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In 2002/3 John Jopling and I wrote

Gaian Democracies:

Redefining Globalisation and People-Power

This site introduces its key ideas and some associated topics


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Roy Madron 2005

Leading the Gaian Revolution: Commonsense for Desperate Times


Gaian Democracies: Redefining Globalisation & People-Power by Roy Madron & John Jopling

Roy Madron: Biography

Radio Interview with Jane Taylor, from Resonance FM

Email address: rm(at)

(An Extract from Book 5 of `Leading the Gaian Revolution: Common Sense for Desperate Times´ by Roy Madron)

First, a few paragraphs about (YAWN) Municipal Finance. Not a topic that sets normally the pulses racing, but in this instance, an essential precondition for understanding the significance of the Participative Budget process.

Most of the money that comes into a City or County or State Treasurer’s coffers is already spoken for. It is used to pay the wages of the City’s employees, interest on Municipal Bonds, and meet the on-going costs of buildings, roads, education, social services, police, public transport and thousands of other year-on-year expenses. There is usually however, a certain amount of money available for new initiatives or investments. In a major municipality the amounts can be substantial: tens of millions of pounds or dollars, pesos or – in the case of Brazil – Reals.

Before the Participative Budget processes were invented in Sao Paulo and Porto Alegre in the late 1980s, that spare cash was spent in ways that partly reflected the pecking-order of the Chief Officers, and partly the influence of particular local politicians, business interests and even criminal gangs.

In almost every Municipal Administration in the world, the opportunities for minor or major corruption, patronage and malfeasance are legion – and in Brazil, before the emergence of the PT, (the Workers’ Party) in the mid-1980s, few of those opportunities were neglected.

The Brazilian Workers´ Party

The deep-rooted culture of political corruption condemns tens of millions of Brazilian working people, their communities and their families sinking deeper and deeper into squalor, sickness, crime, corruption, ignorance and misery. Yet, even under military dictatorships, ordinary Brazilians had constantly campaigned for better sanitation, housing, public transport, clean water, street lights, education, health care, employment protection and all the other things that make it possible to live a decent life in modern society. They had set up hundreds of community and campaigning groups, and all of them had fought hard to get the oligarchal governments to pay attention to their plight. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, many of these groups joined together with a new generation of radical trade unionists, liberation theologians, and leading intellectuals to co-create a new political movement – the `Partido dos Trabhaladores’ or PT, in English, the Brazilian Workers’ Party.

The constitution they wrote committed the new party to `the democratisation of power'. Thus when the PT won the Mayoral elections in 37 cities in 1989, the new city leaders and their supporters wanted to see `the democratisation of power', translated into a practical reality in their life-times and in their cities.

In every case, the corrupt conservatives who the PT Mayors had replaced had done their best to leave their incoming administration with no spare money in the budget, a totally inadequate tax base, and a mountain of debts and commitments. In 1989, 98% of the Porto Alegre’s revenue, was already committed to pay the often bloated salaries of city officials. So, the PT came into power in Porto Alegre with a passionate hunger for change that they had little or no money to fulfil. The local newspapers and TV commentators wrote them off as Communists and fantasists, while their opponents sat back and waited for the PT to descend into internal strife and bitterness. However, before coming to power the PT had decided to ask the citizens and community groups to share responsibility for working out how to solve the problems they had inherited. The result was the Participative Budget.

The Participative Budget Process

As one Porto Alegre woman said, ‘a good thing about Brazilians is that we have the courage to try’.

From very modest beginnings, the Participative Budget process started to mobilize the citizens of Porto Alegre and their communities throughout the city, but most especially, in the poorest areas. Every year, it grew. By 1994, 11 thousand people were participating, then 14 thousand in 1995, and 50,000 in 2003. With the additional participation of over a thousand societies, business, professional associations and special interest groups, over a hundred thousand persons out of a population of 1.3 Million were now co-creating and supervising the spending of the city’s Annual Budget.

Moreover, by 2004, some form of the Participative Budget was being implemented in 194 cities and several states in Brazil. There are also PB experiments. in Buenos Aires, Rio Cuarto and Rosario in Argentina, Montevideo in Uruguay, and some of the major cities in Peru, Ecuador, Mexico, Colombia, and El Salvador. In severely modified forms they have even spread to Africa, Asia, Europe, the UK and Canada.

By 2004, the citizens who took part in the Participative Budget process were allocating 15 – 20% of the city’s annual income. The nine-month process involves hundreds of meetings, tens of thousands of participants, hundreds of millions of dollars and reams of papers. It was managed by a large team of administrators, publicists and facilitators. When I visited Porto Alegre there were about 30 full-time employees in the central office and a similar number working at neighbourhood and regional levels. There are also a number of independent urban consultancies that work more or less full-time to help local people make their projects a reality.

How the Participative Budget process works

The process starts in the early Summer, November and December, (remember we are in the Southern hemisphere) with a searching review of the progress of the projects that were approved in the previous year. The citizens also put forward suggestions for how to improve the Participative Budget’s effectiveness in the light of the previous year’s events.

When the Participative Budgets started they were quite simple. Within a few years, however, the annual reviews had caused them to be extensively modified and expanded so as to handle the diversity of the issues involved and the life-circumstances of the participants. Consequently, the Participative Budget process now has a complex matrix structure.

In January and February, the timetables and structure of the current year’s Participative Budget processes are announced. At street level, small groups all over the city small groups of citizens are putting together proposals for nurseries or street lighting or new bus routes or some other small facility that will improve the quality of their lives. Over the next few weeks, they – and similar groups - take their proposals to one of hundreds of community meetings at which they are prioritised and put forward for approval at one of the City’s big Regional events that will be attended by 1000 – 2000 citizens and organisations. The city is divided into sixteen regions. Each Region gets part of the available annual allocation. The poorer, the more deprived the Region, the greater its allocation. The regional events not only select projects for further consideration within the Regional priorities, they also elect Regional Counsellors whose job it will be to oversee the whole process.

To ensure that the projects chosen for financing meet the needs of the citizens, they are weighted according to whether or not they satisfy a set of carefully developed social and technical criteria. The first stage is completed when certain projects have been selected for further development. For the next stage, the proposers start to work with independent specialists and city officials to produce the costings, timings, technical specifications, legal, regulatory and human requirements for turning their basic concept into a reality.

In parallel with the processes for allocating funds to specific local projects, other assemblies take decisions on the funding of city-wide investments under the following headings (or “Themes”): Education Leisure and Cultural Facilities: Public Health and Social Welfare: Public Transport and Circulation: Economic Development and Taxation: City Organisation and Urban Development.

The two processes start to come together between July and September and then, in December, a final list of local and city-wide projects is formally approved and the funds allocated accordingly.

Initially, the process was dominated by the poorest people and the middle-classes seemed not to be interested. With the introduction of the Thematic processes in 1994, however, the interest of the middle classes increased markedly and they are now very adequately represented in the process. Moreover, in a highly machismo culture, it is notable that more than half the participants are women.

The benefits of the Participative Budget process
The Argentine-Canadian political scientist, Daniel Schugurensky lists the main benefits of the Participative Budget process as follows:

1.EQUITY. (Fairness)

The PB rules specify that those who need more receive more and thus helps to ensure fairness in the allocation of municipal resources. The greater the need, the higher the grade assigned to a proposal in the overall ranking. Because of this equity principle, the PB plays a key role in improving the living conditions of many people, especially in poor neighbourhoods. Because, unlike other experiments of participatory democracy, in Porto Alegre the majority of participants are poor, the PB makes some connection between political democracy and economic democracy.


The PB helps to make the state more transparent, accountable, efficient and effective in serving local communities. It has become a partnership between government and civil society, a type of co-governance. It is more transparent because ordinary citizens have a clear grasp of the budget revenues and expenses, and hence there is less room for inflated budgets and other dishonest practices.
Moreover, when transparency increases, corruption decreases drastically. Accountability increases because people can follow up on the decisions made in the budget process, making sure that the quantity and quality of the infrastructure and services delivered are the ones agreed upon. Indeed, the follow up generates a new culture of accountability in government and civil society.
Efficiency and effectiveness increase because decisions are not made on the basis of what authorities think is good for the people, but on the basis of the real needs and dreams of organized communities.


The public, non-state settings of the Participative Budget processes provide a space of encounter for diverse populations who otherwise would be unlikely to meet.

In the beginning, the middle classes stayed away from the PB because they considered that their basic neighbourhood needs were already solved, and thus their concerns were different than poorer residents. Later, however, their participation increased for three reasons.

First, through the Participative Budget it is widely acknowledged that the PT Mayors have increased effectiveness and reduced corruption in the use of public resources. In so doing they have improved the kind of services particularly cherished by the middle classes like garbage collection, public spaces, gardens and parks, and cultural activities.

Second, the public discourse around urban issues and improvements enhanced the self-esteem of the city as a whole, a symbolic urban value.

when the PB opened the thematic areas, the middle classes found a new space to discuss city-wide issues.
The PB also nurtures compassion and solidarity among groups, reinforces social ties, and promotes the collective pursuit of the common good. One strategy for shifting from an exclusive focus on self-interest to a spirit of solidarity is a bus tour that takes place at the beginning of each PB cycle. On the bus trip, participants directly experience the situation of other neighbourhoods. That experience allows them to better understand other perspectives at the time of deliberation, and to be more compassionate at the time of decision-making. Furthermore, with the PB, participants gain a feeling of ownership for the infrastructure and programs in their own communities. In turn, this feeling of ownership nurtures self-confidence, respect for public property and a general pride and caring attitude about their neighbourhoods.


The PB helps to create a collaborative model of governance in which municipal government, the people of the city and local civil society can work together.
Traditional models of governance are characterized by confrontation and co-optation in which all the citizens can do is demand, protest and scream. Sometimes they are heard; most often they are placated through consultations, co-opted through favours and patronage, or repressed. The government diagnoses what is best for each community, sets priorities, allocates the necessary resources and then designs and implements its solutions. It is taken as inevitable that citizens and civil society will complain that the government doesn’t do enough for them, that public monies are wasted in inefficiencies and corruption, that their voices are not heard, that the government priorities are incomprehensible, and that all decisions are guided by electoral politics.
On their part, politicians and officials complain that citizens - aka “the great unwashed” ask for more services and more infrastructure while at the same time demanding lower taxes, which shows not only ignorance of basic budgeting principles but also irrationality. They claim that citizens don’t understand that resources are limited, and that they are unable to set priorities.
The PB reduces those problems, and sets the basis for a more productive relationship between the municipal government and civil society, one based on codetermination, mutual understanding, partnerships and cooperation – a framework that in Latin America is known as ‘social co-responsibility’.


The PB promotes the mobilization of existing groups, individual neighbours entire communities by engaging them on issues that matter to them. Early in the process individuals realize that in order to enhance their participation they also need to organize in a collective, which leads to the formation of new groups. As communities are activated, the social realm is revitalized, a new generation of leaders arises, and organized groups realize their power to change social reality. (This new impetus produces has a liberating effect, individually and collectively). As communities are able to achieve something, they gain confidence in their capacity to influence decisions (political efficacy), they become eager to tackle more ambitious and complex challenges. Many neighbours have become civically active as a result of the PB, and then begin to mobilize around other issues and in other areas.


Through the PB, citizens learn democracy by doing. They acquire a great variety of political skills, knowledge, attitudes and values, and become more democratic, tolerant and caring. They also increase their self-esteem and political efficacy.
The PB challenges the assumption that citizenship learning only takes place in schools, and that this learning stops for most people after school is finished.
The PB redistributes the capacity to influence political decisions from the haves to the have-nots, from the elites to the poor.
Within the PBs, to ensure that this new capacity is not increasingly concentrated in a few leaders, PB representatives have to rotate on a regular basis, giving room for and grooming new generations of community leaders.
As a school of citizenship, the PB began by the demystifying the budget. Before 1989, the budget was perceived as something obscure and highly technical, best left to a selected group of experts. Ordinary citizens were considered incapable of understanding a budget, let alone doing one. As communities have gained political efficacy, they have stopped seeing budgets, laws and policies as things handed down from above, and started believing in their own capacity to propose changes when they see something wrong. Likewise, because the PB makes citizens more alert, critical and aware, and causes resource allocations to be more transparent, it helps to break the traditional ‘clientelistic relationship’ in which politicians and community leaders exchange favours for votes.
The PB makes it much more difficult for politicians to say one thing and do another.
The PB also promotes new values and attitudes, including the preservation of public property, and a reduction in vandalism.

In sum, the PB nurtures a virtuous circle between citizenship learning and participatory democracy: the more people participate in democracy, the more competent and democratic they become, and the more competent and democratic they become, the more equipped they are to improve the quality of the democratic process

The PB is not exempt from problems. How could it be?. There are frequent rows and disputes and accusations of malpractice but over the years these have become fewer as rules for debate and voting, and conflict-resolution have improved. Governments could manipulate the PB process in order to legitimate their decisions, or to ask people to decide only on where to cut public services. Governments might also fail to follow up on people’s decisions.

Porto Alegre has been implementing PB in secondary schools since 1997, and in 2003 Sao Paulo went one step further and introduced `OP Criança’, or ‘Children’s PB’ in elementary schools. to enable them to contribute to their schools´ budgetary decisions.


Licenced under the Creative Commons regime



Roy Madron 2008