Events

Democratic Innovation in Latin America: New Approaches to Local Governance

September 02, 2005 // 9:00am1:00pm

Joseph Tulchin of the Woodrow Wilson Center's Latin American Program, began the event by putting the conference into context as part of a larger, ongoing project on the current wave of decentralization in the developing world and its impact on democratic governance. He highlighted two previous books from the project that compare experiences across countries in Latin America and other regions of the world and specific books on the experiences of decentralization in Argentina, Colombia, and Mexico. He noted that the current conference was setting the stage for a book looking at innovations in local democratic governance in Latin America and what this can tell us about the quality of democracy in the region.

Ramón Daubón of the Inter-American Foundation discussed the foundation's objective of finding better ways to get at the roots of poverty, not just to alleviate it temporarily. Underdevelopment does not come from poor policies, he argued, but rather from bad governance and an exclusionary decision-making process, which allows the self-interest of the elites to triumph. This lack of oversight, he says, is why the Foundation embraces social policies from below.

Andrew Selee of the Wilson Center, and coordinator of the project, explained how Latin Americans feel a sense of desencanto with the quality of democracy, due both to the persistence of poverty and growth of inequality in the region and to the failure of democratic institutions to meet their promise. He commented on how citizens often feel that they do not have a voice in public decisions and that they cannot hold their elected officials accountable. Local governments in the region have, in recent years, developed innovative approaches to engaging citizens in public affairs and allowing them to monitor their elected officials. The current project seeks to understand why these innovations emerge, whether they are sustainable and replicable, and what impact they have on the quality of democracy both locally and nationally.

Marcus Melo of the Unversidade Federal de Pernambuco started off the first panel by describing two sets of innovative governance in Brazil: participatory budgeting (at the municipal level) and the courts of accounts (at the state level). Melo emphasized that participatory budgeting, which gives citizens direct involvement in setting some budget priorities, has increased associational activity, allowed greater citizen oversight of public investments, and led to a more equitable distribution of investments within municipalities. Despite these positive steps, however, participatory budgeting has also strengthened the hand of mayors, who run the budgeting process, at the expense of elected municipal councils. This opens up questions about the broader impact of participatory budgeting on the democratic architecture of Brazilian municipalities. He noted that the courts of accounts, which are autonomous state government agencies for reviewing public finances, have successfully improved transparency and reduced corruption in local governments. These tribunals have established themselves as non-partisan arbiters of public finances with broad authority to examine public accounts and punish those who misuse public funds. Their effectiveness appears to vary somewhat with the robustness of representative institutions and the degree of political competition.

Enrique Peruzzoti of the Unversidad Torcuato di Tella in Argentina analyzed the participatory budgeting process in Buenos Aires. The mayor of the city implemented this process in 2002 (based on an existing 1996 law) after massive protests, largely as a means of channeling dissent and restructuring the mayor's political coalition. The numbers of participants in the process are impressive and it appears to have increased the responsiveness of local authorities due to its public, open, and egalitarian design. However, Peruzzoti noted that it was unclear whether participatory budgeting was involving new actors in civil society or simply providing a new forum for the same groups that had participated in the past. In fact, he noted that there are signs that the process may simply be restructuring old forms of political clientelism through new official channels.

Luis Mack of FLASCO-Guatemala analyzed Guatemala's decentralization experience and highlighted the role of the development councils created at the municipal, departmental, and regional levels to engage civil society organizations in setting priorities for public action. He argued that the councils have succeeded in bringing civil society organizations and government leaders to the table to discuss priorities. However, the design of the system creates confusion about how decisions are to be made, and councils at a higher level regularly overrule or ignore decisions made at lower levels (especially those of the municipal councils). Moreover, he noted that constructing common priorities is particularly challenging in a country in which a majority of citizens have been routinely excluded from equal citizenship rights and, therefore, have a tenuous tie to membership the political community.

Commentator Jonathan Fox of the University of California, Santa Cruz pointed out several broad issues for discussion that emerged from the presentations. He argued that deepening democracy involves a triangular relationship among transparency, accountability, and participation. He observed that greater emphasis on fiscal matters (and not just spending) was necessary to ensure the sustainability of democratic innovations. He also noted that it was important to place local changes within the context of the broader national structure and look at how a strong national state can reinforce democratic changes at the local level. In this context, he highlighted the lack of national response to the disaster in New Orleans and posed the question, where is big government when you need it?

In the second panel of the day, Roberto Laserna of CERES discussed the "failure of success" that Bolivia has witnessed in recent years. Although democratic reform has been executed, poverty is in decline, and citizen participation is increasing, social inequality and unrest have been on the rise. Laserna asserted that the Bolivian reforms were insufficient and that empowering social groups by teaching them about their rights, without clarifying their obligations, leads to expectations greater than the achievements they yield and consequently a breakdown in the democratic process. Developing successful local governments within the context of social fragmentation, therefore, requires engaging citizens in deciding about how to raise revenues for investment in public goods not just in deciding how to spend existing revenues.

Leticia Santín of Agora elaborated on the processes of strategic participatory urban planning in Mexico, citing successful examples of this such as Hermosillo, Sonora where neighborhood committees help set local priorities and influence the city's municipal plan. Santín emphasized the importance of embedding means for citizen intervention at a local level in urban planning in order to achieve greater efficiency in the provision of services and increased legitimacy for the government leaders. She noted that participatory planning, often through semi-autonomous planning institutes, has become quite common among Mexican cities. The planning institutes have the virtue of lasting beyond a single three-year mayoral term, so that planning can have a longer-range vision than has traditionally been the case in Mexico.

Gabriel Murillo of Universidad de los Andes described the transformation of Bogotá, Colombia through the redefinition of public space. He noted that this process involved both creating and renewing "tangible" public space, such as parks, plazas, bicycle routes, and public transportation systems, and developing "intangible" public space through constructing common norms and values among citizens. These two processes, carried out under two successive mayors, gave citizens a greater sense of belonging, physical areas in which to encounter each other, and the ability to engage in public deliberation about collective issues. He noted that other cities in Colombia, including Medellín and Bucaramanga, are now developing initiatives around public space that build on Bogotá's experience.

In his comments on the panel, David Crocker of the University of Maryland commended the presenters for their realistic approach to democratization in their respective countries. He urged the panelists to delve further into the ethics of public decision-making and to explore in greater detail how citizen participation could produce a propitious environment for responsible self-governance. He observed that public deliberation is the basis for democracy and that deepening democracy thus required creating the spaces for citizens to meet and engage in public reasoning around the common good. Public deliberation does not mean abandoning the pursuit of self-interest, he observed, but rather the examination of self-interest in the light of the wider public good.

In his closing remarks, Selee noted that the cases of democratic innovation presented from the six countries largely fell into three categories: mechanisms for citizen participation, institutions for accountability, and the redefinition of public space. These innovations, when at their best, served to create channels for citizens to deliberate on public policy and monitor public officials, and they replaced clientelistic forms of governance with public and institutionalized relationships between political leaders and citizens. These innovations appeared to emerge primarily as a result of the breakdown of old forms of political mediation, expressed sometimes through protest but often more subtly, and the desire of political leaders to create new political coalitions in this changing environment. However, in many cases, he observed, these innovations appear not to be sustainable and they often reproduce old forms of authoritarian politics within the guise of new institutions and practices. He argued that more research was needed to understand under what conditions democratic innovations could become sustainable, be replicated, and have a larger impact on the national political system.

EMAIL UPDATES

Wilson Center Photo Gallery

Browse or share photos from the Wilson Center’s events.

To Attend an Event

Unless otherwise noted:

Meetings listed on this page are free and open to the public. Reservations are not required unless otherwise noted. All meetings take place at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC. Please see map and directions. Allow time for routine security procedures. A photo ID is required for entry.

To confirm time and place, contact Maria-Stella Gatzoulis on the day of the event: tel. (202) 691-4188. Check this page for the latest updates and notices.

Experts & Staff