Case Study: Participatory Budgeting in Brazil


This article was written by Madison Haussy.


Participatory Budgeting (BP), is a mechanism that allows citizens and professionals to participate directly in the allocation of municipal, regional, or even national public budgets, began in 1987 in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre. Created by the socialist Brazilian Workers’ Party (PT), PB spread within Brazil from 1997–2000 and to other countries after 2000. Today, there are more than 11,000 examples of BP around the world. In Brazil alone, there are 436 instances of PB that have allocated several billion (in U.S. dollars) since their inception.

PB around the world: “Participatory Budgeting World Atlas 2019”

Despite BP’s historical origins and widespread use in Brazil, there is a “significant crisis in participatory processes” affecting PB in the country. Since 2004/2005, the number of BP instances in Brazil has fallen by more than half and BP was suspended in Porto Alegre in 2017. Paradoxically, this decline in Brazil is accompanied by a renewed interest in implementing PB in other parts of the world. What can the rise and fall of PB institutions in Brazil suggest about how to successfully implement PB more generally?

PB in Brazil: historical effectiveness & contemporary crises

Brazilian PB, which primary occurs at the municipal or regional level, begins with local thematic meetings that emphasize including as many citizens as possible in the determination of budgetary priorities. To foster participation by marginalized citizens, special sessions are reserved for women, youth, and the homeless. Brazilian PB, therefore, is characterized by “acknowledgement of [citizen’s] right to participate individually and directly and not necessarily through representatives,” but in a manner that fosters mass participation and listening over deliberation between a small group of citizens. This emphasis on inclusion has allowed PB in Brazil to go beyond the interests of the “usual suspects” of participation — i.e. dominant members of society — with real results: in Porto Alegre, poor neighborhoods benefited the most from: basic sanitation access jumped 23% and budgets for health care and education increased 27%. These results indicate that participatory processes that are able to include the needs of a wide range of citizens can have significant real-world benefits. PB in Brazil suggests that serious attention should be paid not just to the fact that participatory processes foster citizen inputs but how they do so and who participates. Inclusiveness is key in any participatory process as it fosters the representation of the “silent majority” or traditionally excluded groups in society, strengthening in turn democracy.

The institutionalization of PB also matters. After the thematic meetings in Brazil, an elected Council of Participatory Budgeting presents the findings to the Municipal Council. Though not officially part of the law — hence the recent suspension of PB in Porto Alegre — the process is outlined in manuals. This soft institutionalization of PB in Brazil, where the process is not a short-term fix but an annual process that informs economic and urban planning ex ante, empowers the process in terms of agenda setting and the proportion of the agenda under its discretion. For example, in Montevideo, PB processes identified growing inequalities as a community problem and levied a tax on cars, a luxury good in the city, to pay for development in poorer neighborhoods. This coupling of budgetary and policy-guiding powers can be a model for enacting effective citizen participation elsewhere. The softness of institutionalization in Brazil, and its reliance on the goodwill of the mayor however highlights the need for concrete institutionalization to combat polarization.

The politicization of PB in Brazil, which is associated with the PT, underlines the importance of the last step of participatory processes: how the general population is informed and makes the case for the institutionalization of these processes. Whereas most PB processes in Brazil include multiple channels for citizens to obtain information, how the participatory mechanism is perceived at a macro-level is also significant. Though PB increased tax revenues by decreasing delinquency in many Brazilian cities, did increased trust in fiscal systems translate to trust in the PB process itself? The experience of the PT suggests that to successfully implement participatory processes political actors should emphasize why they institute them and for who rather than portraying them as a political win. Participant fatigue, perhaps rising from disappointment when PB delivers less than promised, is also a serious problem with long-term trust in PB in Brazil. The history of PB in Brazil also makes the case for the institutionalisation of participatory processes to ensure their sustaintability against political changes.


Participatory budgeting, as implemented in Brazil, updates democracy at the local level by allowing the priorities of citizens to influence budgetary decisions. In comparison with other participatory mechanisms, it has the benefit of ruling over processes that have concrete effects on citizens’ lives, which can be a powerful motivator for participation among marginalized individuals who might not see the point of other forms of participation.

The Brazilian case, however, suggests that PB — especially when implemented at the local level — cannot solve systemic issues in a democracy such as corruption or disillusionment with democracy. Updating democracy with participatory mechanisms necessitates “structural change,” but this systemic change is in tension with the need for realism. In Brazil, the unrealistic promises of what the PB would achieve led to disillusionment with the process and participatory democracy more generally. This balance between widespread use of PB and recognizing where and why it cannot solve deeper problems will determine if PB can be successful at the country-wide level. Until then, the Brazilian case demonstrates that participatory budgeting can provide immediate, tangible improvements in citizens’ lives and build a culture of participation among non-traditional publics.

This article has been published as per submission by the student (the author) and based on the lecture given by the professor in the context of an assignment, for comments or edits please contact the author :


Cabannes, Yves. “Participatory budgeting: a significant contribution to participatory democracy.” Environment & Urbanization 16, no. 1 (April 2004): 27–46.

De Renzio, Paola, et al. “Paradise Lost? The crisis of participatory budgeting in its own birthplace.” International Budget Partnership, 25 Nov. 2019,

Dias, Nelson, et al. “Participatory Budgeting Atlas 2019.” Municipality of Cascais, Oct. 2019.

Gilman, Hollie, and Brian Wampler. “The Difference in Design: Participatory Budgeting in Brazil and the United States.” Journal of Public Deliberation, vol. 15, no. 1, 23 Apr. 2019, pp. 1–30.

Lvovna Gelman, Valerai, and Daniely Votto. “What if Citizens Set City Budgets? An Experiment That Captivated the World — Participatory Budgeting — Might Be Abandoned in its Birthplace.” World Resources Institute, 13 June 2018,



Mauricio Mejia
Updating Democracy // Rebooting the State

Open Gov anc citizen participation @OECD // Mexican+French - following politics, democracy and tech news 🌵🌈 teaching @Sciencespo ex @paulafortez a@etalab