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Testing the Empowerment Thesis: The Participatory Budget in Belo Horizonte and Betim, Brazil Author(s): William R.

Nylen Source: Comparative Politics, Vol. 34, No. 2 (Jan., 2002), pp. 127145 Published by: Ph.D. Program in Political Science of the City University of New York Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4146934 Accessed: 14/10/2009 17:24
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Testing the Empowerment Thesis


The Participatory Budget in Belo Horizonte and Betim, Brazil
William R. Nylen Numerous political theorists and practitioners suggest participatory or deliberative democracy as a remedy to the ills of contemporary representative democracy: declining voter turnouts, increasing distrust in democratic politicians and processes, and declining levels of participation in organized civil society.1 They argue that these problems diminish when citizens become directly involved in public policymaking processes, especially at the local or grassroots level where such processes seem more relevant to peoples day-to-day lives. Empowerment is said to occur as initial involvement in one arena of democracy spills over into further participation in other arenas? Can institutional innovations designed to increase citizen participation in public policymaking generate increased participation in organized civil society and/or in democratic party politics? Can participatory institutional reform revitalize representative democracy by empowering the disengaged?
The empowerment thesis can be tested in two case studies of local participatory policymaking in Brazil: the participatory budget (orgamento participativo, OP) in Belo Horizonte and Betim, Minas Gerais. The OP is a participatory process of budgetary planning promoted by Brazils largest Leftist party, the Workers Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, PT), in the cities and states it governs. Citizens are encouraged to attend neighborhood meetings to propose, discuss, and vote on budgetary priorities in the areas of public Works and social services and to elect dele gates to subsequent municipal forums where the sum of neighborhood priorities is debated and put to a final vote. The results are incorporated into the administrations budget proposal and submitted to the city council. An elected council of OP delegates follows subsequent deliberations, as well as the implementation of approved OP projects. An analysis of surveys of 1,998 OP delegates in Belo Horizonte and Betim suggest that the OP, and by implication comparable participatory reforms, may be more efficacious in sustaining and developing existing nonelite political activism than in empowering disengaged or alienated citizens.

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Comparative Politics January 2002 The Problem: Civic Disengagement

According to Putnams description of contemporary civic disengagement in the United States, Americans vote less, trust their government less, and are less involved in community affairs and community~affirming organized group activities than in the past.3 The U.S. shares these traits with many more countries: Canada, Germany, Switzerland, the emerging democracies in the former Soviet Union and eastern Europe, and many of the reemerging democracies of Latin America, especially Venezuela (since 1973), Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, and Brazil.
Brazil is a representative case. Its index of voter alienation (the sum of abstentions and blank and invalid votes) rose from 17.6 percent of eligible voters in 1989 to 33.39 percent in 1994 and 40.19 percent in 1998.5 While voting is mandatory in Brazil, 49 percent of respondents in a 1998 poll said they would not vote if they had the choice. In the same year 75 percent of respondents could not remember for Whom they had voted in the previous congressional elections less than four years earlierfi In another poll from 1998 respondents were asked which institutions contributed most and least to the good of the country; congressmen and senators scored last, far behind bankers, businessmen, and even the armed forces.7 In a 1999 poll of voting age residents of the state of Sao Paulo, 60 percent of respondents said they did not trust the national congress; another 36 percent said they trusted it only a little; 43 percent said they could not trust the president; and another 49 percent said they trusted him only a little! Meanwhile, union membership and participation in the grass-roots organizations and social movements that had played a significant part in democratization processes in the mid to late 1970s and early 1980s declined in the 1980s and 1990s. Finally, civic disengagement in Brazil is reinforced by common practices of vote buying, and much of the participation of political campaigns is bought and paid for by the candidates or parties themselves. Civic disengagement is a problem because, in Jelins words, representative democracies quickly stop being democracies when they do not concern themselves from the outset with creating institutions through which citizen participation and control can Formal democratic institutions, such as political parties and elections, may foster supposedly stability-enhancing intraelite bargaining. But when they coexist with widespread nonelite insecurity and disillusionment, they are in fact weak and unstable. In Latin America they are particularly vulnerable to political and economic elites historically instrumental commitment to democracy, to volatile international economic dynamics, and to the contemporary social polarization generated by neoliberal economics, growing poverty, and increasingly violent crime. T0 the extent that certain groups (for example, the poor and ethnic minorities) are overrepresented among the insecure and disengaged, then democracy becomes correspondingly unrepresentative and undemocratic. Thus, Dominguez and Kinney Giraldo spoke of a crisis of representation among Latin Americas democ

William R. Nylen ratic regimes in the 1990s due in no small part to the inattention to the troubles of the unempowered and the failure to improve the quality of democratic governance.l2 The crisis of representation in Latin America and elsewhere can be seen in the rise of virulent and sometimes violent neopopulist politicians (for example, Pat Buchanan, Jean Marie Le Pen, Alberto Fujimori, and Hugo Chavez), uncivil movements, and other militant antidemocratic organizations.13 They often invoke a benevolent dictatorial savior of the people to clean up dirty democratic politics, similar to arguments historically associated with military interventions and totalitarian regimes. Such appeals are often accompanied by a crusade to exclude or eradicate impure scapegoats, such as foreigners, ethnic minorities, and economic elites. In their desire to avoid politics, the disengaged provide space for neopopulists to gain a foothold in the political arena.

Some analysts reject the problematic nature of civic disengagement. They argue that it actually represents contentment with the status quo or that it is functional to effective governance. Such arguments apply an overly static legal-procedural definition of democracy that emphasizes electoral rules and institutions and the competition of elites for elected office within those rules and institutions.15 This understanding of democracy, however, destroys the true core of its meaning as a dynamic process of continuous political activism on behalf of greater freedom and equity for nonelite individuals and groups vis-a-vis the state and the already incorporated. In Dryzeks words, a democratic polity that ceases its search for further democratization is likely to witness the gradual entrenchment of new classes of various sorts that profit from their stable occupancy of key points in the system, and an impoverishment of political life through its focus on relatively mundane issues of public administration.16 Indeed, nonelite political activism could be seen as a necessary check against inevitable tendencies towards exclusionary elitism in representative democracies.
Democratic reformists throughout the world have shown that they can not accept the antidemocratic and citizen-demobilizing implications of neoliberalism, neopopulism, and academic apologists of civic disengagement. Like neopopulists, they attribute civic disengagement to exploitative and demobilizing traditional power structures, well characterized in the Brazilian case by Hagopian as closed circles of power holders that dominate a range of state institutions and political processes, and that concentrate political as well as economic power within a limited number of families.1" Unlike neopopulists, however, they conclude that democratic politics, no matter how flawed in practice, allow for the possibility of exposing these power structures to the electorate and of implementing policies aimed at diminishing elites power and privileges in favor of the poor and politically excluded majority. At the core of such policies are participatory institutional innovations such as the OP in Brazil. In Latin America, comparable cases can be found elsewhere in Brazil and in Bolivia, Uruguay, Chile, Argentina, Ecuador, and Colombia.

Comparative Politics January 2002 The Participatory Democratic Prescription Alexis de Tocquevilles well-known arguments for political decentralization and democratic civic consciousness raising through local participation have traditionally appealed to liberal and neoliberal thinkers unhappy with big government." Today, however, New Left and communitarian thinkers echo his basic insight: citizens feel most connected with the political system in local secondary institutions, and this sense of connectedness can combat civic disengagement." Unlike most of their liberal and neoliberal counterparts, however, new Tocquevillians recognize that political and administrative decentralization is insufficient in itself to foster solidarity and empowerment among disengaged citizens. In such contexts as rural Latin America and much of the developing world, decentralization can lead to demobilizing forms of local tyranny by local elites and their political machines? It is especially problematic in the political cultures of subservience inculcated among Latin Americas poor by five centuries of patrimonial dominance. Decentralization can also generate an insidious form of modern local tyranny: an exclusionary technocracy of bureaucrats and neoliberal politicians unified under such banners as total quality and best practices. Some new Tocquevillians argue that nongovernmental organizations, social movements, and citizens lobbies~what Habermas called public spheres and Avritzer calls participatory publics-can bring about empowering institutional restructuring from the bottom up by consolidating community identities and interests, by raising the social and political consciousness of their members by making the connection between those identities and interests and the larger social and political system, and by exercising this consciousness vis-1-vis elected officials through grass-roots activism.23 Others argue that leadership from political parties and even sympathetic government leaders (that is, from the top down) is essential if grassroots-based consciousness raising and activism are to move beyond their typically issue-specific origins. In this latter argument (essentially that of the PT in Brazil and most of the New Left in Latin America), representative democracy is essential because only through political parties and elections can people committed to such ideals come together, gain public office, and attempt to implement an empowering participatory model of democracy. Rather than attempt to replace representative democracy or to ignore its contemporary failings, the PTs participatory democratic model proposes a gradualistic democratization of democracy through decentralization and the expansion of opportunities for meaningful citizen participation. All versions of the participatory democratic model, however, assume that participation empowers nonelites, that it strengthens civil society. But while citizens may be led to the waters of political consciousness and activism by way of participatory democratic practices, will they drink? 130

William R. Nylen Brazilian Democratization, the Workers Party, and the Orgamento Participativo

The Workers Party was founded in 1982 towards the end of the twenty-one year bureaucratic-authoritarian regime that had come to power in 1964 in a coup against the populist Left government of Goulart. In the mid 1970s the military initiated a gradual liberalization/democratization in the context of economic problems, gradual withdrawal of elite support, and dissension within its ranks. In 1988 a popularly elected congress promulgated a new constitution. Direct elections for president were held in 1989. Vibrant popular organizing and activism contributed greatly to these events and ultimately to the formation and growth of the PT.26 But while Brazils democratic regime was consolidated in legal-procedural terms by the end of the 1990s, it continued to have problematic elements, including a Weakly institutionalized party system, fragmented social structures and institutions, and the continued dominance of clientelistic and paternalistic political elites. The PT emerged from these events as the largest opposition party in Brazil and the largest party of the Left in Latin America. Early on, party leaders embraced participatory democracy, first, as a mobilizational strategy to attain and hold on to power and, later, for its potential in building democratic citizenship and changing Brazils clientelistic political culture. Municipal and state PT administrations created issue-specific participatory popular councils so that citizens could meet in familiar local settings (for example, neighborhood meeting halls and school buildings), express opinions on issues they deemed important, and channel their opinions into the formal decisionmaking processes.
Arguing in 1989 that nothing was more important to Brazils average citizens than infrastructural development and neighborhood improvement projects, the PT-administered city of Porto Alegre in Rio Grande do Sul created a popular council called the participatory budget}! Tavares describes the way Porto Alegres OP functioned in its first years. Popular assemblies in 16 city zones bring together 10,000 people and 600 grassroots organizations to debate and vote on municipal expenditure priorities [sent by the administration to the city council for approval and revisions]. From a general budget of approximately $465 million, about 31% is divided up in an open, public process involving large numbers of people and interests As a result of this process, the citys residents decided the city should concentrate its resources on legalizing land titles, providing water and sewage to poor communities.., transportation, and environmental clean-up.32

The success of Porto Alegres OP in terms of growing levels of citizen participation, reelection of the PT in Poxto Alegre in 1992 and 1996, and ascension of the PT to the state governorship of Rio Grande do Sul in 1998 generated great interest within the party. Porto Alegres PT seemed to have discovered a means of balancing ideo

Comparative Politics January 2002 logical concerns for promoting empowerment with pragmatic demands that voters perceive government programs to be in their vital interests. While other experiments with the OP were not always so successful, it became a cornerstone policy in virtually every PT-run city and state by the early 1990s. The PT is the only party in Brazil that has systematically embraced the participatory democratic model. Porto Alegres model has been extensively researched and discussed within the party.33 While differing in the details, most if not all PT-administered cities and states, including Betim and Belo Horizonte, have followed the general guidelines of Porto Alegres model. Testing the Empowerment Thesis The thesis that local popular participation empowers traditionally excluded sectors of the population and thereby democratizes representative democracy can be tested using data from a survey distributed to OP delegates in Belo Horizonte and Betim, Minas Gerais, during their 1998 OP proceedings. The analysis is based on the responses of 54.77 percent of Belo Horizontes OP delegates (1,068 of 1,950) and 44.85 percent of Betims (222 of 495).35 Basic characteristics of the respondentssex, level of education, and employment-illustrate the OPs popular composition. Women constituted 44.2 percent of Belo Horizontes and 39.6 percent of Betims delegates; 69 percent of Belo Horizontes and 81.1 percent of Betims delegates had less than a high school education; salaried workers, housewives, the retired, and the unemployed constituted 59.9 percent of Belo Horizontes and 64 percent of Betims delegates. In a country where 75 percent of the population lives in cities, Belo Horizonte and Betim represent two common types: a large capital and a medium size interior city. Both are located in Minas Gerais, Brazils second most populous state, with a geographic area (588,384 square kilometers) slightly smaller than Alaska. Belo Horizonte is Brazils third largest city, with close to three million residents. Only thirty kilometers away, Betim is a medium size city of 300,000; it mushroomed from its small town origins when industry began to locate there in the early l970s.38 Both cities were notable in the 1980s and 19905 for their relatively vibrant economies (first and second in the state measured by tax revenues), but also for their alarming social problems rooted since the 1950s in a sustained rapid influx of poor rural immigrants and a series of income-concentrating economic development models initiated by the federal government. Traditional patron-client relations have long dominated politics in Minas Gerais.39 Belo Horizonte and Betim are, therefore, excellent challenging examples of the effects of participatory reforms within antidemocratic institutions and cul

William R. Nylen tures. They are perhaps better than the much heralded example of Porto Alegre because of the latters mix of positivist, European immigrant, and Left-populist traditions.4 Belo Horizonte was governed by the PT from 1992 until 1996, when it disagreed with its own mayors choice for successor, Vice Mayor Clio de Castro of the Brazilian Socialist Party (Parzido Socialista Brasileiro). Castro won the election, but the PT retained important posts in his government, including the Secretaria de Planejamento, the agency responsible for the OP. In 1998 Belo Horizonte carried out its sixth Orgzamento Participativo. Administration officials claimed that 160,667 citizens had participated in the first five OPs, though this figure no doubt counts those who participated in more than one OP meeting more than once. In 1996 $36.5 million, 7 percent of Belo Ho1izontes budget, was decided under the OP process. By 1998 Betim had been governed by the PT for seven years and was also undertaking its sixth OP process. Official figures indicate that 36,000 Betinense participated in the first three OP processes, although, again, multiple counting was likely. In 1996 the OPs portion of Betims budget was $23.26 million, or 15.15 percent of the tota1."=3

To operationalize the concept of delegates empowerment as stimulated by participation in the OP process, delegates indicated their participation in civil society and political society both at the time of the survey (September 1998) and prior to their election as OP delegates. While causation can not be proven, a significant increase in participation indicates a correlation between participants experience as OP delegates and subsequent or concomitant spillover participation in other social and political organizations (that is, empowerment). This correlation at least suggests a causal relationship between OP involvement and empowerment. Similarly, a significant decline in the number of delegates not participating in organized civil society and/or a decline in those declaring no interest in party politics suggest a movement from political passivity to activism.
Table 1 illustrates the participation of Belo Horizontes and Betims delegates in civil society. Many Belo Horizonte delegates participated, both prior to their OP experience and at the time of the survey, in neighborhood organizations (52.2 and 64.5 percent), in religious groups (40 and 40.1 percent), and to a more limited degree in philanthropic and charity organizations (12.4 and 13.8 percent). Among Belo Horizonte delegates 19.7 percent prior to their OP involvement and 12.2 percent at the time of the survey indicated no participation in organized civil society. The direction of change in Belo Horizonte delegates levels of participation in civil society fits the hypothesis in almost all categories, with the exception of labor union activities. The hypothesis was confirmed by significant increases in other participatory municipal councils in the areas of health, education, and culture (25.3 percent) and in neighborhood associations (23.6 percent) and by a decrease in the none category (37.9 percent).46

Comparative Politics January 2002 Table 1 Civil Society Panicipation The data for Betim also show that a large percentage of delegates participated, both prior to their OP experience and at the time of the survey, in neighborhood organizations (48.4 and 60.8 percent) and in religious groups (40.3 and 38.7 percent). Smaller but still significant rates of participation are shown in philanthropic/charitable organizations (10.2 and 11.3 percent) and in municipal councils (7.5 and 17.2 percent). Indices of none among Betims delegates (18.8 and 9.1 percent) are slightly lower compared with Belo Horizonte. As in Belo Horizonte, the direction of change in levels of participation in Betim fits the hypothesis in most, but not all, categories. Most notable are significant increases in neighborhood associations (25.6 percent) and in municipal councils (128.6 percent). Similarly, delegates claiming no participation in civil society organizations fell 51.4 percent. A significant drop in union participation (46.4 percent) likely reflects a nationwide decline in union membership in the 1980s and 1990s resulting from economic crises and adjustment problems that plagued Brazil from the late 19705.47 The data in Table 1, however, basically support the hypothesized spillover between OP participation and greater participation in organized civil society. Most of this spillover occurred in neighborhood organizations and other local, government-sponsored, participatory processes.

The majority of delegates in both cases were already active in civil society before becoming OP delegates (80.3 percent Belo Horizonte and 81.2 percent in Betim). Relatively few delegates were disengaged from civil society prior to their involvement in the OP. These data challenge claims made by proponents of the OP and the empowerment thesis that participatory processes like the OP address the problems of civic disengagement. Indeed, it would appear that the OP to a great extent preaches to the choir, to the already empowered, and fosters comparatively little new empowerment. This hypothesis-challenging conclusion is bolstered by the fact that the majority of delegates who were inactive in civil society prior to their involvement in the OP were first-time participants in the OP: 82.3 percent in Belo Horizonte and 73.3 per

William R. Nylen

cent in Betim. Only 17.7 percent in Belo Horizonte and 26.7 percent in Betim became veterans by participating for two or more years. If it is assumed that longer participation in the OP resulted in more exposure to democratic political learning, disproportionately fewer pre-OP nonactivist delegates exposed themselves to longerterm political learning. Those most in need of empowerment were the least likely to pursue it. In spite of the relatively small number of delegates who were inactive in civil society prior to their involvement in the OP, and despite their tendency not to remain active in the OP beyond the first year, might not their involvement in the OP still generate higher levels of participation in at least some arenas of organized civil society, as seen in the general population? Did empowerment, defined as a spillover from the OP into civil society activism, in this case, first-time activism, increase? Table 2 reformulates the data from Table 1 by controlling for previous civil society activism. The results do not strengthen the empowerment thesis. First, many delegates inactive in civil society before they participated in the OP remained inactive: 53.7 percent in Belo Horizonte and 40 percent in Betim. There are only two significant increases in participation: sixty-two Belo Horizonte delegates (32.6 percent of those previously inactive in civil society) and fifteen Betim delegates (42.9 percent) became active in neighborhood organizations upon joining the OP, and fourteen Belo Horizonte delegates (7.4 percent) and three Betim delegates (8.6 percent) became active in religious organizations.
The data show that the lions share of the spillover effect from OP participation to participation in organized civil society took place among individuals previously active in civil society. This same group is also the most likely to continue to partici

Table 2 Civil Society Participation by pre-OP Civil Society Activism


Labor Pm-OP Time of Survey 135