People’s Power: Participatory Budgeting from Brazil to Chicago

For more than 20 years, the people of Porto Alegre, Brazil have been directly determining how the city spends it’s money. Chicago’s 49th Ward became the first US community to adopt the practice in 2009, and is now repeating the process.

For more than 20 years, the people of Porto Alegre, Brazil have been directly determining how the city spends it’s money. The process is called participatory budgeting and it is practiced in more than 1,200 municipalities worldwide today. Chicago’s 49th Ward became the first US community to adopt the practice in 2009, and is now repeating the process again this year. We speak to Ines Sommer, a filmmaker and resident of the ward about the process thus far.

Produced by Jesse Freeston.

JESSE FREESTON, PRODUCER, TRNN: In our previous segments with author and journalist Ben Dangl, we discussed the developing conflicts between leftist leaders in South America and some of the social movements that brought them to power in the first place. But the book [Dancing with Dynamite: Social Movements and States in Latin America] also touches on how the methods of Latin American social movements have influenced people in the United States.

BEN DANGL, JOURNALIST AND AUTHOR: The challenges that we face in the north and the south are similar as far as, you know, having corrupt bosses, facing unemployment, terrible economic policies, environmental destruction. In many cases movements, activists, governments, politicians in Latin America have been much more successful at overcoming these obstacles than we have on such a scale in the US. Some successful examples of that are participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre, Brazil, where people have power over how their budgets are organized and spent within their local communities, and that’s pulling political power away from the government and into the communities, where it’s needed the most.

FREESTON: Porto Alegre began the process in the late 1980s. And by 2006, a report from the Worldwatch Institute estimated that more than 1,200 municipalities in the world had adopted participatory budgeting. And by 2009, it had arrived in the United States. The Real News spoke to Ines Sommer, a filmmaker and resident of Chicago’s 49th Ward.

INES SOMMER, FILMMAKER, RESIDENT OF 49TH WARD, CHICAGO: We were all told that there are other municipalities in the world, mainly in South America and some in Europe, that use this process with great results. But we would be the first municipality in the United States to actually try this out. From the beginning it seemed like a very kind of idealistic, almost utopian kind of project, that we as neighborhood residents were allowed to come up with our own projects that then would be voted on by the neighborhood. And some people were kind of suspicious: Why is this being done? Is this worth my effort? Etcetera. But after a while I think a lot of people were won over. And it was really quite an incredible energy, because people got very excited that they were being asked about changes in their own neighborhood. Then people decided to sign up to different committees, and we met for many months and came up with proposals. Those proposals were then being presented in several open meetings and online to the neighborhood. And then I believe in April people came out and could vote on these proposals. The day of the vote was just incredible. There was such an energy there. Nobody knew how many people would show up, maybe 100 people, 200 people, but I think the last count was that it was, like, 1,500 or 1,600 people showed up to vote. And people spent a lot of time at that polling place just reading through all these proposals that had been put together, being very kind of considerate and thoughtful about how they wanted that money to be apportioned.

FREESTON: In 1996, the World Bank reported that after seven years of participatory budgeting at the mayor’s office in Porto Alegre, Brazil, health and education spending had risen from a 13 percent share of the budget to almost 40 percent. In the case of Chicago’s 49th Ward, the city limited their $1.3 million allotment to infrastructure spending only.SOMMER: Projects that got the most votes really had a lot to do with more cultural projects, such as beautiful murals that now grace a lot of the underpasses, or artistic bicycle racks.

FREESTON: Sommer points out that while it’s certainly a more democratic process than having just the elected officials vote, there’s still work to be done to make it fully representative of the community.

SOMMER: Not everybody can really participate. There might be language barriers; there might be the fact that people work two jobs and don’t have the time to participate. So those are all stumbling blocks for sure.

FREESTON: But Sommer was pleased with the steps taken to remove some of the legal barriers to participation.SOMMER: People didn’t have to be of voting age; they could be 16 years old or older, and then they were allowed to vote. And the same was true for residency requirements. So nobody checked if you were an immigrant or not an immigrant, if you were legal, etcetera. So it really opened the door for a lot of participation. My now 17-year-old son, who is a high school senior, decided to return to the participatory budgeting process this year, and he now actually chairs a committee, which is an incredible responsibility for a 17-year-old, and he really feels that there are opportunities for pro-democracy in this country, which is wonderful to see, that, you know, he feels empowered to participate in a process that is really usually just open to adults.