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January 10, 2007

Yesterday was quite an interesting day for my research on the Participatory Budget.  In the afternoon, I interviewed a government liaison to the program, while in the evening I attended a meeting of the Conselho do Orçamento Participativo, the deliberative body of neighborhood representatives that write up the city’s capital budget.  I got quite different impressions from each source.

Had I not known anything about the current state of the PB before my interview with the government liaison, I would have gotten the impression from him that the PB is just as strong as ever, if not stronger.  He assured me that the Fogaça administration is 100% committed to keeping the PB alive and to making up for the weaknesses left by the previous administration (namely, debt).  The new program that Fogaça has created, Governança Solidária Local (GSL), is intended to complement the PB by bringing new actors into the equation–such as businesses, schools, churches, and civic group–to create partnerships with the capability (i.e., resources) to complete projects that the government doesn’t have enough money for.  The reasoning behind this program is honorable:  in Porto Alegre, a culture of need has developed in which communities only recognize what they lack and not what they possess in terms of human capital–in other words, in terms of their own power to make change for themselves and their neighborhoods.  As such, the government is trying to form partnerships in which various public, private, and non-profit groups, as well as individual citizens, contribute complementary sets of resources towards the completion of projects across the city.  This is a wonderful idea in theory, but in practice I know that it isn’t working very well despite what the liaison told me, for nearly none of the projects identified by the Conselho do Orçamento Participativo (COP) are being implemented, with or without extra-governmental partnerships.

As for the COP meeting, various criticisms, suggestions, and comments were made throughout the evening as each counsillor presented his or her thoughts on the current state of the PB, a process that gradually crescendoed (sp?) into a proposal to go on strike if the government doesn’t show up at the next meeting.  The counsillors became more and more heated in their speeches as they denounced the government’s lack of accountability, commitment, and presence at meetings its representatives are supposed to attend.  During a debate about whether the counsillors should print t-shirts with the PB logo in order to keep the symbol alive in the city, one counsillor hit it head on, in my opinion, when he questioned the t-shirt idea, pointing out that by keeping the PB going without getting any results is like publicizing the Fogaça administration for free–in other words, by maintaining the façade of the PB through their meetings and deliberations, the counsillors enable the administration to tell the world that it involves citizens in its government, when really the citizens’ decisions never get implemented.

I’ll be very interested to see how the coming weeks unfold.  Will the counsillors be able to stomach issuing an ultimatum for something that is so dear to their hearts, not knowing whether going on strike will result in them never coming back to the table?  Will they end up negotiating an acceptable agreement with the administration?  Will things continue as they are without a resolution?

To be continued…


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