Magazine article New Internationalist

Take Control

Magazine article New Internationalist

Take Control

Article excerpt

REPRESENTATIVE democracy means decisions of 'public interest' in our transport, environment, economy, education and health systems are left to elected politicians and bureaucrats. Left, then often neglected. But many ordinary people are no longer prepared to be mere spectators in this system. They are standing up to say: 'Hold on. WE are the Government!' And, sick of being faced with government programmes and policies that are failing to deliver, they are taking control - often with spectacularly successful results.

As, for example, in Porto Alegre with its participative budget. Although its success can theoretically translate into any area of regional or national government, the best examples are currently at a local level. And it's not only South Americans who are nurturing this spirit of people participation. Just south of Seville in Spain, is Las Cabezas de San Juan - an area with 16,000 people and with a 30-per-cent illiteracy rate. It adopted its first participative budget last year. They call it 'the sharing'. Municipal government has taken public administration to the streets and hired artists to make a film inviting people to get involved. Implementing a 3-tiered process, 15-per-cent of the population actively participated in the budget and then in some neighbourhoods went on to decide new environmental rules, traffic regulations and ways to use public space.

So while participation may centre around budgets, the decisions people are making are not just economic. Rather, budgets are providing the money so that ordinary people's decisions across all areas of public life can become a reality. Probably the largest process of this kind to have taken place in the world today is in the state of Kerala in India. From 1996 to 2001, 35-per-cent of the state government development budget has been given over to local communities to spend as they choose. Championing the slogan 'power to the people', over two million of Kerala's thirty-one million people have been mobilized to give birth to health, agriculture, childcare, work, education and anti-discrimination initiatives: each individually tailored to the needs of their local communities. …

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