Porto Alegre: Participatory Budgeting and the Challenge of Sustaining Transformative Change

This case study in the World Resources Report, Towards a More Equal City, examines transformative urban change in Porto Alegre, Brazil, through the lens of participatory budgeting. The research focuses on whether and how transformative change has taken place in the city between 1990 and the present.

Porto Alegre pioneered participatory budgeting beginning in the 1990s and the model has since spread throughout Brazil and the world, with more than 2,700 governments implementing some version of it today. However, political support for participatory budgeting in its birthplace has declined through the years, culminating in its suspension in Porto Alegre in 2017.

The paper analyzes the reasons for the suspension and argues that the success of participatory budgeting as a tool of transformative urban change in contingent on four conditions: 1) well-structured participatory arrangements to ensure participation from a wide range of actors across society; 2) adequate financial resources; 3) political commitment and flexibility to adjust to changing political realities; and 3) government commitment to implement the proposals the process generates.

Case studies in the World Resources Report, Towards a More Equal City, examine transformative urban change defined as that which affects multiple sectors and institutional practices, continues across more than one political administration, and is sustained for more than 10 years, resulting in more equitable access to core services. The goal of “Towards a More Equal City” is to inform urban change agents – government officials, policymakers, civil society organizations, citizens, and the private sector – about how transformative change happens, the various forms it takes, and how they can support transformation towards more equal cities.

Key Findings

Executive Summary

Like other cities in Brazil, Porto Alegre expanded rapidly between 1950 and 1990. The city was unable to keep up with the demand for public services amid the inflows of migrants. As a result, vilas (the term used in southern Brazil for poor settlements with irregular land tenure) expanded in peripheral areas, in contrast to the wealthier urban core. Clientelist political relations perpetuated urban inequality.

In the 1990s, under mayors from the new Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores), the city developed the participatory budget to address political, economic, and social exclusion. The city’s leaders defined their participatory approach in line with their democratic socialist ideals, creating opportunities to combine finance, governance, and planning processes to improve access to urban services for under-served and poor communities.

The paper examines transformative change through the lens of participatory budgeting. Based on our theory of transformative change, it identifies triggers; the roles of enabling and inhibiting factors such as governance, finance, and planning; and to what extent transformative change is institutionalized. This paper analyzes existing research, government data, and key informant interviews with representatives from government, civil society, and academia. The research focuses on whether and how transformative change has taken place in Porto Alegre, Brazil, between 1990 and the present.

Especially in its first decade, the participatory budget triggered transformative change in Porto Alegre by addressing social, economic, and political exclusion and promoting creative, bottom-up inputs into financial allocation decisions. Organized to ensure representation by geography, and later by theme, citizen inputs were used to decide priorities for public investments in their neighbor hoods to improve their lives. Six key outcomes have been identified in the participatory budget experience in Porto Alegre:

  • Including the poor in decision-making
  • Breaking down clientelist relations
  • Redistributing urban infrastructure and service provision
  • Building and democratizing civil society
  • Developing administrative capacities
  • Promoting radical democracy

This study finds that while the early stages of implementing the participatory budget did promote the first five outcomes, two interacting problems undermined the transformative change process: political commitment to the policy declined over time; and although effective for involving citizens in small-scale, community-based decision-making, the policy lacked an effective mechanism for incorporating citizens – especially the under-served – in long-term city planning. These limitations shed light on the fact that even the most successful efforts to promote inclusion can lose transformative power over time if political support for maintaining and deepening that inclusive process falters.

We conclude that political commitment to the participatory budget was key to its success; the program faced challenges when commitment faltered and the participatory budget fell out of political favor. This led to fewer resources allocated through open assemblies with citizens, which threatened the progress made in the 1990s on improved equity in urban infrastructure and service provision. In addition, while the participatory budget model itself worked well for small-scale, neighborhood-level infrastructure, it has been less effective with larger-scale projects, calling into question its applicability for serving larger-scale needs.

This case highlights the importance of political commitment, adequate financial resources, and well-structured participatory arrangements in tackling issues of exclusion and moving towards a more equal city. Transformative change requires sustained efforts on the political, economic, and social fronts in order to avoid permanent reversals and to truly move towards a more equal city.


About This Paper

This case study is part of the larger World Resources Report, Towards a More Equal City, which considers sustainability to be composed of three interrelated issues: equity, the economy and the environment. The series uses equitable access to urban services as an entry point for examining whether meeting the needs of the under-served can improve economic productivity and environmental sustainability for the entire city. 

A series of sector-specific working papers – on housing, energy, the informal economy, urban expansion, water access, sanitation solutions and transportation – explore how cities can provide growing numbers of residents with secure and affordable access to core services.

The case studies ask the question: Is it possible to learn from these cases and use this knowledge to help other cities usher in their own transformation? They examine transformative urban change defined as that which affects multiple sectors and institutional practices, continues across more than one political administration, and is sustained for more than 10 years, resulting in more equitable access to core services.

The goal of Towards a More Equal City is to inform urban change agents – government officials, policymakers, civil society organizations and citizens, and the private sector – about how transformative change happens, the various forms it takes, and how they can support transformation towards more equal cities.