What’s the point of participating?

By Markus Holdo

Protests and crises put pressure on many governments these days. From the Indignados and Occupy movements to recent environmental activists, protestors have demanded to be heard. And sometimes, in Spanish municipalities or France under Emmanuel Macron, governments respond by offering deliberation. Especially in local politics, new forms of participatory decision-making are becoming more and more common.

But local participation rarely affects government priorities beyond small adjustments to a municipal budget. What activists see as unjust, governments regard as necessary. So what’s the point of participating? Isn’t it just a way for governments to distract people?

In my contribution to the book Reclaiming Participatory Governance, I explore this question based on my research from Argentina.

From protests to participation

For many years, I have studied community organizing in marginalized suburbs in different cities. In Rosario, Argentina, I have followed the work of people who volunteer to be councilors in participatory budgeting.

It began in 2002 after a financial crisis threw half the population into poverty, and protests and riots in Buenos Aires forced the president to resign. In Rosario, the municipality hoped to rebuild the trust many had lost by inviting people to take part in participatory budgeting.

The distrust is still clearly present. “The socialist party are no fools,” said a man who had participated for many years. “They try to make you part of the machine.”

But despite tensions and distrust, participatory budgeting has come to play an important role for activists in marginalized neighborhoods. They come to meetings with the municipality every week, eight months of the year. And between meetings, they speak to people in their neighborhoods to develop proposals with the widest possible support. To be a participatory budgeting “councilor” has become a source of pride. It signifies being a node in the community and someone who knows how to defend its interests.   

Caring for democracy

Above all, participating is about caring. In feminist theory, the ethics of care calls attention to unrecognized, and often unpaid, labor that helps maintain and repair human relations. It includes health, child, and elderly care in welfare institutions or the domestic sphere. Women, working-class people, and ethnic minorities do most of it. Some provide, and others receive care disproportionately. By politicizing care, we can redistribute it and create a more caring world.

I use the idea of care in my work to similarly call attention to the unrecognized labor that local activists do. As policymakers let segregation and inequality increase, “democratic care workers” rebuild relations of trust and maintain people’s belief in change. Without them, democracy would be unsustainable.

Many people I have met at participatory budgeting meetings seem to have an endless passion for their communities. They remind me of people who devote much of their time to family members who need help. Or people who work tirelessly at health care centers or women’s shelters. People who keep showing up for others wherever they are most needed.

In fact, they are often the same people. “I take care of my family, I take care of work, I take care of the church, I take care of participatory budgeting,” said one woman I talked to. We were sitting at her workplace, a health care center in Rosario. “My neighbors always say, ‘look there she goes again, running! Where are you running now?’” She laughed. “You learn to run!”

The politics of participation

But people who participate don’t necessarily get the democratic deepening they want. And when they don’t, their participation risks lending legitimacy to a government whose policies many of them oppose.

So can participation make a real difference? It depends. In Rosario, activists have been able to renegotiate the terms of their cooperation. They do this by calling attention to how their participation is essential for democracy to work. And they use that recognition to promote the interests of their communities.

Over the years, they have demanded more resources so that they can propose more and larger projects. They have also managed to change the distribution of resources to benefit the city’s poorer areas. And the municipality has agreed to move recurring proposals into the ordinary budget, thereby making more funding available for new proposals.

But perhaps the most important consequence is not material: people representing marginalized neighborhoods have been able to use participatory budgeting to challenge ideas about who can speak in public and be taken seriously.

The difference participation makes

Participation does not change the world dramatically or rapidly. It might not change much at all. Realistically, what difference can local participation make in a world of global capitalism?

But maybe change happens not through the most spectacular protests or new leaders asking us to believe in them. Perhaps it happens as more people are reminded of what it feels like to care deeply about something, what it feels like to be there every week to speak to those in power about the needs of your community. And to see what it means for people who might otherwise feel that no one cares about their needs.

Even if it doesn’t change much, maybe it can still make a big difference?

Markus Holdo works at Lund University in Sweden, where he teaches in the politics department and leads research projects on activism and democracy. He aims to gather insights valuable to people working to make societies more inclusive, equal, and caring.

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