A book called ‘Hope for Democracy ‘ may sound like a fairy tale these days but it is very real. Such a positive book title is worthy of a review so here goes. This is an attempt to introduce a fairly scholarly book about some very important activity going on in the world today. The book covers 30 years of global experience in citizen participation and includes a remarkable section about Scotland and the progress being made here. (There is a link to download the full publication at the end of this review)
It describes a journey of innovation and transformative action of many people in different parts of the world who are engaged in ‘ the construction of more lasting and intense ways of living democracy’.
From Latin America, North America to Asia, Oceania to Europe and Africa the reader can pick which part of the world to start exploring how citizenship is being reinvigorated.
There has been a quiet revolution going on across the world amidst the noise and clamour of politics .
There are people who ‘just get on and do’ and are achieving remarkable things by creating the space and the opportunity for asking people the simplest of questions.
The book very helpfully puts the whole process in a global context. The opening section alone is such a refreshing thing to read if like me you long to have a ‘world view’ of a planet which has the potential to ‘pull together’ and not have nation states fight each other and enter into trade wars or worse bomb and maim each others civilian populations in outright war.
It characterises the world where people are unhappy with institutions of power and how countries and states have become unable to deal with multiple issues or crises leading to a ‘rupture’ between those ‘who rule’ and ‘those who are ruled’.
Distrust of politics is a global phenomenon. According to Manuel Castells, distrust in institutions all over the world, de-legitimises political representation and ,
“leaves us orphans of a shelter that pro- tects us in the name of common interest.”
There has been a ‘falling out of love ‘ with democracy sometimes evidenced by low voter turnout. In other instances we have seen voting itself being used as a ‘weapon’ against political parties and ruling elites when populist campaigns oppose traditional power balances. We have seen this only too recently with the Brexit vote, the election of Trump in the USA and Macron in France when populism is developed and some would say manipulated by opposing factions to bring about a ‘democratic’ change.
The book discusses how behaving ‘democratically ‘ has almost become devalued and the institutions of democracy are beginning to wear away either through apathy or the development of populist campaigns which seek ‘revenge’ but in the process fuel extremism and demagogy. Less than 5% of the world lives in a ‘full democracy’.Quite a shocking statistic.
We seem to exist in an illusory ‘state of democracy’ which is in crisis. The paradox is on the one hand – we want to be democratic but on the other we are discontent with its institutions and how ‘democracy’ operates.
Enter stage left, participatory budgeting, or PB for short. Starting in Porto Allegre in Brazil at the end of the 1980’s as a response to changes in government from a dictatorship to a more democratic state. It was a city with huge issues about trust, accountability and transparency. Locally a system was devised whereby the local population were given the opportunity to decide what the city wide budget would be spent on and it became an annual event which has lasted for almost 30 years. The learning curve was steep but it was a very powerful process which quickly spread among municipal, regional, and national governments, as well as international organisations, cooperation agencies, universities, non-governmental organisations, and among other agencies worldwide.
It seems to have grown either as result of a needing to find a solution to a crisis- a breakdown of trust, a conflict or a natural disaster, or in areas where there has been a deliberate process to encourage citizenship and empower communities. The book describes the many ways PB has become adapted to different situations around the world allowing it to expand globally as it has done.
In Africa the World bank has sponsored development programmes which look at working with local communities in Kenyan counties rolling out devolution of budgets.Participating in budget decisions has challenged politically corrupt past practices and even reduced incidents of political violence during last years Presidential and Senate elections as people had been involved in the allocation of local funds.
Methods vary depending on the scale of the exercise ranging from ballot papers cast in public libraries to large scale public events where people ‘pitch’ for funds for their proposed ideas following a period of ‘testing’ and identifying priorities. More recently some areas including Dundee and North Ayrshire in Scotland have pioneered the use of on-line voting, in Ayrshire’s case using Young Scot cards to validate young people’s on-line votes. Generally the progress in Scotland has been good and now CoSLA the local government body has an agreed target of all councils spending 1% of their total budgets using participatory approaches by 2020/2021.
More importantly participation in local decision making brings people together and creates new networks in communities where people are often isolated and alone. People are our biggest assets and this process of encouraging democratic participation in a way that empowers people is to be warmly welcomed. In the midst of today’s disempowering experiences of world politics it is good to see a spark of hope for humanity.We can work together and we have some if not all of the answers to our biggest problems.
Inside our ‘democratic’ institutions there is a new life stirring we hope it has an easy birth.
“It is but fair to consider participatory budgeting as a ray of hope between crises; as an embryo of other forms of living in democracy, more participatory, more effective, and closer to people.
These prove that, in addition to being necessary, it is possible to explore new thresholds for the exercise of participation and the construction of citizenship rights. In a figurative sense, it is as if representative democracy were pregnant.
Within it lies another heartbeat, one of a power to become what it is, one of the search for what is new, one of creation that seeks to help reinforce and perpetuate the democratic regime itself, albeit in a frame- work of improvement and development, defects, and deviations of the past.” (Nelson Dias)
Download links for full publication or just the chapter on Scotland——>
A new book has been published which looks at how participatory budgeting (PB) has developed across the world since it first began in Brazil.
Written by Nelson Dias, the book features contributions from leading advocates and practitioners of PB from across the world, including a chapter which details how it has developed in Scotland.
“This publication proposes an open and ongoing reflection on how participatory budgeting processes have developed over the last thirty years. The following articles are an invitation to travel around the world, through unknown paths to the ‘great public’.”