Interview: Participatory Budgeting
When citizens decide on the communal budget
Citizen participation can change the world we live in. Read about four people from the Peruvian city of Trujillo who are shaking things up.
“Fifteen years ago I used to say there is no solution for the world,” Peruvian journalist María del Carmen remembers. “I had already been through my stage as a dreamer journalist when I thought I could change everything, and had come to the conclusion that no, there is no way to fix the world. I was not happy with myself, and no longer wanted to do journalism every day.”
When her daughter was born, however, she changed her mind: “I used to see my daughter and think: I am doing everything for her. As long as she’s home everything will be perfect. But how is it going to be when she gets out into the world? Will her father and I be able to guarantee her a good environment where she will feel happy?”
When people start taking action to change their surroundings for the better, rather than simply complaining and waiting for others to act, that’s when citizen participation begins.
It’s exactly these questions and thoughts, this wish for a better world or a better neighbourhood that motivate people to make changes. When people start taking action to change their surroundings for the better, rather than simply complaining and waiting for others to act, that’s when citizen participation begins. Or as the Political Constitution of Colombia from 1991 puts it:
“Citizen Participation is the participation asserted by citizens who possess rights and obligations, who act in functions of general social (health, education, housing, environment, etc.) or collective interests (consumer associations, unions, labour unions, etc.). This type of participation, even with no direct link to political parties, has a lot to do with the State.”
Four examples from Perú:
Worried about her daughter’s future, María del Carmen Ballena initiated a journalism project in schools, which, after a while, even began receiving support from the Calandria Communicators Association (Asociación de Comunicadores Calandría) in Lima. She set up a print space called “Últimas Escolares” which was managed entirely by students. At “Últimas Escolares”, students could ask questions about, examine and propose solutions to the problems they identified in their schools.
“The idea I had was that if we fostered students’ participation in school journalism activities, we would help form citizens,” María del Carmen recalls. “Journalism is not only about registering the facts that occurred and transmitting them – it’s about initiating conversations instead of provoking useless confrontations.”
Unfortunately the School Journalism Project was cancelled two years ago due to lack of funding, but María del Carmen has not stopped. Together with her husband she manages the newspaper “Ultimas Noticias”, distributed in the Pacasmayo and Chepén districts. In the newspaper she created a space called Citizen’s Opinion, where people who want to participate can give their opinions – as long as they do so in a respectful way and provide their names, ID numbers and addresses.
“It is amazing to see how people have started to write in the last two last years. I have texts by students’ parents, texts by professionals, texts by municipal public servants, by judges, prosecutors, etc.”, María reports.
“The other space we created is the Citizen’s Eye. People walking along a street who see a storm drain without a cover, a flooded drain, or a house falling down, for instance, can take pictures with their cell phones and either send them to us or call us, so that we go there to check it out. These people are our eyes on the street. And then there’s Citizen’s Complaint which is a space where people suffering from a specific situation can communicate their complaints.”
“At Citizen’s Eye, people can take pictures with their cell phones and send them to us. These people are our eyes on the street.”
22-year-old architect Marcia Muñoz Calderón’s motivation to get involved emanated from attending bullfights with her family for years. Everybody attended the fights in her hometown Trujillo; it is a popular tradition, a celebration that had never been questioned.
“I remember one day when I was 12 years old, an age when I could already make my own decisions and became aware of what was going on around me: I suddenly forgot about the people who stood clapping around the bullring. I just focused on all the pain the animal was suffering. I stared at the bull; the bullfighter performed a bad stab and the bull started to moo and bleed near its mouth. The bull was desperately looking at us, at the audience, and I felt it only wanted to get out of the bullring. That day I talked to my family and told them we would never go to a bullring again – and it has been like that to this day.”
When Marcia was fourteen years old, she started collaborating with groups dedicated to defending animals. Every year, she stands outside the Huamachuco bullring with other animal lovers as well as anti-bullfight activists. They don’t want to just protest; they also want to inform the audience. They try to teach them about bulls and explain that in their opinion, bullfighting is a bad tradition that should be changed.
While the initiatives of María and Marcia address their fellow citizens rather than political authorities, the term citizen participation also refers to initiatives that directly influence policy decisions. Several Latin American constitutions explicitly call for this sort of engagement known as “participatory democracy”. They try to set up mechanisms that enable citizens to participate in local decision-making and communal administration. In Argentina, for instance, Neighbourhood Assemblies were created in 2001. They are a method of direct citizen participation, as they give impulses to local government.
In Peru, laws to enable citizens’ political participation already figure in the political constitution from 1993, as reported by Jessica Guerra Malaverri, the Coordinator of Governance and Territorial Management at the Instituto de Investigación y Capacitación Municipal, a non-governmental institution (NGO). The constitution includes approaches such as referendums, accountability reporting, and recall authority. But it took a decentralization law in 2002 for the idea of citizen participation to finally take effect.
While talking to me, María Inés Gonzales Villanueva, a professor at Trujillo National University, sits in her rocking chair at her rear garden and fans her face with the papers she holds in her hand. Five years ago, together with her neighbours, she formed the first neighbourhood committee in her quarter. Together they wanted to improve urban development: the streets had been neglected for years and were riddled with potholes, waste and wild traffic that disturbed residents, and drunken people gathered on the corners.
The 19th Neighbourhood Committee elected by popular vote in 2008 consists of eight people. It has already achieved some of its goals: security in the area has improved, since there is more police presence now, drunk people have been dissuaded from loitering on the corners, and annoying noises at inappropriate hours have been eliminated.
“I write letters asking for appointments. I have the authorities’ phone numbers, like the local government manager who always gives us a hand, and for the neighbour participation office. We have meetings with the neighbours to make them aware of the situation, to help them realize that living doesn’t just happen inside their homes. It also has to do with seeing how citizens behave outside their houses.”
“Now you can see every neighbour has learned to coexist and respect everyone.”
María recalls that when she moved to live in the Daniel Hoyle suburb in 1993, the neighbours’ children used to make the street their playing field. “They used to play soccer and volleyball and it was really uncomfortable because they hit the garage door or the window with the ball”, María reports. There were playing fields and parks around, but nobody told the children to go there. When María asked them to stop, they would yell loudly and laugh, and she could hear the bad words they would say. But things in Daniel Hoyle suburb have changed. “Now you can see every neighbour has learned to coexist and respect everyone; even those children’s kids are now more respectful than their own parents,” María adds.
In Peru, as in many other Latin American countries, the presence of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) or other civil and religious associations, independently reinforce, in some cases more effectively than the government, social, educational, housing and health development. They do so by involving the population and shaping citizens who have leadership skills, new professionals who can share experiences, and forming more critical, prepared young people with entrepreneurial spirit.
Juany Murphy, a sociology professor, is International Relations Manager at the Otra Cosa Network, a young NGO formed in 2009. Juany and her husband lived in the UK for most of their lives. They used their early retirement compensation to come to Peru in 2005 to work on social issues. Nowadays, they manage 25 projects and receive 200 volunteers every year. The European Voluntary Service supports them, and they are the only Latin American organization that received support from the NGO Lit World for the literacy program developed at Cerrito de la Virgen, close to the village of Huanchaco.
As far as local volunteers go, though, no one participates according to Juany. “Peruvians are not willing to help unless there is a personal benefit in return. I have been in touch with the United Nations volunteers and we realize there is a need to work more on the awareness of the Peruvian population. I think sometimes it is due to lack of information and general apathy.”
“How am I going to expect respect when I am unable to respect people who work for me? How am I going to expect to have a clean beach if when I go party there with my friends I leave all my garbage there even though there is a trash container nearby?”
Juany is convinced that active participation is the duty of every citizen. “As citizens we have the duty and the right to participate with our political vote. But part of citizenship also involves our attitude: how am I going to expect the mayor to do everything when I am unable of taking out the trash when the garbage truck passes by? How am I going to expect respect when I am unable to respect the people who work for me? How am I going to expect my next door neighbour to turn the volume down when I am unable to do so when I have a party? How am I going to demand green belts when I litter and throw banana peels on the street and don’t care about what others think? How am I going to expect to have a clean beach if when I go party there with my friends I leave all my garbage there even though there is a trash container nearby? How am I going to break a glass bottle and not think a boy could walk on the sand and get hurt? Let’s analyse our behaviour at a personal level before demanding things. It seems we have all forgotten about our duties. We leave the obligations aside and only complain. We demand things instead of acting ourselves, violating each other rights and thinking we deserve it all.”
“Not everybody has the strength to work for his/her territory”, says María from the Daniel Hoyle suburb. “They just say they are busy. But I think we have to take the time to accomplish things with the responsibility assumed until the day we are told we are done.”
Little by little, Trujillo’s authorities, organizations and local population have been assuming an active role in re-shaping their city. There is a lot more to do, there is a lot more to reinforce, there is a lot to diffuse, and there is a lot more to fix, but it is a good start. We cannot deny that having a well-organized society, a well-addressed and adequately led democracy would exert an unlimited transformative power. Whether through the commitment of common citizens, neighbourhood committees, the media, civil service organizations or the local authorities – citizen participation can transform the world we live in.
“Whether through the commitment of common citizens, neighbourhood committees, the media, civil service organizations or the local authorities – citizen participation can transform the world we live in.”
While doing my research, I also talked to Rosa from Florencia de Mora. Florencia de Mora is one of the eleven districts in the province of Trujillo and one of the most troubled. Criminal statistics are high and people come together and organise just to commit crimes. In Peru, in these districts where poverty is acute, the presence of the authorities is minimal; and where there are shanty towns, there is none.
Rosa is absolutely sure that nobody in her community is organised, and that nobody thinks about others. “Nobody really knows about all these crimes,” she says, “it would be nice to get information.” No doubt – there’s a lot more to be done.