By Benjamin Bradlow, SDI Secretariat
Even in the Athenian demos, representation was never universal. Only once you crossed the threshold of citizenship — to be land-owning and a male — then the democratic promises of political space and opportunity for voice became a reality. Theories of participation can be of varying utility depending on the extent to which they address the extent to which deeper values of participation are embedded in the institutional structures designed to enhance such approaches. By deeper values, I am, in part, referring to similarly broad constructs such as “inclusion.” But I am also concerned with something much more practical. The key question for me is how does government build an active citizenry through making the everyday tasks of governance both more effective and more empowering.
We can think of inclusion around three broad themes of governance: finance, planning, and politics. Finance includes activities like budget allocations, raising capital for projects, and management and disbursement of funds. Planning includes information gathering, as well as project planning and implementation. Politics includes accessing public voice, as well as the influence of this voice in setting general political priorities of individual institutions and social agglomerations such as states.
One democratic “innovation” that has been the subject of many academic studies has been participatory budgeting. This approach puts ordinary citizens in rather close proximity to decision-making around finances (or at least some designated pool of money usually at the city level). The most prominent example of participatory budgeting is in Porto Alegre, Brazil. There, three scales of administration characterize the approach: (1) popular assemblies, which are constituted at neighborhood and regional levels, (2) regional budget forums, (3) a municipal budget council. There are particular aspects of formal institutional design that have enabled the success of participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre, especially a significant amount of decentralization that empowers municipal-level decision-making. This is particularly so, of course, with respect to controlling the budget. In turn, Porto Alegre has seen great gains in both participation and redistributive action. At least in broad strokes, an active citizenry has gone hand-in-hand with successful governmental intervention to benefit the poor.
I want to delve deeper into one particular aspect of the approach in Porto Alegre, namely the role of representative organizations versus that of individuals. This remains quite a contentious issue in many parts of the world, where government and civil society are exploring forms of inclusionary institutional design. In some ways, the participation — and influence — of the “poorest of the poor” is much more suspect in the Porto Alegre case. As Graham Smith, a researcher from the UK, has noted, “the costs of participation generally remain too high” for those who live in precarious living conditions, with little money for non-employment related transport. In turn, their voices tend to have much less bearing on the budgeting decisions that have been so crucial to achieving otherwise successful redistributive developmental activities.
In turn, this suggests that, given the constraints of political agency and economic opportunity that exist among many communities of the poorest of the poor, representative organizations may have a lot to offer. The theoretical benefits of direct democracy and participation are clearly unavailable in practice. Therefore, democratic and institutional theorists need to pay much more attention to the kinds of popular institutions of the poor that can be effective at influencing formal institutional structures such as participatory budgeting. Three different types are a) city-wide community networks of informal settlement dwellers in places like Thailand that work with a government program for slum upgrading called Baan Mankong, b) street committees in places like Karachi, Pakistan, that work with local government through the Orangi Pilot Project, c) national and city-wide slum dweller “federations” in many countries in Africa and Asia, like those in SDI. These are by no means exhaustive.
We should not conflate “inclusion” and “participation” as catch-all theoretical approaches that will necessarily address the poorest of the poor. Similarly, we must be vigilant that we foreground the needs and voices of the poorest of the poor in development, both as a normative value as well as a functional strategy for coherent and sustainable society-building. One way to do this is to think of “democratic innovations,” in the broader frame of finance, planning, and politics that I propose at the beginning of this memo. I see this frame as much closer to the theories of “co-production” that researchers such as Peter Evans and others have proposed. In doing so, we become more aware of the ways in which institutional forms within society — especially those that represent the poorest of the poor — can influence not just one aspect of the governance equation, but all of them. Large contradictions of representation and accountability may persist, but the significant achievements of representative organizations of the poorest of the poor should be cause for much closer examination of their role in designing inclusive, and “pro-poor” formal institutions.