Local Governance and the Creation of Spaces for Civic Action
On Thursday, March 10, 2005, the Latin American Program of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars joined with the Inter-American Foundation and the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin to host a discussion of an Inter-American Foundation-funded study of local governance and the creation of public spaces. Joseph Tulchin, Director of the Latin American Program, together with Ramón Daubon, of the Inter-American Foundation and Peter Ward, from the University of Texas, gave the welcoming remarks and stressed the importance of decentralization and civic action to democratic governance. This was the second of two meetings sponsored by the three organizations; the first was held at the University of Texas on March 8, 2005.
Rodrigo Villar opened the discussion by describing a forthcoming report that analyzes the creation of "local public spaces for civic action" in Latin America. Villar explained that the term "local public spaces for civic action" (in Spanish: espacios públicos de concertación social) refers to the process of meeting, negotiation, deliberation, and construction of agreements among citizens and government representatives. These are "public spaces" in that they are meant to be the visible, open, and institutionalized processes, in contrast to "private" practices of clientelism and particularism. Villar argued that the participation of populations traditionally excluded from local decision-making processes could leaad to beneficial trends such as the delineation of "pro-poor" policies, transformations in power relations, and improved democratic governance and institutional stability. A potential danger of social participation was the formation of new elite structures among the leaders of groups.
Gonzalo de la Maza emphasized the context and analytical characteristics of these "public spaces" by distinguishing between "top-down" versus "bottom-up" dynamics, favorable and unfavorable political environments, and strong versus weak social identity. He described the kinds of processes that qualify as "public spaces for civic action," which include participatory budgeting processes, consultative citizen assemblies, and other institutional innovations at the local level. Gabriel Murillo spoke of the challenge of linking economic development with pressing social issues, and the panelists closed by answering questions about how the study addressed conditional subsidies, elite capture and the juxtaposition of NGOs' political advocacy and service providing roles.
On the second panel, Aldo Panfichi described the historical context of Puno in Peru. Panfichi suggested that practices of consensus should be evaluated in light of the increased fragmentation of communities and the tendency for citizens to express their frustration in counterproductive, and even violent ways. According to Panfichi, the consensus tradition may contribute to this phenomenon as dissenters become frustrated and "take to the streets," leaving a more homogenous participatory group. In his view, confrontation must be embraced in deliberative processes so that conflicts may be channeled and addressed in public spaces. Cristina Filgueiras described the participatory budgeting experience in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. She argued that it had helped address the concerns of residents in the favelas, or shantytowns, including demands for sewage and access roads. Filgueiras pointed out the organized homeless movement as a key player in social demand for public spaces. Anthony Bebbington, in a study of Guamote, Ecuador, argued that a once promising experience of citizen participation in municipal affairs had gradually lost some of its policy impact. The municipal government had increasingly concentrated more power at the expense of civil society organizations, leading to the atrophying of participatory mechanisms. He noted that citizen disinterest in the loss of these spaces could be attributed in part to their failure to generate sustainable economic development and in part to their inability to engage citizens beyond the leaders of civic organizations. However, he observed that the participatory experience of Guamote had also led to a more inclusive society and may have left a mark on future interactions between citizens and the government.
In his closing statements, Bryan Roberts drew observations from all the presentations with regards to possible improvement in both academic analysis and concerted action by development programs. The implied withdrawal of the state emphasizes the market, NGOs and the community as the three planks for new social policies in Latin America. However, according to Roberts, these currently form a rather weak base for development. He noted trends toward fragmentation that erode the old bases for solidarity and community identity in Latin America. In light of these obstacles, it is necessary to institutionalize participation coherently to rebuild the bases of solidarity, the possibilities of collective action, and the mutually reinforcing engagement of state and society. Communities must also demand free and unfettered access to information, especially regarding budgeting and accountability. Roberts highlighted the danger of traditional centers of power co-opting participatory groups as an attribute in the ever more complex relationships between grassroots movements, the state, and NGOs. Finally, Roberts argued that the construction of citizenship and citizen participation are necessarily bottom up processes, and that without the possibility of conflict, participation stagnates.