Social Justice with Participatory Budgeting

Social justice was a goal and a value of the original experiments with participatory budgeting in Brazil. The early pioneers in participatory budgeting saw it as a tool to redirect money towards sections of society that were often left out of public spending.

Giovanni Allegretti, researcher at the Center for Social studies of Coimbra University and co-director of the Tuscany Regional authority for the Promotion of Participation, joined the PBP Study Session to share his thoughts on how PB around the world has grappled with the idea of including social justice, and what we can do about it in North America. Allegretti has spent much of his career looking at democratic innovations around the world – participatory budgeting in particular. From this, he has observed a wide variety of ways that local democratic innovators try – or don’t try – to include elements of social justice into their projects.

What is social justice?

When we talk about “social justice”, we’re broadly referring to an intentional effort to directly address some kind of social inequity. This plays out geographically, when investments concentrate in wealthier areas or areas that are on their way to becoming affluent. For Allegretti, this is importantly about recognition for those who are often left out of decision-making, and redistribution of resources to the disadvantaged.

The first task is to decide whether or not to explicitly include social justice as a declared goal in participatory budgeting. On the one hand, explicitly connecting PB to social justice may create political problems if the more advantaged stakeholders see it as potentially threatening their own interests. The hope is that the PB will nonetheless promote social justice because of the process – as people come together to decide on spending public money, they start to break down barriers around class, race, gender, religion, and others. More people are included, as the PB process opens up participation beyond the traditional “gate-keepers” to power and resources. Yet on the other hand, without explicitly naming it as a goal of PB, you risk either under- or over-selling the social justice outcomes that PB can actually deliver, or it might fall off the table as a goal altogether.

For those who do decide to intentionally incorporate social justice into their PB process, the next question is: how do you define it?

Sometimes this may be what Allegretti call’s “territorial justice”, where certain districts or areas may be chronically underfunded. In Rome, they used social mapping techniques to try to identify areas that should be targeted for PB funding. Others are concerned more with understanding social justice in the process separately from how resources are allocated. Including people with disabilities was a core concern in places like Funchal, Portugal or La Serena in Chile, which have all made special voting accommodations for blind residents and others who have disabilities.


How do you incorporate social justice with PB?

While making PB inclusive by establishing rules that open up who can participate is important, it does not necessarily mean that those who can show up actually do. As a result, places like Paris have set up separate pots of money to help with outreach for voters in more disadvantaged areas. Many places have created traveling voting booths to make voting more accessible. Others, like many cities in Portugal, have used money to train civil servants on how to facilitate effective deliberation, so that often marginalized voices don’t get lost in a huge assembly.

Research and data is important too. In Porto Alegre, a study by the Urban Studies Advice Center (CIDADE) showed that single women and widows were more likely to participate in PB. This drew attention to the ways that husbands may be restricting their wives’ involvement. In Belo Horizonte, Brazil, they initially did not establish any specific social justice criteria, but simply prepared maps of indicators to show people disparities that existed among districts. More recently they have gone further to create a single index to summarize the disparities between districts, which can then be shown on a map. Places like Sevilla, Spain have created complex metrics and indices in partnership with local universities to measure various social justice outcomes. Santo André and São Bernardo do Campo have also made serious efforts to connect offices of statistics to the PB structure.

In the US, social justice in PB has usually taken the form of making non-citizens eligible to vote, and intentional outreach strategies to get neglected communities involved. Data tracking has been crucial in measuring how effective this is. So far, there has been less discussion about how equitably resources get allocated, as they have elsewhere in the world.

Many pursue participatory budgeting from an aspiration to make democracy more accessible to all. While existing inequities make that a challenge, there is an opportunity with PB to more equitably redistribute resources as well as decision-making power. Allegretti’s work shows that while many different approaches have been tried, ultimately one of the most important factors for successful cases around the world was a group of people involved in the planning process who held social justice as a goal not to be ignored.

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About Jake Carlson

Jake is the Research Fellow at Participatory Budgeting Project, a PhD Candidate at the University of Wisconsin—Madison, and a Visiting Scholar at NYU's Urban Democracy Lab.

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