory democracy and how it might look in a Canadian context, rabble interviewer Angie Gallop spoke with Professor Daniel Schugurensky from OISE/UT, who has been researching the connections between citizenship learning, participatory democracy and local governance in Porto Alegre, Brazil; Montevideo, Uruguay and Toronto.

What is the biggest challenge for people who are trying to bring a Brazilian-style participatory budget to Canada?

This is a difficult question to answer — I can think of several.

One challenge is that the Brazilian participatory model of Porto Alegre should not be imported uncritically. We need to take into account context, the democratic traditions and the political culture of Canadian cities.

Another will be to persuade municipal governments and elected councillors that this is a good idea. As the Porto Alegre case and many others show, without the political will of those in positions of power, this model is unlikely to be implemented. Democratic participation in local governance does not occur in a vacuum; enabling structures need to be created and sustained over time. This is not an easy task because the prevailing paradigm in many government circles is that the budget is a highly technical process that can only be done by experts.

How can this challenge be overcome?

It can be overcome by a critical mass of people in the municipal government who believe in participation, democracy and accountability, who can reform the state bureaucracy to make it more transparent and citizen-friendly, who are willing to allocate more resources to poor neighbourhoods, who can tolerate conflict and who have faith in the capability of ordinary citizens to contribute to the political process beyond voting every four years.

It is important that the commitment of the government is sustained over time, because the participatory budget takes a few cycles to run well. At the beginning the process is often messy and vulnerable to criticism. The municipal government needs to have the will to face potential pressure to cancel the initiative.

Do you foresee other challenges?

In Porto Alegre, there is a long tradition of grassroots organization, neighbourhood mobilization and citywide coalitions that predate the participatory budget. To a great extent these gave impetus to it. Even during the military regime’s repression and a political culture based on the exchange of votes for favours, several grassroots organizations managed to nurture a new culture of deliberation, self-governance and community action.

During the nineties, many neighbourhood associations learned to move from protest to proposal, engaging with the logic of the municipal budget. This requires a level of trust in the municipal government. In Canadian cities lacking this tradition, it will be a challenge to develop an active engagement at the local level beyond the not-in-my-backyard movements, and to develop a synergistic relationship between neighbourhood associations, social movements and municipal governments.

Also the relative affluence of Canadian cities in comparison to Porto Alegre may inhibit people’s impetus for participation. In Porto Alegre, the single most frequently mentioned reason for engaging in the regional budget processes (almost two thirds of the participants) is a concrete demand for infrastructure or services. The other reasons are fragmented into serving the community, being part of a democracy, learning new things, or representing a neighbourhood association.

This is not an insurmountable challenge because no city is perfect. There is always room to make the environments in which we live more liveable, healthy, democratic and equitable.

Do you think it’s realistic to work towards participatory budgets in Canadian cities?

I think that what is not realistic today may be realistic tomorrow, and the point of political action is to create the conditions for the dawn of that tomorrow. I don’t think the participatory budget was perceived as realistic in Porto Alegre before the 1988 municipal elections. At that time, the city budget was regarded by most people as something obscure and complex, the exclusive domain of technical experts and professional politicians.

I am an optimist by nature and believe there is a constant interplay between reality and possibility.

One woman in a budget assembly in Porto Alegre told me that a good thing about Brazilians is that they have the courage to try. If we are not happy with the way we participate in the decision-making processes that affect our daily lives, with the way resources are allocated in our cities, with the way our cities are being developed and the way transportation is organized, perhaps we could also try. To me, being realistic does not imply becoming paralyzed in the face of adverse circumstances. It implies recognizing the factors that can inhibit and those that can propel a project, and to minimize the first and maximize the second.

Also, let’s not forget that Canada has a long tradition of community participation and public deliberation that can be traced to indigenous communities. The Iroquois had a model of participatory democracy that was at least as sophisticated as the Greek Agora. Some argue it was even more inclusive.

During the 20th century, Canada also developed some social experiments that had international recognition, like the Antigonish Movement in the 1930s, the Citizens’ Forum during the 1940s and the Society We Want during the 1990s, to name a few. To be realistic is also to remember and honour those traditions, and to build, from them, something relevant to the current reality.

Perhaps the best strategy is to start small, and from modest successes build something bigger. Modest successes are important, because they build confidence in people’s capacity to influence political decisions. In some Canadian cities the beginning point may not necessarily be a neighbourhood, but public institutions such as school councils, health councils, libraries, community centres or housing units.

In an article you wrote about grassroots democracy, you talk about how an illiterate Porto Alegre woman told you she found the participatory budget a “real school of citizenship.” What do you think she meant?

In their own “school of citizenship,” people have found they learn political skills at a faster pace and with a greater intensity many skills, values and attitudes that they seldom acquire in school settings. Through the process of participation, they learn to think of their city as a whole, beyond the particular issues of their street or their neighbourhood. They learn the ABCs of democratic deliberation and decision-making: to speak in public, to listen to others, to solve conflicts and to reach agreements. They develop leadership skills as they learn about public administration, community organizing and the workings of the political system in the city. Perhaps more importantly, people learn they can make a difference and this is often translated into new behaviour.

Let me give you an example. One day I was talking with a delegate who told me he had often vandalized public property. Through the participatory budget process, he learned how many public telephones are vandalized per month and how much it costs to repair them. He also learned how many extra school lunches the city could provide with that money. So he started to tell the youth in his neighbourhood that every time they vandalize a telephone there is less food in the schools for them and their siblings.

Another woman I met was from a middle- to upper-class neighbourhood and had been invited to attend a budget session by a neighbour who wanted more lights in their public park. She told me she went ready to vote for lights but then listened to the issues raised by residents from a favela (shanty town) located a kilometer or two from her house. This was the first time she had met these people as fellow citizens — before she had only met them when they came to work for her as plumbers, gardeners, carpenters or maids. They did the job, she paid them and that was the end of the encounter. At the meeting she was persuaded that the open sewage and mice in the schoolyard were more urgent than her park lights. She voted for their demands and because it was a secret vote, her neighbour still doesn’t know.

So we are not necessarily entrenched forever in our own ways of understanding the world and acting on it. Given certain conditions, people are willing to move from their self-interest to the common good.

What could this “real school of citizenship” mean in Canada?

In essence, learning democracy by doing it. To learn a new political culture, based on active citizenship, solidarity and equity. It also means learning new ways to relate to each other and to the government. It provides opportunities that are as broad as possible and enjoyed by as many people as possible so the capacity to influence political decisions is no longer exclusive to so-called “professional citizens.”

It also means learning how to practice democracy in between elections. David Schulman, the coordinator of the Democracy Education Network of Canada, says that we tend to instill in our children two behaviours that are the opposite of what is needed in a healthy democracy: ’don’t talk back’, and ’don’t talk to strangers.’ We discourage dissent, which is the basis of critical thinking and social change, and we discourage openness, which is the basis of tolerance and solidarity.

Most political forums today are not characterized by dialogue but by confrontation. For this reason, Judy Rebick says that nobody changes their mind in formal politics. We need new ways of doing politics. Participatory democracy allows for listening, which is a precondition for learning. The best schools for citizenship are healthy democratic spaces. These are not easy to create and maintain, but are not beyond the scope of human possibility.

How can involving more people, many of whom are not familiar with budgeting, create a coherent budget? Won’t this process just turn to chaos?

Again, we make the road by walking.

In Porto Alegre, when the process started, they had only one page of guidelines with three rules. Now, after 13 years, participants have developed a complex set of more than 50 rules and regulations. Every time delegates and councillors notice an inequity or an abuse of the process, they develop a new rule to protect the integrity of the next budget cycle.

Another issue that has to do with the risk of chaos is at the beginning, the process tends to be demand-driven.

In Porto Alegre, many neighourhoods demanded sewage drains and the city responded with infrastructure. They then realized they were polluting the river and that an additional treatment plant was needed. But they did it after the fact, because the process was demand-driven, without adequate planning to complement it.

To reduce chaos, the participatory process needs the input of technical experts such as urban planners, public administrators, engineers, accountants and lawyers. With time, in Porto Alegre, neighbourhood demands have become integrated into the larger city planning.

The other problem with a demand-driven process is that it can lead to an inflation of demands — the risk that every person wants a subway stop close to his or her door. But no public transportation system can operate like that. One of the first steps in translating our original wish lists into viable demands is to have a clear idea of the municipal revenue amount. When we learn this, we are more able to put demands in perspective.

At the same time, learning about municipal revenues can lead to a better understanding of issues related to provincial and federal transfers, regressive taxation, and the like, which could lead to progressive social action.

I think we have to accept that some degree of disorder and conflict is unavoidable. Any process that involves more than one human being is prone to conflict. Large democratic processes take time and sometimes are messy.

One of the keys is to reach consensus on the rules of the game, to respect those rules, and to be prepared to change them when they are not working.

What are the risks involved in engaging people in the idea of a participatory budget?

There is always a risk of exclusion, that those already familiar with the system and the actors in formal politics are over-represented or are the only ones who participate. This could exclude large sectors of the population which would result in an elitist model.

Then there is the risk that even if you have a good representation of all social groups in the process, those who have more experience in politics, or better oratory ability, will control the process.

One way to avoid the accumulation of power is to rotate delegates and councillors. In Porto Alegre, they can only serve two consecutive terms, which allows for the constant emergence of new leaders.

A related issue is to find deliberation models that are not based on debate, but on dialogue, connections, empathy and relationships. This is particularly relevant if we consider gender dynamics.

It is also important for city officials to have a voice, but not a vote, so that you don’t create a new model in which the final decisions are made by the authorities regardless of public opinion.

Another risk is losing trust because of weak delivery. If the city is unable to deliver the commitments made in the budget process, either because they underestimated revenues, or they suddenly received less funding from the federal or provincial government, people are going to lose faith in the process. This happened in some Brazilian municipalities.

Finally, there is always the risk of extreme competition among neighbourhoods, with little solidarity or understanding of the city as a whole. To me, that is one of the paradoxes of the participatory budget, because it is a model for solidarity that is premised on competition.

One interesting thing they do in Porto Alegre is a “city bus” that gives the new budget councillors a tour of the city the weekend before they start the deliberations. This is an important learning tool during which people begin to understand the city in a different way. This tour helps them to get a whole picture of the city and is important for developing solidarity between neighbourhoods.

What are the potential rewards?

A participatory budget has the potential to nurture a public sphere that is not necessarily an appendix of the state, a sphere controlled by the local communities who collaborate and negotiate with the state and with the business sector. Then the state becomes more transparent, accountable, responsive, inclusive, open to the public and equitable in the allocation of resources.

The other reward has to do with the development of new democratic values among all of us.

Having said that, I want to stress that a participatory budget is not the solution to all social, economic and political problems. It is not even the only solution to the democratic deficit — the low engagement of the public in the democratic process. However, it is a good starting point.