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Article Summary

Abers, Rebecca, 1998. From Clientelism to Cooperation: Local Government, Participatory Policy and Civic Organizing in Porto Alegre, Brazil, Politics and Society 26(4): 511-537.

In this article Rebecca Abers shows how state actors can actually promote the empowerment rather than the weakening of civic organizations by examining the case study of Porto Alegre, Brazil. The participatory budget created by the local government in Porto Alegre in 1989 gave power and tools to neighborhood-based forums to make decisions about the distribution of municipal funds for capital improvements. She examines how this budget policy mobilized neighborhood groups, promoted participation and discouraged clientelism.

The focus of this paper is the participatory budget, created by the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT), a democratic-socialist party, who wanted to create a system of popular councils in neighborhoods, to take over much of the work of local government decision-making. The PT wanted to create allies in poor neighborhoods and govern democratically. The administration created an institutional structure to encourage the creation of neighborhood associations and participation within the budget process. All adult residents could participate and in order to reduce the costs of participation, government officials were sent to the neighborhoods. The city was divided into budget districts following the lines of neighborhood coalitions and geographic features. General assemblies were held in each district, where government officials presented information about the city budget and participants elected their representatives and delegates to year-round forums and the Municipal Budget Council. Residents also met in neighborhood associations to discuss priorities for investment. District Administrative Centers were created to bring officials and city services closer to the residents. Community organizers hired by the government visited un-mobilized neighborhoods to help find new leaders, give out information and encourage participation. Abers believes that it was this direct contact with government organizers that drew new participants into the process.

Abers examines the Extremo Sul District and how the budget policy succeeded in mobilizing neighborhoods that were previously controlled by clientelism. Dozens of impoverished settlements lacking basic infrastructure existed in this district and most neighborhoods either had no association or residents were excluded from participation. Community organizers and high level officials visited the impoverished neighborhoods to collect information on the districts needs. It took four or five years after the budget policy was initiated, but organizing was successful and neighborhood leaders were able to break traditional associations that prohibited participation. The state was genuinely responsive to participant demands and participants were aware of this responsiveness.

The participatory budget policy created an arena in which it was rewarding and easy to participate. Abers found that the people most historically disempowered in Brazil, with lower income levels than the municipal average, were the most involved with the budget policy and civic organizations. Through this process, individuals began to see themselves as part of larger groups and created networks of trust and reciprocity. The policy was successful and residents learned how to organize, mobilize, cooperate and engage in debate about government policy.