Giving power and money back to the people

2011-08-01 00:00

MSUNDUZI Municipality has been at loggerheads with local residents for what seems like years now, but a revolutionary concept from Europe, which was explained to officials and councillors last week, could pave the way for better relationships if adopted by the city.

International guest speaker Giovanni Allegretti, a political economist, shared his ideas about a new form of engagement called participative budgeting (PB). Council members listened with interest as Allegretti explained this philosophy.

The last two years at Msunduzi Municipality have been bruising. If uMgungundlovu District municipal manager Sibusiso Khuzwayo is to be believed — “We’ve had a tough learning curve”.

Allegretti was brought out by the Built Environment Support Group (BESG) to talk to local government stakeholders. He’s a pint-sized man with incredible energy. It was fascinating to watch him crunching concepts in his Italian accent, aided by a PowerPoint presentation.

He says PB is an answer to social unrest. How? The voters of a certain region get to decide how their rates and taxes are to be used. One of the positive spin-offs is a reduction of service-delivery protests.

Another benefit is the empowerment of voters, who often complain the government does nothing for them. Using PB they can see how the decisions are made and the process enables them to become “active” citizens.

Allegretti has helped transform more than 80 cities across the world, and they are using PB in various forms with great success. He says that the model is not a rigid one, and has been adapted to suit local conditions in countries in various regions of Africa, Asia and Europe.

It is hard to define participative budgeting as it has been adapted to suit various situations, but in the main, the politicians agree to turn over budgetary decisions to the citizens who are most affected by the budget.

The municipality creates spaces or public forums in which citizens can discuss and prioritise the problems facing them and their city.

They can make decisions on how to allocate part of a public budget through a series of face-to-face meetings, at local meetings, workshops, committees and other events.

He says the reason it is working successfully across all continents and political systems is because it brings power back to the people. People have, even in democracies, been feeling cut off from the politicians who make all the decisions — allegedly on their behalf.

Allegretti says : “I am not advocating that councillors who are fairly elected be replaced, but can one person successfully represent the interests of an entire neighbourhood? Especially when they are travelling and performing executive functions and playing politics.”

He believes that councils or municipalities should put aside a certain amount of their budget for PB. This budget is then allocated to the various regions. Residents in the various areas then submit proposals on how they think the money should best be spent.

In Europe, where there is a huge Internet infrastructure, the proposals are submitted electronically via e-mail and are posted onto a website where everyone can read them and post comments.

Allegretti says proposals that are similar can be merged and then after a set amount of time, a selection process is done and a short list made from the proposals that received the most votes.

The entire process is transparent and the voters can follow which proposal is getting the most votes, they can also debate among themselves why the budget would be better spent in this way.

Allegretti says: “Too often the citizens are removed from the debates in council where executive decisions are made concerning money. They really do not understand the level of debate that has gone into these decisions.

“When they have to look at these issues concerning their own region, they can get a better understanding of the dynamics involved. It’s a great educational tool for everyone involved.” In many cases people who have been promoting their own agendas are forced to look at the other issues on the table.

Allegretti says in Brazil one woman spoke at length about the need for security cameras on her street in a wealthy suburb. She received a hearty ovation from the crowd, but when all the projects were discussed, the woman did not even give her vote to her project. Instead she voted for a new child-care facility that was proposed by someone else.

In countries like Cameroon where technology is minimal there are ways to adapt the system. Allegretti says the proposals are handed in at a central venue like a library or council office where they can be viewed for a long period. Then voter­s can send in their votes via SMS. They can also send in comments.

He has worked in the Democratic Republic of Congo setting up a system and framework for PB. He asked for help from Cameroon because he did not want to impose a European model onto an African country. He said: “I wanted the PB systems to develop from the people themselves.”

The cities that have started using the PB system have found that people are paying their rates and taxes more willingly because they understand where the money is being spent.

“When people get angry they complain,” says Allegretti. “If nothing is done about their complaints they stop paying and if they still feel ignored then they get violent. It’s a cycle.”

Modern governments and civil services feel burdened by the tasks they are expected to perform for citizens — electricity, water supply, road maintenance and health services, etc. It has been a worldwide trend to outsource and privatise these functions.

But citizens do not feel like their governments care anymore and they feel like a number. One of the positive aspects of the PB system is that citizens are given an opportunity to participate again in things that affect them.

Allegretti says there are various factors which are vital to making PB work.

• Common goals are identified through proposals submitted.

• A fixed budget is allocated.

• Neighbourhood representatives are elected.

• Communities vote on the projects they would like to support.

• The civil service (municipality) provides technical support.

• The civil service approves the proposals and releases the funds.

• The projects must be completed within a fixed time period.

The PB system has taken off in South America, especially in Brazil, and there are a few cities in Asia and Africa where the concept is being tested. As the demand for greater government transparency has grown, PB offers citizens a chance to be more hands on.

Allegretti believes that PB can really offer democracies a new tool in their armoury.

Giving voters the right to choose is one thing, but allowing them to spend their own tax money is even more empowering. In Europe, the PB cities are still young, many only five years old. Allegretti believes it takes at least three years for the concept to become established.

In Europe, PB budgets are not huge and they mainly focus on minor decisions relating to street paving, neighbourhood gardens, traffic lights and similar issues.

Allegretti says that in order to give the concept real muscle, governments and civil services need to have “faith in social conscience”, believing that people can vote for the benefit of the society at large. In South America, this faith has been rewarded.

“In Brazil, PB has allowed for real meaningful change and the people have been empowered along the way. It is not a difficult concept but it does require a leap of faith. In essence — politicians must ask themselves — can you trust your people?”

 

Professor Giovani Allegretti

A WORLD-RENOWNED expert in municipal budgeting and public participation, Professor Giovanni Allegretti was co-hosted by the Built Environment Support Group, the Office of the Premier, and uMgungundlovu District Municipality under the auspices of BESG’s Deepening Democracy Project. He led a series of participatory events for senior municipal officials and councillors within uMgungundlovu District, and civil society stakeholders.

 

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