Five years ago – in 2018 – Dr Wegene Demeke and I were awarded £10,000 from the Global Challenges Research Fund for a visit to São Paulo City, Brazil, to begin to investigate the extent to which participatory budgeting (PB – Orçamento Participativo in Portuguese) benefits the very poor. Our research visit took place in January 2019, but it has taken to now – May 2023 – to get a paper accepted for publication. So why did this process take 5 years?
We had been strongly warned to avoid favelas, so interviewing very poor people was likely to be impossible. However, I hoped we’d access documents describing PB outcomes, and build relationships to enable ‘human-centred’ research later on. We were able to build such relationships, and were able to gather some data from people, but didn’t get anywhere near any documentation.
We spent a lot of time speaking with relevant academics and São Paulo City civil servants. We devised and piloted interview questions, while our Brazilian hosts arranged more engagements. We’d have liked ask them of all the relevant groups (ordinary citizens, members of PB councils, ‘representative’ councillors, mayors) to learn how they engage with each other about PB but only managed to run a focus-group with members of PB councils. However, we came home with a bunch of ideas and data, along with some very happy memories, looking forward to publishing something in the same year.
The delays start
The first problem was that most of the focus-group speech was in Portuguese. While our hosts gave brief in situ translations, we needed to work from a full translation of the participants’ actual words. Fortunately, a Paulistano post-doc at a UK university whose academic interest was in PB transcribed the recording.
I then put an anonymised version of the transcription through GoogleTranslate. This was then checked by someone who is Portuguese-English bilingual. So by early 2020 we had a translation of the focus group, transcriptions of interviews with academics and stakeholders and a lot of field-notes. Surely this was enough to begin writing?
Not quite: we had learnt of many barriers to PB functioning well but not much about PB’s benefits (or their lack) to the very poor. For example, a human geography professor had told us how poor people are constrained to the outskirts of cities, away from influence on the powers-that-be, but this wasn’t hard data we could analyse. However, the focus-group participants had said a lot about issues with PB processes and systems.
So in May 2021 I finished a project report focusing on this question: What are the barriers to the participatory budgeting form of democratic participation amongst economically deprived populations in Brazil? The conclusion to this report is an appendix to this blog-post. Meanwhile Wegene had submitted this article on translation issues in information research.
Light at the end of the kennel?
By now, Associate professor Peter Cruickshank had begun analysing the statements in the anonymized focus-group transcription from an information literacy (IL) viewpoint. He also drew out some further points about translation. We went through the usual editing and internal review processes, then submitted a manuscript to a journal in late 2022.
However, the journal replied in January 2023 that, while the manuscript made an ‘important contribution’, it contained two papers – one on ‘IL in PB’ and another on ‘methodological questions about translation’. Would we remove the latter, then resubmit a paper focusing the former?
We submitted a second version in February 2023. We were asked for a few further revisions in April, and so submitted a further revision in early May. We learnt a week later that the paper would be published in December 2023. Phew!
So what can we make of all this? Working backwards:
- It can a few months from acceptance of a final draft to publication.
- Before that, it can take a long time to write the first draft. Then there is further editing and review by colleagues.
- To get to the first draft, you need a clear plan, including the analysis framework or viewpoint.
- To enable the analysis, you also need a clear route past ‘logistical’ barriers to working with data drawn from humans.
- And of course you need money, time and a very clear idea about the following stages to go and gather data!
Hindsight is all very well of course – if I’d foreseen any of the barriers above, I’d have planned around them. As it is, I hope to return to Brazil some day. It’s an amazing, interesting country, and there is still a lot to learn, even if PB is waning there.
Appendix: barriers to participation in PB in Brazil
There appears to be some structural factors that inhibit use of PB in general. Firstly, it may be that the governments of Brazil are comfortable with not doing PB (or other forms of ‘political’ participation), despite the democratic PB structures that exist. Also, PB goes not have consistent support across time or from place to place. Unsurprisingly, then, general levels of participation in PB are low.
People may be further discouraged from participating in PB due to some participative councils not having decision-making powers. (It is understandable that people may prefer to be involved in structures that do have influence, whether that is over their own lives or over others. It is also understandable that poor people feel this pull more markedly – they may well need to concentrate on just surviving.)
Negative perceptions of PB structures may be in part due to lack of transparency. It is understandable that such views may be exacerbated by institutionalisation and ‘fracture’, i.e. the sheer number of PB structures in São Paulo would make it difficult to navigate these and hence achieve results.
It may be expected that consistency would enable people to learn to use PB to achieve desired actions. If so, the changes that appear to occur as city administrations occur will hamper this. Paulistanos cannot obtain consistent ‘lessons’ from other areas of Brazil, because PB varies across time in other places.
For PB to be effective, city administrations need to support it by giving it power to deliver effective results. Some have, others have not. Indeed some mayors and administrations have acted directly against it. This may be due to ideological reasons, or it may be that administrations feel that decision-making by representative democracy is more effective.
Even when city administrations would support PB, there are other problems. Firstly, there is a general lack of interest in political matters. Also, it has been observed that even in ‘effective’ PB instances in other countries there are low participation rates in it, and in other direct-democracy instances. Participation is likely to be discouraged by lack of political education/knowledge/literacy. Further, there are apparently serious issues around governance, co-ordination and delivery of projects that are decided upon by PB. This lack is reflected in issues around availability of, and access to, information about PB processes. (This is explored further in the next section.)
Strictly focusing on poor people, arguably, money is the biggest problem/barrier. There are insufficient funds to deliver many desired projects. It is understandable that people, especially poor people, simply not be interested in structures that cannot deliver them worthwhile benefits. Further, because participative councillors are not paid, it is highly unlikely that poor people will take part in the administration of PB processes, and thus attract their peers to take part even in voting. Further, there are social factors pushing poor people away from power-structures. (That is, São Paulo’s main administration is in the city centre, but poor people are likely to be ‘encouraged’ to live in the periphery.) Hence access to power that would act to favour participation is reduced for such people. Hence it is no surprise that the very poor are not supported by or represented in PB and other political processes
 Here’s my blog-posts from the visit.