How Participatory Budgeting Can Revolutionize Governance

glass jar filled with money sitting on top of a table
Zain Murdock
January 29, 2024

In 1989, in Porto Alegre, Brazil, a new method to target poverty and child mortality emerged: a program allowing citizens into meetings to decide how to spend public funds. It’s called participatory budgeting. And although the funding amounts accounted for just 5-15% of the budget, the change was significant. 

Brazil’s success didn’t go unnoticed. It spread to other parts of the world, including the U.S.

For example, in 2013, St. Louis residents spent months brainstorming ideas, writing proposals, and voting on where to allocate funds. And with the recent movement to defund the police, calls to dismantle or reduce the power of carceral institutions to fund social services have grown in volume.

And, even when budgeting proposals aren’t directly confronting them, they still target the root causes of harm that carceral institutions aren’t designed to address, like education, poverty, and food injustice.

At the local, national, and international levels, participatory budgeting encourages us to question the conditions that exploit us. 

Why spend trillions on destructive militaries when people are starving and without healthcare? Why do prisons and police have high-tech equipment while people work multiple jobs just to be still unhoused?

When we gain the power to decide, the idea that we must exchange our agency for the “safety” of the military, prisons, and police loses its power. 

Are there participatory budgeting activities or advocacy near you?