On March 15, 1985, after 21 years in power, the military regime of Brazil ended as the last military president, Joao Figueiredo, relinquished power to his congressionally elected successor. Although this date serves as the beginning of a new Brazil, much as January 25, 2011 does in Egypt, it belies the long democratic struggle of civil society groups, Brazilian citizens, guerilla movements, students, and reformist politicians that began years before 1985 and continues to this day. Egypt is in a crucial moment of transition. While the Revolution deposed longtime dictator, Hosni Mubarak, the enduring impacts of the Revolution remain unwritten; as was the case in Brazil, it is ultimately the demands of the people and their leaders that will determine its future.
Part of the democratization of Brazil required confronting the legacy of the military regime on governance. The military regime had influence over the relationship between the state and the populous, the rich and the poor, and the overall trajectory of the country. Under the military regime, powerful patronage networks dominated state governance structures and power was highly centralized. The state itself was divisive and exclusionary: the majority of government policies and investments benefitted the richest districts in the country, leaving little for the poor and middle classes (Wampler 2007).
Within the context of a broader political struggle to deepen democracy, reverse social inequalities, and end military rule in Brazil, an urban reform movement emerged in the early 1980s. At first, neighborhood associations, students, the Catholic Church, and other groups focused on local issues, such as housing and land titling, believing that improving Brazil’s urban areas was central to the democratization process in Brazil. In 1985, these movements coalesced under the National Urban Reform Movement and they embraced the idea of the “right to the city” for all and a more equitable distribution of public resources. After opposition movements displaced the military regime and Brazil transitioned to democracy, many political actors turned again to these local citizens and mobilized groups to utilize the ideals of their movements to address desperately needed urban reform (Junior and Uzzo 2010).
It was during this reform period that the progressive Workers’ Party emerged and built a political platform on democratic participation and the promise of redirecting public funds from rich districts to poor and underserved areas. In 1988, after the ratification of the new constitution that allowed for democratic elections and decentralized the fiscal and political authority of the central government to local authorities, the Workers’ Party won several mayoral elections throughout Brazil, one of which was in Porto Alegre, Rio Grande do Sol, a relatively wealthy city of about 1 million inhabitants (Avritzer 2010). At the time, Porto Alegre was bankrupt and the administrative bureaucracy was in shambles (Wampler, 2007). To complicate matters further, the local leaders of the Workers’ Party had little experience with public finance (Novy and Leubolt, 2004)—not so unlike newly active politicians in Egypt today. In response, the Party experimented with open and deliberative governance to not only mobilize and engage its constituency, but as a way to reform Porto Alegre’s administrative structure. Through this experimentation process, the Party established what is now recognized as Participatory Budgeting (PB) (Ganuza and Baiocchi 2012).
Participatory Budgeting is a form of direct-democracy that allows citizens to deliberate, debate, and decide about the allocation of public resources (or a certain percentage of them) while at the same time, mastering the intricacies of government (Shah 2007). In Porto Alegre, PB allowed citizens to determine how some percentage of the municipal budget would be spent. After its widely praised success, PB spread throughout Brazil and ultimately to more than 1,200 cities around the world (Sintomer et al, 2010). Today, even the World Bank promotes PB as a best practice for local governance because of its potential to lead to pro-poor investment, more effective governance, and greater social consensus, providing a forum through which difficult policy reform can emerge (World Bank n.d.).
Despite its potential for improving local governance and its bureaucratic context, PB is at its heart, a political strategy. The Workers’ Party used the PB process to empower citizens, especially poor and marginalized populations, to make decisions that would directly improve their standard of living. In return for this direct participation and their political support, citizens were able to see the government working for them—be it through the construction of a road, a school, or greater allocation of resources to healthcare or housing (Avritzer 2010). PB gave the citizens of Porto Alegre a better understanding of what municipal governments were supposed to do and what their limitations were. They learned the costs of different projects as well as the trade-offs in funding one project over another. PB also served to dismantle the patronage networks dominant under the military regime by building a more diverse, engaged, and capable citizenry. The process opened the black box of governance to the public, forced government officials to respond directly to citizens’ questions and appeals, to defend their positions, and be held accountable for the outcomes of their policies.
PB itself does not guarantee that benefits accrue to marginalized and poor citizens. In fact, PB has been criticized as a process that can easily be co-opted by local government or by politically savvy local elites and organizations to serve their own interests (Souza 2006). Yet, in Porto Alegre, as well as other cities that have adopted PB, the government put in place mechanisms to ensure a just distribution of resources throughout the city. First, after compiling a list of proposed projects from the general population, the elected PB delegation travels as a group to each proposed project site to assess the relative need of each community. Second, the government prepares a quality of life index that weighs factors such as poverty levels, infrastructure quality, and relative affluence in the final decision about which projects to implement (Wampler 2007).
PB has also been credited for helping to reduce corruption in local government. PB not only requires that budgets are made public, but that citizens gain an intricate knowledge of what goes into them, reducing the temptation of government officials to hide funds in the budget for personal benefit. Further, during the PB process, citizens serve as stewards of their own resources. Citizen committees provide direct oversight of contractors during the project implementation phase to mitigate corruption and wastefulness and they monitor project outcomes (Wampler 2007).
Today, Egypt is struggling to find its footing after the fall of the Mubarak regime in January of 2011. The temptation to pay attention to national elections and macro-level economic issues, will likely absorb the interest of most politicians. Surprisingly, public debates and attention still seem to ignore the local level of politics, municipal politics, and the need for local representation throughout Egypt’s towns, cities, and villages.
Municipal governments in Egypt remain filial to the central government, prohibited in practice from making their own decisions or setting their own politics. Mayors and Governors are not elected in Egypt, but appointed. Municipalities are dependent on the state for more than 85 percent of their funds, have extremely limited powers to raise their own revenues, and do not set their own budgets (see Who Pays for Local Administration in Egypt?). As a result of the local administration’s inability to act with autonomy and address the mounting urban challenges in their jurisdiction, citizens have no recourse to address their problems through legal means, and thus resort to extra-legal methods. There is no greater example of this than the informal settlements that are now home to 60 percent of Greater Cairo’s population (Fischer 2009). In the traditional, modernist model of planning practiced by the Egyptian state, these settlements are viewed as a blight that must be “formalized,” “regularized,” or simply torn down. For example, the Cairo 2050 plan, recently renamed the “Greater Cairo Region Development Project,” embodies this type of plan. When grand visions such as these reshape Cairo’s urban fabric, no mention is made of impact on the residents of the city, particularly the poor and marginalized. What if the urban planners were to engage the citizens directly in the planning process? How might this reshape Cairo?
In Porto Alegre in the late 1980s, this is exactly what the Workers’ Party did. They empowered the citizens of their city to determine their own priorities. As a result, the Worker’s Party remained in power for sixteen years in Porto Alegre, refashioning the way the city functioned, improving accountability and transparency in governance, giving citizens reason to work with and trust the government, and promoting a sense of civic responsibility throughout the population. At its height, more than 30,000 people participated annually in the PB process in Porto Alegre (Novy and Leubolt 2005), determining nearly ten percent of the annual budget (Free Speech Radio News 2009).
Among citizens in Cairo, there is a pervasive distrust of government, especially local government. This is in part due to ambiguous information about government, its function, and how the government serves the public interest, but it is also due to the secretive nature of government in Egypt and its traditional disdain for representation and participation. For example, local budgets or state-led urban development plans are not available for public scrutiny or deliberation. Citizens do not know how much money is invested in their community or for what projects. Even the national budget is known only to those at the highest levels of government, and even then on a “need-to-know” basis. This opaque mode of governing breeds corruption and patronage networks (Lindstedt and Naurin 2010). This is reinforced by the fact that there is very little accountability of government officials to the public; they are answerable only to higher-level unelected officials, and ultimately the president himself (Amin and Ebel 2006).
PB is one way that governments can rebuild their trust with the citizens of Egypt. By including citizens in the decision making process for some of the resources that impact their communities—it need not be all decisions—not only will those priorities be closely aligned with the will of the majority of the population, but the citizens may change their opinion of the government, as has happened in Porto Alegre and many other cities in Brazil (Goldfrank 2007).
The promise of PB is not as a governance tool, but in its potential to dramatically reshape the politics of local government. While it would be naïve to accredit PB or the Workers’ Party with the success of that democracy (itself, not without fault), its role as a pro-poor, democratizing strategy is undeniable (Baiocchi 2006 and Avritzer 2010). Egyptians should take note of the Brazilian experience as they shift from an oppressive, authoritarian regime to a struggling democracy.
Political scientists have developed lists of determinants of success for PB initiatives, including an autonomous local government, sufficient locally-controlled resources, the support of the municipal mayor, and an active civil society—all of which are lacking in Egypt (Wampler 2007). But PB itself is not a goal; it is a strategy of empowerment. For two years now, Egyptians raged against a government that listens only through the fossilized structures of the previous regime. Until that structure changes, the people will continue to voice their demands through mass-mobilization and protest. The ultimate success or failure of the revolution lay in the government’s willingness to take heed of citizens’ demands and work with them to shape their communities in ways that serve their own interests. PB may or may not be the answer, but it is a strategy with a history of success and thus relevant to the Egyptian case.
Amin, Khaled Z. and Robert D. Ebel. 2006. Egyptian Intergovernmental Relations and Fiscal Decentralization: Diagnostics and An Agenda for Reform. The World Bank. Washington, DC.
Avritzer, Leonardo. 2010. Living Under Democracy: Participation and its Impact on the Living Conditions of the Poor. Latin American Research Review, Latin American Studies Association.
Baiocchi, Gianpaolo. 2006. “The Citizens of Porto Alegre: In which Marco borrows bus fare and enters politics.” Boston Review. March/April http://bostonreview.net/BR31.2/baiocchi.php
Fischer, Marion. 2009. “A Common Call for Respect and Action.” Cairo’s Informal Areas Between Urban Challenges and Hidden Potentials. Cities Alliance. Last accessed: April 8, 2013. http://www.citiesalliance.org/sites/citiesalliance.org/files/CA_Docs/resources/Cairo%27s%20Informal%20Areas%20Between%20Urban%20Challenges%20and%20Hidden%20Potentials/CairosInformalAreas_fulltext.pdf
Free Speech Radio News. 2009. “Porto Alegre residents return to participatory budgeting” http://fsrn.org/audio/porto-alegre-residents-return-participatory-budgeting/4769 22/5/2009
Ganuza, Ernesto and Baiocchi, Gianpaolo. 2012. “The Power of Ambiguity: How Participatory Budgeting Travels the Globe,” Journal of Public Deliberation: Vol. 8: Iss. 2, Article 8.
Goldfrank, Benjamin. 2007. “Lessons from Latin America’s Experience with Participatory Budgeting.” Participatory Budgeting. Edited by Anwar Shah. World Bank: Washington, DC.
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Ministry of Finance, Egypt. 2013. The Arab Republic of Egypt Ministry of Finance Budget Circular of the Fiscal Year 2012/2013. http://www.mof.gov.eg/MOFGallerySource/English/PDF/circular%202012-13.pdf Last accessed: April 8, 2013.
Novy, Andreas and Bernhard Leubolt. 2005. Participatory Budgeting in Porto Alegre: Social Innovation and the Dialectical Relationship of State and Civil Society. Urban Studies, Vol 42:11, October 2023-2036
Sintomer, Yves and Carsten Herzberg, Giovanni Allegretti and Anja Röcke. 2010. Learning from the South: Participatory Budgeting Worldwide – an Invitation to Global Cooperation. No. 25 in the Dialog Global Services. InWEnt gGmbH – Capacity Building International, Germany. http://www.buergerhaushalt.org/sites/default/files/downloads/LearningfromtheSouth-ParticipatoryBudgetingWorldwide-Study_0.pdf
Souza, Celina. 2002. Brazil’s System of Local Government, Local Finance, and Intergovernmental Relations. EngKaR Research Project 8070. International Development Department of the School of Public Policy, University of Birmingham, UK.
Souza, Marcelo Lopes de. 2006. Together with the state, despite the state, against the state: Social movements as ‘critical urban planning’ agents. City, Vol10:3. December
Wampler, Brian. 2007. “A Guide to Participatory Budgeting.” Participatory Budgeting. Edited by Anwar Shah. World Bank: Washington, DC.
 In its Budget Circular of the Fiscal Year 2012/2013, the Ministry of Finance stated its intention to increase the transparency of its activities and the national budget. “The transparency and disclosure is as it should be characterized by the state’s general budget, the right of everyone to know the contents of the state’s general budget and its guidance, to achieve 25 January 2011 revolution targets it is no longer appropriate to be blocked any expenditures or revenues away from the state’s general budget or aloof from the Treasury Single Account.” (http://www.mof.gov.eg/MOFGallerySource/English/PDF/circular%202012-13.pdf)(Ministry of Finance 2013, 3). Just before the revolution, the government had published a “Citizen’s Budget” under pressure from international NGOs, but the financial information provided was only partial. See TADAMUN’s Budget Transparency and the Citizen Budget of Egypt.
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