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Democracy, Inspiring Stories

Fantastic Friday: Participatory Budgeting Edition

I’ll leave the Kony 2012 analysis to others who are imminently more qualified.  But one aspect of the back and forth which jumped out to me was the issue regarding the need for empowerment, self-determination and agency for communities that so frequently gets lost in discussions about how best to lend an assist in bringing about positive change.

As with the Kony campaign, there are similar dynamics that take place domestically as well, though they are just not as stark for a number of reasons.  To put it more bluntly, the idea that “others” can come in and solve issues related to specific communities (most often lower income and minority), often without their input, is a mindset that has plagued America for as long as one can remember, going back to Manifest Destiny and even slavery.  There is a sense that “experts” and benevolent saviors can seize the day and change what has been going on with the wave of a magic wand and increased attention and dollars.  Kony 2012 and the Invisible Children campaign highlights this fact to an extreme, given the tremendous disconnect between the cultures, experiences and local knowledge of those that run Invisible Children and are responding to their video and those that are largely subjects of the campaign.

But this gulf, while smaller, still exists everywhere within  the United States as well.  Large numbers of non-profits, NGOs, charter school founders, think tanks, foundations, Occupy Wall Streeters, and, most egregiously in my opinion, politicians, often with the best of intentions, have little to no experience with specific communities.  Therefore, this lack of experience often leads to a limited knowledge of the needs of the communities they are giving their time to try to positively impact and, frequently, a paternalistic mindset of “improving” or “saving” as opposed to “empowering” or “assisting.”  This doesn’t really serve the interests of those that are in need, nor those with the good hearts, as their efforts would likely be considerably more successful if more input were sought from the people being affected by each program activity and policy.

With that in mind, I was particularly excited to learn that New York City, has become the second US city (Chicago being the first) to pilot the idea of Participatory Budgeting.  As the Participatory Budgeting Project explains:

Participatory budgeting (PB) is a democratic process in which community members directly decide how to spend part of a public budget.

Community members make budget decisions through an annual series of local assemblies and meetings. Although there are many models of participatory budgeting, most follow a basic process: diagnosis, discussion, decision-making, implementation, and monitoring.

      • Residents identify local priority needs, generate ideas to respond to these needs, and choose budget representatives for each community.
      • These representatives discuss the local priorities and develop concrete projects that address them, together with experts.
      • Residents vote for which of these projects to fund.
      • The government implements the chosen projects.
      • Residents monitor the implementation of budget projects.

For example, if residents identify recreation spaces as a priority, their budget representatives might develop a proposal for a new basketball court. The residents would then vote on this and other proposals, and if they approve the basketball court, the city pays to build it.

The benefits of PB are tremendous.  As has been demonstrated most prominently in Porto Alegre in Brasil, as well as several other cities around the globe, PB often results in:

  • Empowering individual community members by listening to their voices and including them in the decision making process
  • More equitable results given the input from a broader range of people, frequently including those who have been marginalized in the past
  • Improved results from budgetary spending as local communities frequently have better knowledge of their community needs than outsiders
  • Strengthened communities with stronger relationships among community members
  • Better implementation of agreed upon programs policies and institutions due to increased agency

For all of these reasons, I am looking forward to NYC’s PB pilot.  There are four districts included, so if you are in District 8, 32, 39 or 45, it might be worth getting involved.  And drag me along to observe as well while you’re at it.  Voting occurs later this month on different projects which have been created, discussed and refined for several months. We need more of this, so I, for one, am certainly excited to see what lies ahead!

Below is a great clip of Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito discussing Participatory Budgeting and her reasons for adopting it in her district (starts about a minute into video)…

Have a Fantastic Friday everyone!



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