• David G Arvidsson

Improve democracy and end corruption in one simple step?

Updated: Mar 10

After studying a master’s degree at Seton Hall University for two years with a specialization in Latin America, I learned a lot about this unpredicted region. I learned a lot about the history, political culture, inequality, cultural heritage and much more. But one of the topics that I found the most interesting was something called “Participatory Budgeting”. It was a combination of being an idea that I really believe in and having a professor that is one of the leading scholars in that specific topic that sparked my interest. I thought I’d give a brief summary of what participatory budgeting is, where it is used and why it can be an amazing opportunity for Latin America.

The concept of participatory budgeting is a method which gives citizens the opportunity to be part of the process of deciding how and where to allocate part of the government budget. This method decentralizes the power and is defined as we, the community, decides how our tax money is being spent.

Short explanation of how Participatory Budgeting works (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lG1k3RAg70Q&t=177s)

Participatory budgeting started in Brazil over 30 years ago and has been a reoccurring concept in many local governments around the country. When authoritarian rule ended in Brazil in 1985, it was important to implement various methods to stimulate civic engagement and one of those methods was participatory budgeting. In Porto Alegre, which was the first city to introduce participatory budgeting, the city delegates around ten percent of its annual budget towards this cause. I believe that there are primarily three reasons why participatory budgeting is a great idea and why it should be used throughout Latin America.

Increases Self-Expression Values

Creating a dialogue with citizens increases the engagement of the people and affects self-expression values in a positive way. It increases the engagement of the people and strengthens the sensations of a unity in the community. Self- Expression values include among other things life satisfaction, public expression, and an aspiration to liberty. If the people lack a sense of self-expression then there is no point in organizing demonstrations and strikes if it will result in a zero-sum outcome. Efficiency gains include providing the government with more legitimacy to make decisions because the legislative process is more transparent. Participatory budgeting in throughout Latin America would mean that citizens get a say on parts of budgeting on a state level or municipal level.

To highlight the importance of self-expression, there is a correlation between high levels of self-expression, consolidated democracy, trust in people and government transparency. Indicating that self-expression is crucial to create trust between the government and citizens and establish a consolidated democracy, which will result in more rapid development.

End Corruption

Inclusion and transparency are in the heart of the process and key components to end corruption. According to experts, when listing the most important problems affecting Latin America in 2019 corruption is by far the most pressing topic. Currently many Latin American governments lack social accountability and corruption can be experience from local government all the way up to the top dogs. The social contract between members of society and the state have long been ignored. Leading to trust in crucial governmental bodies being way below the OECD average. Perhaps the clearer example is the trust civic society has on the judicial system in the Latin American countries (see graph below). Participatory budgeting provides opportunity to involve groups of people that have historically been marginalized and activate community members. It forces local governments to display how the money, at least some of it, is being spent.

All four Latin American countries can be found way below the OECD average https://www.oecd.org/statistics/public-governance-a-matter-of-trust.htm

Improves Democracy and Increase Knowledge

If citizens are allowed to decide how government fund are being spent people start to feel more responsibility and gain knowledge about domestic politics. It is not uncommon that people feel alienated when engaging in politics. The end result is usually that people detach themselves from politics, losing interest in what is happening even on a local level of governance. That is why participatory budgeting not only engages people, it educates, improves skills and perhaps most importantly provides confidence to express your opinion. Citizens have better access to their elected officials and therefore hold the elected officials more accountable for their actions.

There are already many cities that have decided to apply this concept throughout Latin America such as Porto Alegre (Brazil), Montevideo (Uruguay) and Medellin (Colombia). When undergoing a pandemic, it might be more important than ever to have an open democracy, make decisions that are clear and make them transparent. Politicians have the obligation to create an open dialogue with citizens and establish trust through clear communication and transparency, something that participatory budgeting would help nurture. This idea could help solve some of the most long lasting problems in Latin America, end corruption, strengthen democracy and increase self-expression, something that would benefit not only politics but also increase quality of life, the economy and much more.

David - Mar 2021