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Book Launch: Participatory Innovation and Representative Democracy in Latin America

October 09, 2009 // 9:00am10:30am
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Participatory innovations, suggested the panelists, can be a route to deeper democratization in Latin America. Some experiments with these innovations have proved more problematic than others, suggesting that they are not a straight path to an effective representative democracy. Nevertheless, given the right conditions, as the case studies presented in Participatory Innovation and Representative Democracy in Latin America indicate, participation can lead to deeper democratization in the region.

The Origins and Nature of Participation

The emergence of innovations in participatory democracy, meaning direct citizen participation, rather than elected representation, in areas such as the budget process, civilian oversight of police activities, and health planning committees, is a growing phenomenon in Latin America, according to Andrew Selee, Director of the Mexico Institute. The implementation of these initiatives can often be traced to an individual's initiative, although in some cases there are national laws that mandate participatory planning. This can make for a short-lived policy, as it may last only as long as the individual in power. Nevertheless, leaders are often responding to a general dissatisfaction with democratic institutions and political leaders, so sometimes these initiatives survive beyond their initial creation. Democracy has become the "only game in town" in Latin America, Selee emphasized, yet there exists a growing gap between citizens and the political system which participatory innovations seek to bridge.

The existing literature on participatory innovations has tended to focus on model cases, Enrique Peruzzotti of Torcuato di Tella observed, where participatory democracy has effectively bridged the gap between leaders and the populace. It has also conceived of participatory innovations as an alternative to representative democracy, he added. This book instead looks a wider variety of local cases of participatory innovations- where conditions may not have been ideal- in the relatively universal budget and planning process. The results from localities in Mexico, Bolivia, Chile, Brazil, and Argentina suggest that elections and parties are not the only means of communication between representatives and citizens. Under the right conditions, despite their many problems, these innovations can open new channels to citizen participation and thereby deepen democracy in Latin America, while strengthening representative institutions.

Benefits of Participation

According to Peruzzotti and Selee, the case studies show that participation can connect citizens with formal democratic institutions, thus improving representative democracy, in four primary ways:

  • Making decision-making more open and transparent: Marcus André Melo compared participatory budgeting experience in three Brazilian towns with the state budget institution and found that horizontal accountability in participatory systems were more transparent.
  • Engaging new sectors and leaders: In Selee's study of Mexico and Perruzzotti's of Argentina, this worked best when existing and active social organizations were closely linked to political parties
  • Improving decision-making through deeper deliberations with citizen groups
  • Making policies more distributive: In Anny Rivera-Ottenberger's comparison of two Chilean towns, social policy began more distributive with participatory reforms. Roberto Laserna too found that in Bolivia, public goods were more equitably distributed. This is most frequently the case, Peruzzotti suggested, when the constituency is small and there is close proximity between the citizens and the leaders.

Challenges of Participation

Commentator Diego Abente, Deputy Director of the International Forum at the National Endowment for Democracy, noted some of the challenges of deepening democracy through participatory innovations that the book discusses:

  • Lack of legitimacy: In the Brazilian cases described by Melo, the participatory innovation is often determined by decree by one individual, such as a mayor, and the selection process for participation in not monitored.
  • Lack of accountability: Peruzzotti's study of Buenos Aires suggested that the committee process lacked as much accountability and transparency as the elected council it intended to replace.
  • Reinforcement of existing clientelistic structures: In Mexico, Selee observed that the local party in power seemed to determine the use of the participatory innovations. In Chilpancingo, controlled at the time of study by traditionally clientelistic PRI party, the participatory structure was used to reinforce existing client relationships rather than to expand participation.
  • Minimal impact: In Melo's Brazilian case studies, the percentage of the budget that was determined by the participatory committee ranged from 10 percent in Recife to 50 percent in Belo Horizonte. The mayor still controlled 50 to 90 percent of the budget; he/she determined even more if he/she chose not to fund a committee-decided project.
  • Sustainability: Peruzzotti's study of Buenos Aires suggested that a political group may enact participatory innovations for a short-term goal; in this case, the objective was to build a political coalition in the midst of an economic crisis. The policy was then abandoned it as soon as the goal is achieved. Rivera-Ottenberger too worried about the lack of institutionalization even in successful cases in Chile.

Lessons for the Future

Ultimately, Selee observed, the studies suggest that a mobilized and politically-connected civil society in a small community will fight to maintain the gains it earned through participation, thereby enhancing the quality and sustainability of the participatory process. In the most successful cases, it will be combined with a leader or party that remains in power long enough, and remains committed enough, to institutionalize these policies. These conditions, these studies indicate, may provide the best opportunity to deepen representative democracy through participatory innovations that link citizens with elected leaders.

By Katie Putnam

 
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