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Mar 23rd
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Home Resources Member Posts Deliberative Approaches to Governance in Latin America

Deliberative Approaches to Governance in Latin America

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by Andrew Selee, Woodrow Wilson Center

Throughout Latin America, municipal governments have been experimenting with participatory approaches to democratic governance that have significant deliberative components. Once thought of as an exercise reserved for small groups with shared interests or small towns with a degree of social cohesion, deliberative democracy is being applied albeit unevenly to formal government structures in towns and cities of different sizes throughout the region in new and innovative ways.

Many of the best-known cases have emerged in cities governed by political parties of the left that have included some form of participatory democracy in their electoral platform. However, a review of experiences in three countries--Mexico, Guatemala, and Brazil--suggests that governments run by political parties of widely different ideological stripes are experimenting with participatory approaches to local governance that have deliberative components. Surprisingly, the reasons for implementing participatory and deliberative forms of governance often have very little to do with a conviction that this sort of approach is the right thing to do, and much more to do with the need to shore up the legitimacy of governments before an increasingly mobilized and skeptical citizenry. Whatever the motivations, these experiments have much to tell us about the potential and limitations of deliberative democracy in complex, pluralistic, and often fragmented municipalities.

Governments run by political parties of widely different ideological stripes are experimenting with participatory approaches to local governance that have deliberative components. Surprisingly, the reasons for implementing participatory and deliberative forms of governance often have very little to do with a conviction that this sort of approach is the right thing to do.

These approaches share several characteristics in common. First, they engage citizens in ongoing participation in the political process between elections. Second, they involve citizens directly or through neighborhood councils in some sort of collective dialogue and decision-making on policy and resource allocation in coordination with elected bodies. Finally, they alter traditional top-down relationships and communication channels between the government and society. They thus enhance the range of issues that are debated within the public sphere and the relationship of the public sphere to the policymaking process. These processes are most successful when they are implemented in the context of a vibrant representative democracy and not seen as an alternative to it. Deliberative and participatory approaches can do a great deal to deepen democracy and strengthen the relationship between citizens and the state, but representative democracy should be seen as the ultimate guarantor of political equality, especially in societies emerging from authoritarian rule.

Cuqu'o, Jalisco, Mexico. In Mexico, several municipalities, both rural and urban, have experimented with new participatory decision-making structures that have important deliberative components. Among these, the largely rural municipality of Cuqu'o, Jalisco is notable because of the creation of the Democratic Municipal Council of Cuqu'o (CODEMUC), an institutional innovation that allows citizens to decide and monitor public investments in local development projects. In each of seventy communities, citizens gather each year in a public assembly to discuss their priorities for municipal investments in their community. These citizen gatherings in turn elect delegates from each zone to a Permanent Municipal Committee, which has responsibility for municipality-wide decision-making on public investments in infrastructure, healthcare, and education.

The result is a complex web of interactions among citizens who have primary responsibility in plenaries for voicing their preferences for government actions and for monitoring these through their elected delegates. This has led to a year-long process through which citizens gather periodically, debate their priorities, and hold their elected leaders accountable for following up on these. This process emerged after the 1992 election of the first-ever opposition government in Cuqu'o, affiliated with the left-of-center Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD).

Solol, Guatemala.In Guatemala, the largely indigenous and rural municipality of Solol? has developed a participatory planning process with a deliberative component. Since the election of a non-partisan civic committee to govern the municipality in 1996, the government has implemented the Unidad T?cn)ecnca Miunicipal (UTM) institution of the municipal government that receives requests from each of the municipalitys sixty-four communities for projects that these communities consider priorities. To make a proposal to the UTM, the community has to organize itself, agree on priorities for projects, and create a committee to develop, negotiate, and oversee the projects. Puente reports that 95% of the communities have had at least one project approved, and that this process has been particularly successful at redirecting municipal investments towards the poorer and more rural communities that have succeeded in organizing themselves collectively within this system.

Porto Alegre, Brazil. Perhaps the best known process of participatory governance with deliberative components is the participatory budgeting process (ÒPBÓ) implemented in Porto Alegre, Brazil. The first municipal administration of the leftist Workers Party (PT) began its participatory budgeting in 1989 (after a frustrated attempt under a previous administration of a different leftist party) as a means of engaging citizens in municipal planning efforts.

Today, the participatory budget allows citizens in their neighborhoods to set priorities for municipal investments and to participate in city-wide bodies that set broad policies and hold the government accountable for execution. The percentage of the municipal budget available for investments has risen from 2% to 20% between 1989 and 1994 and a higher proportion of investments have been targeted to poorer areas today than in the past.

Participatory budgeting has not been limited to Porto Alegre. PB has been used in over a hundred municipalities throughout Brazil, including in Recife, San Andre, and the municipalities of the ABC region around Sao Paulo. These processes are relatively recent, and it is perhaps too early to make conclusions about their success, but they generally include elements similar those of the Porto Alegre process.

These cases are only examples of the kind of municipal innovations taking place throughout Latin America (and elsewhere in the developing world) to generate new, ongoing links between local governments and citizens. Though none were designed specifically as attempts at generating deliberative democracy, all have significant deliberative components which allow citizens within their communities to discuss common priorities and preferences, negotiate them with municipal authorities, and, in most cases, dialogue about priorities and preferences across communities.

Similar participatory processes have been implemented elsewhere, including Quetzaltenango, Guatemala; Montevideo, Uruguay; and (previously) Caracas, Venezuela. In addition, new laws in the state of Oaxaca in Mexico (1995, 1998) and in Guatemala (2002) have institutionalized the decision-making authority of deliberative decision-making processes in some indigenous municipalities usually organized around community assemblies. These processes have often functioned as a parallel authority to official governments, and their recognition as decision-making bodies is an important step both in recognizing demands of indigenous organizations for respect if their customary forms of authority and in institutionalizing a deliberative approach to governance.

Why Is This Happening?
There seem to be three reasons that have influenced the turn towards participatory governance with deliberation in Latin American municipalities. The first is the growing importance of municipalities in Latin America. Historically local governments were stepping stones to higher political office, with little real decision-making authority and few resources. However, starting in the 1980s, most countries in Latin America underwent significant processes of decentralization where municipal governments were given new functions, resources, and authority to make decisions. The collapse of authoritarian governments in Brazil and Guatemala and of a virtual one-party state in Mexico further freed local authorities to make independent decisions at the same time their responsibilities and budgets increased dramatically (a process that was linked to democratization as well as to a desire to make the public sector more efficient). Given their growing importance, citizens began to care much more about municipal politics and to make direct their demands to local authorities that they had previously made primarily to national authorities.

Second, the nature of politics in Latin America changed significantly in the 1980s and 1990s causing political leaders to seek out new ways of bolstering their legitimacy. Serious economic crises in this period undercut clientelistic networks that had linked politicians to voters and generated distrust in the political class as a whole. It also helped generate a series of autonomous grassroots organizations and NGOs skeptical of politicians, brought new demands into the public sphere, and challenged existing political arrangements. Politicians have been desperately looking for ways to reconnect with voters, and municipal leaders have increasingly found that participatory forms of governance give them a legitimacy that old clientelist structures no longer succeed in achieving. Participatory and deliberative approaches to governance have helped create new institutional channels that link leaders with the citizens and give a measure of credibility to the political system, as well as to leaders who implement them.

Finally, deliberative democracy has important intellectual precursors in Latin America which have nurtured many of the most successful and ambitious innovations. Among these precursors are the collective decision-making traditions of many indigenous rural communities. These were often co-opted and manipulated by governing elites and local powerbrokers, but in many rural communities they remain a vivid memory and an aspiration for reformers. Remnants of these traditions remain in community assemblies in some rural areas and recovering these deliberative decision-making processes has been a centerpiece of revitalized indigenous movements in several countries, including Guatemala and Mexico.

In addition, the 1960s and 1970s saw a strong movement in Latin America based on the writings of the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire that placed a strong emphasis on dialogue and deliberation. Popular education, as the movement was generally called, argued that through a combination of practice and reflection, the poor could learn to analyze the world around them collectively, unmask the structures of power that oppressed them, and devise strategies for creating a more just society. Although popular education was unevenly applied, and often symbolic participation masked real top-down decision-making, it had a powerful effect on the way civic organizations, segments of the Catholic Church, and the left thought about politics. Popular education was never really about governing, however; rather it was an approach used to give the oppressed analytical tools to address oppressive situations and confront power, not administer it. Among other things, it assumed that the poor shared common interests (different from the non-poor) and could ÒdiscoverÓ these through dialogue and debate. The emphasis on dialogue in popular education profoundly influenced the development of left-of-center political and civic movements in all four countries and provided an important precursor to much contemporary thinking about deliberative democracy once left-leaning reformers suddenly found themselves in power in municipalities in the 1980s and 1990s.

What Does All This Mean?
It is legitimate to ask whether these processes are really a different kind of deliberative politics or just another way of engaging in adversarial practices of political contestation. The evidence is not complete, but the indications are that something new is, in fact, taking place with the potential to transform the nature of state-society relationsÑand the relations among citizensÑat the local level. In all of the municipalities cited, it appears that the deliberative structures implemented actually do play a significant role in governance. This is most notable in Porto Alegre and Cuqu'o, but it appears to be the case in Solol? and many other municipalities throughout Latin America. In many cases, the resources allocated by participatory processes are minimal compared to total municipal budgets, though they are usually the resources that are of most interest to the poor: funds for local community projects to pave roads, build schools and clinics, install sewer systems, and prevent flooding. These kinds of infrastructure projects represent a fraction of what municipalities do, but it is precisely that fraction that affect the lives of poor and working class citizens directly. In that sense, these bodies seem to have important discretionary authority over key resources, even when these represent a fraction of total municipal resources.

Second, in all of these participatory innovations there are important opportunities for citizens to come together between elections, to discuss preferences and priorities for municipal investment, and to monitor whether these investments are made. This brings citizens together in new ways and brings them into interaction with their local governments in more horizontal processes. The evidence from Porto Alegre and Cuqu'o suggests that considerable debate, dialogue, and collective analysis take place. In all of these municipalities, moreover, there is also a central coordinating mechanism that brings together the different community councils, commissions, or assemblies, allowing for sharing ideas and innovations among communities and providing a certain degree of leverage to ensure compliance with community decisions (monitoring). This provides an opportunity to link deliberation on neighborhood priorities with deliberation on municipality-wide priorities, and it generates fora for discussion among different sectors of society in complex municipal environments. Whether these processes help citizens think beyond individual preferences and address notions of the common good remains to be more thoroughly explored, but the indications seem to be that this is the case.

Finally, it is possible that these processes empower sectors of society that previously had a limited voice in politics. Studies of Porto Alegre, Solol?, and Cuqu'o suggest considerable citizen engagement, tilted slightly toward the poorer sectors of society who have increased the resources they receive from the government over previous periods. However, this may not always be the case. In some instances more organized groups may gain at the expense of less organized groups or groups with ties to political leadership can utilize these participatory processes more effectively. In some cases, local power-holders can co-opt deliberative processes or strongly organized sectors can do so at the expense of the less organized (even when the organized group represents the poor they may marginalize other poor people).

This brings us to an important caveat on participatory and deliberative processes. In municipalities with sharply unequal distribution of wealth and power and where there is a history of authoritarian control by political or economic elites, participatory processes can prove quite susceptible to manipulation by elites. Leaders or political parties with the greatest capacity to mobilize participation may be able to control these processes more effectively than they can control elections, especially if the turnout in deliberative assemblies and community meetings is less than that for the polls on election day. Ultimately, therefore, the success of deliberative processes depends on their subordination to, and calibration with, institutions of representative democracy. These deliberative processes need to be influential enough that citizens feel it is worth their while to participate and that they can monitor the implementation of the decisions they make, yet ultimately these decisions need to be reviewed and vetted by representative bodies. With all of its defects, representative democracy remains the only guarantor of some degree of political equality among citizens.

Deliberative processes are attractive because they engage citizens directly in decision-making on issues (and resources) that are of special concern to them, they potentially provide schools of democracy where the political community can debate ideas of the common good, and they may empower segments of the society who were largely ignored in decision-making previously. But these processes rarely mobilize more than a minority of eligible citizens (much less so than voting) and thus are much more susceptible than voting to the mobilizing capacity of specific groups. It is vital to find a balance between a robust representative democracy that guarantees political equality and the appropriate channels that allow citizens specific direct influence on issues of greatest local concern to them in their communities. This requires both good institutional design and careful vigilance for the implementation of the process.



JPD logoThe Journal of Public Deliberation is a collaboration between the DDC, the International Association for Public Participation (IAP2), and the Center for Civic Discourse and Democracy at Kansas State University. An online, refereed journal, JPD is the flagship publication in its field, and an important catalyst for the rapid growth of interest in democracy, citizenship, and participation. Find it at


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