IDG began the 2013-2014 school year with a participatory budgeting process meant to increase student involvement in program group planning and financing. For students working in international contexts and committed to addressing issues of equity and governance, this offered an opportunity to experience and participate in an increasingly common practice in democratic deliberation and decision-making that many IDG students have encountered in their course of study.

Participatory budgeting, which originated in Brazil’s Porto Alegre in 1989, has been utilized in municipal governance and other development contexts to delegate citizens the power to determine how a portion of public or organizational money is spent. It has become a useful tool for engaging citizens in urban governance and decision-making, ensuring that resource distribution reflects collective priorities, and making government more accountable. Today, Participatory Budgeting has spread to over 1,500 localities, and is used in cities as diverse as Yaoundé, Cameroon, Medellín, Colombia, and New York City.

At DUSP, International Development Group faculty decided to set aside $8,000 of this year’s program group funding for participatory budgeting, which would be open to a vote by undergraduate, masters and PhD students, as well as faculty. The process began with a meeting to explain the mechanics of participatory budgeting, and over the course of two weeks students submitted proposals for general initiatives and specific projects they would like funded.

After an online vote, IDG came together again to review initial results and deliberate over fund allocation, but encountered issues related to both participatory and technical aspects of the vote. The turnout was low, with only roughly a quarter of the IDG community present, and some of the proposed categories overlapped, complicating the original distribution of votes.

At the meeting, students drew from their fieldwork or career experiences with community participation and planning into a robust debate about the process. Why was the turn out low? Were there barriers to participating or did the numbers reflect apathy about budget priorities? Did presence at the allocation meeting reflect a greater commitment by those participants, giving them legitimacy to decide the final allocation? What was the best way to determine the actual funding levels for the highest-ranked initiatives?

Ultimately the group consolidated funding proposals of into four broad categories – Field Trips, Project Funding, Cultural Event Series, and Social Events– and carried out an experimental vote in which each participant allocated a percentage value of the $8,000 to each category. The average for each category was taken and a preliminary set of results was disclosed. Debate continued about the legitimacy of the vote due to the low turnout; it was not directly democratic, nor was it representative, as those participating were volunteers. “The most efficient process is not always the most equitable,” explained master’s student Anirudh Rajashekar.

Finally, the group decided by vote that the final allocations to the new categories would be re-opened to voting by the entire IDG community. Rather than virtual voting (e.g., by email or an online survey), the group decided to open a physical ballot during a two-day voting window to allow the opportunity for full participation and increase the potential for face-to-face discussions during the voting process.

According to master’s student Claire Evans, “It was a long process, but in the end it proved to be a valuable experience. The practice allowed us to see both the strengths and challenges of the participatory budgeting process.” The final vote had a 66% turnout rate, and the results allocated the funds as follows:

Field Trips: 26% ($2,080)
Project Funding: 31% ($2,480)
Cultural Event Series: 22% (1,760)
Social Events: 21% ($1680)

For PhD Candidate Faizan Jawed Siddiqi, “That IDG decided to do participatory budgeting shows that we really believe in democratic values – we try to practice what we preach. Also, the process exposed me to the complexities in actually making participatory budgeting work – a valuable insight for a researcher interested in democratic deepening.”