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Contingent Democratisation? The Rise and Fall of Participatory Budgeting in Buenos Aires*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 April 2010

Dennis Rodgers is Senior Research Fellow at the Brooks World Poverty Institute, University of Manchester, and Visiting Senior Fellow in theCrisis States Research Centre, London School of Economics and Political Science. Email:


The implementation of participatory budgeting in Buenos Aires following the crisis of December 2001 was a highly unlikely event. The different parties involved had competing and contradictory agendas that did not coincide with participatory budgeting's stated aims of extending citizen participation in government, but these interacted in a way that contingently created a space for a viable process to develop. Subsequent political shifts led to the demise of participatory budgeting, but the Buenos Aires case is nevertheless important because it highlights the way in which such processes can emerge in the absence of strong programmatic politics, thereby potentially opening new avenues for the promotion of democratic innovation.


La implementación de un Presupuesto Participativo en Buenos Aires, Argentina, tras la crisis de diciembre de 2001, fue un suceso fuera de lo común. Los diferentes intereses involucrados tenían agendas contradictorias que no coincidían con los lineamientos establecidos por el Presupuesto Participativo de extender la participación ciudadana en el gobierno. Sin embargo, estos intereses interactuaron de tal forma que creó un espacio coyuntural para que se diera un proceso viable. Cambios políticos subsecuentes llevaron a la extinción del Presupuesto Participativo; sin embargo el caso de Buenos Aires es sin embargo importante debido a que resalta cómo procesos como éste pueden emerger en la ausencia de una política programática fuerte, y por lo tanto abrir nuevas vías para la innovación democrática.


Após a crise de dezembro 2001, a implementação do orçamento participativo em Buenos Aires, Argentina, representou um acontecimento altamente improvável. Os diferentes partidos envolvidos possuíam objetivos divergentes e contraditórios que nada coincidiam com as metas declaradas no Orçamento Participativo de ampliar a participação cidadã no governo, mas interagiram de forma a criar, acidentalmente, um espaço no qual um processo viável pudesse ser desenvolvido. Alterações políticas subsequentes levaram à queda do Orçamento Participativo, entretanto o caso de Bueno Aires é importante por sublinhar a maneira em que processos podem surgir na ausência de fortes políticas programáticas, portanto novos caminhos para a promoção de inovações democráticas potencialmente abrem-se.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2010

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1 Quoted in Daniel Chavez, ‘Montevideo: From Popular Participation to Good Governance’, in Daniel Chavez and Benjamin Goldfrank, The Left in the City: Participatory Local Governments in Latin America (London, 2004), p. 67.

2 See John Gaventa, ‘Towards Participatory Governance: Assessing the Transformative Possibilities’, in Sam Hickey and Giles Mohan (eds.), Participation: From Tyranny to Transformation (London, 2004); and Archon Fung and Erik O. Wright (eds.), Deepening Democracy: Institutional Innovations in Empowered Participatory Governance (London, 2003).

3 For wide-ranging collections of studies, see the special issues of Politics and Society, vol. 29, no. 1 (March 2001) on ‘Empowered Participatory Governance’; Environment and Urbanization, vol. 16, no. 2 (2004) on ‘Participatory Governance’; and the IDS Bulletin, vol. 35, no. 2 (2004) on ‘New Democratic Spaces’. See also John Harriss, Kristian Stokke and Olle Törnquist (eds.), Politicising Democracy: Local Politics and Democratisation in Developing Countries (London, 2005); Andrea Cornwall and Vera Schattan Coelho (eds.), Spaces for Change: The Politics of Participation in New Democratic Arenas (London, 2007); and Chavez and Goldfrank, The Left in the City.

4 For overviews of the workings of the Buenos Aires PB process, see Laurence Crot, Explaining Participatory Performance: The Institutional Reproduction of Participatory Planning Models in the City of Buenos Aires, unpubl. PhD diss., London School of Economics, 2007; Matías Landau, Política y participación ciudadana en la Ciudad Autónoma de Buenos Aires (Buenos Aires, 2008); Jorge Navarro, ‘Presupuesto participativo en Buenos Aires: balance y perspectiva’, in Ricardo Romero (ed.), Democracia participativa: una utopía en marcha (Buenos Aires, 2005); Dennis Rodgers, ‘Subverting the Spaces of Invitation? Local Politics and Participatory Budgeting in Post-Crisis Buenos Aires’, in Cornwall and Coelho (eds.), Spaces for Change; and Ricardo Romero, Presupuesto participativo porteño 2002–2006: evolución estructural, perfil de los participantes y análisis de prioridades (Buenos Aires, 2006).

5 Julio Godio, Argentina: en la crisis está la solución (Buenos Aires, 2002).

6 Fung and Wright (eds.), Deepening Democracy, pp. 17–25.

7 John Harriss, Kristian Stokke and Olle Törnquist, ‘Introduction: The New Local Politics of Democratisation’, in Harriss, Stokke and Törnquist (eds.), Politicising Democracy, p. 1.

8 Cornwall, Andrea, ‘Introduction: New Democratic Spaces? The Politics and Dynamics of Institutionalised Participation’, IDS Bulletin, vol. 35, no. 2 (2004), p. 1Google Scholar.

9 See Cabannes, Yves, ‘Participatory Budgeting: A Significant Contribution to Participatory Democracy’, Environment and Urbanization, vol. 16, no. 1 (2004), p. 27CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Excellent studies of the Porto Alegre PB process include Rachel Abers, Inventing Local Democracy: Grassroots Politics in Brazil (Boulder, 2000); and Gianpaolo Baiocchi, Militants and Citizens: The Politics of Participatory Democracy in Porto Alegre (Stanford, 2005).

10 Abers, Rachel, ‘From Clientelism to Cooperation: Local Government, Participatory Policy, and Civic Organizing in Porto Alegre, Brazil’, Politics and Society, vol. 26, no. 4 (1998), pp. 511–37CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

11 Peter Evans, ‘Beyond “Institutional Monocropping”: Institutions, Capabilities, and Deliberative Democracy’ (mimeo, 2002), subsequently published in modified form as Evans, Peter, ‘Development as Institutional Change: The Pitfalls of Monocropping and the Potentials of Deliberation’, Studies in Comparative International Development, vol. 38, no. 4 (2004), pp. 3052.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

12 Ibid., p. 17.

13 The issue of participation is more complex, but is beyond the scope of this article. See Acharya, Arnab, Adrián, Gurza Lavalle and Peter, Houtzager, ‘Civil Society Representation in the Participatory Budget and Deliberative Councils of São Paulo, Brazil’, IDS Bulletin, vol. 35, no. 2 (2004), pp. 40–8CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

14 See Baiocchi, Gianpaolo, ‘Participation, Activism, and Politics: The Porto Alegre Experiment and Deliberative Democratic Theory’, Politics and Society, vol. 29, no. 1 (2001), pp. 4372.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

15 Ibid., p. 45.

16 Heller, Patrick, ‘Moving the State: The Politics of Democratic Decentralisation in Kerala, South Africa and Porto Alegre’, Politics and Society, vol. 29, no. 1 (2001), p. 158CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

17 Ibid., p. 159.

18 See, for example, Gianpaolo Baiocchi (ed.), Radicals in Power: The Workers' Party and Experiments with Urban Democracy in Brazil (London, 2003), and Militants and Citizens; Goldfrank, Benjamin and Aaron, Schneider, ‘Competitive Institution Building: The PT and Participatory Budgeting in Rio Grande do Sul’, Latin American Politics and Society, vol. 48, no. 3 (2006), pp. 131CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Harriss, Stokke and Törnquist (eds.), Politicising Democracy; Peter Houtzager, Adrián Gurza Lavalle and Arnab Acharya, ‘Who Participates? Civil Society and the New Democratic Politics in Sao Paulo, Brazil’ (Institute of Development Studies working paper 210, Brighton, 2003); Donna Lee Van Cott, Radical Democracy in the Andes (Cambridge, 2008); and Brian Wampler, Participatory Budgeting in Brazil: Contestation, Cooperation, and Accountability (University Park IL, 2007).

19 Goldfrank, Benjamin, ‘The Politics of Deepening Local Democracy: Decentralization, Party Institutionalization, and Participation’, Comparative Politics, vol. 39, no. 2 (2007), p. 148Google Scholar.

20 Ibid., p. 165.

21 Individually anonymising my informants would not be enough to protect their identities given the relatively small number of people involved in running the Buenos Aires PB programme and the specificity of the information they shared with me.

22 The Buenos Aires PB experience is quantitatively the most important in Argentina, but the process has also been implemented in other municipalities, including Córdoba, Rosario, La Plata, San Miguel, San Fernando, Morón, Necochea, Comodoro Rivadavia, San Martín, Godoy Cruz, Bella Vista and Campana.

23 This seems to have been in no small part due to the force of personality and powers of negotiation of Martin Hourest, the CTA delegate to the Constitution-writing Constituent Assembly.

24 See Gobierno de la Ciudad Autónoma de Buenos Aires (GCBA), Constitución de la Ciudad Autónoma de Buenos Aires (Buenos Aires, 2003), p. 7, my translation.

25 GCBA, Constitución, p. 19, my translation.

26 At the same time, Articles 9, 10 and 29 of the 1998 administrative law regulating the procedures for establishing the annual city budget – the Ley 70 de Sistemas de Gestión, Administración Financiera y Control del Sector Público (Law 70 concerning Systems of Public Sector Management, Financial Administration and Control) – explicitly refer to the participatory nature of the city's budgeting process, and mention that this will be achieved through ‘thematic and zonal forums’ to determine ‘budget allocation priorities’ through ‘consultation with the population in both the process of elaboration and follow-up’, which is effectively the basis upon which participatory budgeting in Buenos Aires was established.

27 Laurence Crot, ‘Promoting Social Inclusion through Participatory Urban Planning: The Case of Buenos Aires’, paper presented to the N-Aerus conference held in Lund, Sweden, 16–17 Sep. 2005, p. 5, available at (accessed Feb. 2008).

28 The pact also granted autonomy to the city of Buenos Aires as part of the horse-trading between the PJ and the UCR, and theoretically provided the latter with a new political unit that it was likely to permanently control considering that party's historical domination of the city.

29 See Luis Alberto Romero, A History of Argentina in the Twentieth Century (University Park IL, 2002).

30 Crot, Explaining Participatory Performance, p. 149. To this extent, the introduction of PB into the city of Buenos Aires' Constitution can be said to have been the result of rather ‘classic’ purposeful political manoeuvring by FREPASO against the UCR.

31 See Navarro, ‘Presupuesto participativo en Buenos Aires’, for a general overview of these various initiatives. For a detailed description of the 1997–8 pilot project in La Boca and Barracas, as well as the 1998 workshops, see Lilia Godoy, ‘Presupuesto participativo en la Ciudad de Buenos Aires: Primera experiencia en la Argentina’, Revista de la Asociación Argentina de Presupuesto (Dec. 1999), available at (accessed Feb. 2008). For an assessment of the 2001 pilot project, see Ricardo Romero, ‘Presupuesto participativo y formas de recuperar la democracia: viabilidad en la Ciudad de Buenos Aires’ (mimeo, 2001).

32 See Enrique Arceo, El Presupuesto participativo en la Ciudad de Buenos Aires (Buenos Aires, 2001). Three other early adherents and promoters of PB were the NGO Poder Ciudadano (Citizen Power), the Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales (Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences, FLACSO)-led Redes de Planificación Participativa y Gestión Asociada (Co-governance and Participatory Planning Networks), and the Centro de Implementación de Políticas Públicas para la Equidad y el Crecimiento (Centre for the Implementation of Public Policies for Equity and Growth, CIPPEC). They seem to have been less influential and certainly less visible than the CTA in promoting PB, however. Nevertheless, together with the CTA, these four groups were invited to become organisational members of the Consejo Provisorio del Presupuesto Participativo (Participatory Budgeting Provisional Council) when it was set up in Sep. 2002, due to their historic links with the campaign to promote PB in Buenos Aires.

33 Early elections were called for April 2003, and saw the victory of the Peronist Nestor Kirchner.

34 See Emanuela Galasso and Martin Ravallion, ‘Social Protection in a Crisis: Argentina's Plan Jefes y Jefas’ (World Bank Policy Research working paper series no. 3165, Washington DC, 2003).

35 Marcela López Levy, We Are Millions: Neo-liberalism and New Forms of Political Action in Argentina (London, 2004), pp. 10–11.

36 Laura Tedesco, ‘Argentina's Turmoil: The Politics of Informality and the Roots of Economic Meltdown’, Cambridge Review of International Affairs, vol. 15, no. 3 (2002), p. 469.

37 See Dinerstein, Ana, ‘¡Que se vayan todos! Popular Insurrection and the Asambleas Barriales in Argentina’, Bulletin of Latin American Research, vol. 22, no. 2 (April 2003), pp. 187200Google Scholar. Between two and three million Argentinians participated in some kind of public protest during the first half of 2002, according to Petras, James, ‘Argentina: 18 Months of Popular Struggle – A Balance’, Social Policy, vol. 34, no. 1 (2003), pp. 22–8Google Scholar. The varied forms of social engagement rapidly peaked, however, and Argentina can more or less be said to have ‘normalised’ from mid-2003 onwards. In March 2003, bank accounts were unfrozen as the socio-economic situation of the country began to pick up, both at the macro-economic level, with the national growth rate for 2003 reaching over 10 per cent, as well as at the micro-economic level, with the proportion of the population under the poverty line falling significantly, from 57 per cent in October 2002 to 48 per cent in October 2003 (see, March 2004). Politically, the election of Nestor Kirchner to the presidency in April 2003 – the first nationwide election to be held post-December 2001 – also signalled a return to ‘normality’. While many predicted a huge ‘voto bronca’ (angry vote) and there were multiple calls for voters to abstain, the number of spoiled and blank votes was less than 2 per cent, and 79 per cent of the electorate voted; this was widely interpreted as indicating that people were willing to engage with the formal political system again.

38 For an excellent overview, see López Levy, We are Millions.

39 GCBA, Presupuesto participativo: una realidad (Buenos Aires, 2003), p. 4, my translation.

40 While Ibarra quickly left the Communist Party, Schifrin went on to become one of its major party political operators until joining FREPASO in the mid-1990s.

41 I was unable to interview Schifrin during my own research, but he tells the story slightly differently, suggesting that he was the one who approached Ibarra (see Crot, Explaining Participatory Performance, p. 166). Schifrin and my informants agree on the nature of the political deal that was made, however. One informant also claimed that Schifrin had come across PB during a fact-finding mission to Porto Alegre in the late 1990s to discover the reasons for the PT's longevity in power, and this was what had motivated his enthusiasm. During an interview with Laurence Crot in November 2004, however, Schifrin claimed rather vaguely that PB had simply been one of many ideas popular within leftist political circles in Argentina, and that it was an obvious initiative to implement in the face of the crisis of December 2001 – although at another point in the interview, he also suggested that he first encountered PB on a trip to Porto Alegre. I am very grateful to Laurence Crot for sharing the transcript of this interview with me.

42 This claim seems to have been at least partially borne out. Certainly, according to a survey carried out by the CEOP research consultancy, 47 per cent of participants in the 2002 participatory budgeting process pilot project had participated regularly in ‘popular assemblies’, for example (El Clarín, 24 Nov. 2002). Similarly, my own interviews with PB participants in 2003 seemed to suggest that upwards of 25 per cent of participants in the 2003 PB process had previously belonged to a neighbourhood assembly, with several even saying that they felt a greater sense of actually being able to influence the management of their own city through the PB process than they had experienced when they were simply debating in the resource-less popular assemblies. The PB process cannot be said to have constituted an institutionalisation of popular assemblies, however, as the overlap only occurred on an individual membership basis. A more accurate depiction of the relationship between the PB assemblies and the popular neighbourhood assemblies is that the former institutionally superseded the latter, but the two were very different institutions, with the PB neighbourhood assemblies being set up by the local authorities and the popular assemblies being spontaneous.

43 To this extent, PB can be said to have offered politicians a means of engaging in one of the most common forms of Argentinian politics: co-optation.

44 In 2007, the CGPs were replaced with new administrative entities, the Communes (Comunas).

45 See Levitsky, Steven, ‘An “Organised Disorganisation”: Informal Organisation and the Persistence of Local Party Structures in Argentine Peronism’, Journal of Latin American Studies, vol. 33, no. 1 (2001), pp. 2965Google Scholar.

46 See Rodgers, ‘Subverting the Spaces of Invitation?’, for an ethnographic study of the impact of PB in the Buenos Aires CGP no. 2 Sur.

47 I am grateful to Laurence Crot for bringing this exchange to my attention.

48 Navarro, ‘Presupuesto participativo en Buenos Aires’.

49 See Rodgers, ‘Subverting the Spaces of Invitation?’. The PB process, for example, constituted a valuable channel for communication and the rebuilding of trust between local neighbourhood groups and inhabitants on the one hand, and city government officials and bureaucrats on the other. This varied considerably, however, with the responsiveness of bureaucrats largely depending on whether the head of the relevant department or secretariat was a political friend or enemy of Schifrin's.

50 This included a training course held in Granada, Spain, in 1993, which half a dozen Technical Coordination team members had attended together, and during which they had first encountered PB, the Porto Alegre case being taught on the course as an innovative example of alternative local governance. This group included individuals from the central Technical Coordination team as well as from several key local Technical Coordination teams, perhaps not by accident in CGPs where PB was considered to be working best.

51 Sudipta Kaviraj, ‘On State, Society, and Discourse in India’, in James Manor (ed.), Rethinking Third World Politics (Oxford, 1991), p. 91.

52 I have deliberately chosen not to provide concrete examples in order to protect those who engaged in these activities, since many of the group still work for the GCBA. It should be noted that while the PB Technical Coordination team's autonomy from Schifrin stemmed partly from the closed nature of the group, the fact that the politicians attempting to subvert the PB process were substantively uninterested in the process in practice was also important. They tended to see it only as an instrumental means through which to achieve political domination, and were therefore happy to sign off on anything that seemed harmlessly ‘technocratic’ or ‘managerial’, which is how the members of the PB Technical Coordination team often presented their actions to the politicians.

53 Levitsky, ‘An “Organised Disorganisation”’, p. 30.

54 See Javier Auyero, Poor People's Politics: Peronist Networks and the Legacy of Evita (Durham NC, 2001).

55 See Rodgers, ‘Subverting the Spaces of Invitation?’.

56 Certainly, Schifrin himself suggested as much when he contended that Ibarra ‘seized the opportunity [to nominate me as secretary of decentralisation and citizen participation] so that I would leave the Legislature where I had personal power. Because if you are a [legislator] you have a personal electoral mandate, whereas if you are a government officer you have no other mandate than that of Ibarra. So he was most happy to appoint me as Secretary’ (Crot, Explaining Participatory Performance, p. 166).

57 Indeed, Ibarra was reportedly negotiating a formal alliance with Elisa Carrió, one of Kirchner's rivals for the presidency and leader of the Alternativa para una República de Iguales (Alternative for a Republic of Equals, ARI) party. See Cecilia Schneider, ‘La participación ciudadana en el gobierno de Buenos Aires (1996–2004): el contexto político como explicación’ (Documento CIDOB no. 21, Barcelona, 2007), p. 51.

58 See Crot, Explaining Participatory Performance, p. 232.

59 See Schneider, ‘La participación ciudadana en el gobierno de Buenos Aires’, p. 52.

60 The improvisation and informal means of operating of the original Technical Coordination teams also meant that the process was very weakly institutionalised, which probably also contributed to this state of affairs. See Crot, Explaining Participatory Performance, pp. 222–73.

61 This same informant had paradoxically extensively discussed Schifrin's attempts at political manipulation with me during an interview in 2003, arguing at the time that they had not impacted directly on local-level PB processes, but only affected ‘city-level politics’, and were therefore not a demoralising factor (at the same time, this person also explicitly gave credit to the PB Technical Coordination team at the time for shielding the PB process from the most adverse effects of politicisation).

62 See Rodgers, ‘Subverting the Spaces of Invitation?’, pp. 195–8.

63 See Matías Landau, ‘Ciudadanía y relaciones de poder: los usosde la participación en los programas de gobierno de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires’ (paper presented to the II Congreso Nacional de Sociología y VI Jornadas de Sociología de la UBA, ‘¿Para qué la Sociología en la Argentina actual?’, Buenos Aires, 20–3 Oct. 2004), p. 10. These participation levels may at first glance seem very low for a city with over four million inhabitants, but are actually very respectable when compared to the paradigmatic Porto Alegre PB process, for example, which involved 976 and 3,694 participants in its first and second years of implementation, albeit for a city approximately one-third the size of Buenos Aires (see Menegat, Rualdo, ‘Participatory Democracy and Sustainable Development: Integrated Urban Environmental Management in Porto Alegre, Brazil’, Environment and Urbanisation, vol. 14, no. 2 (2002), p. 196CrossRefGoogle Scholar).

64 See Leonardo Avritzer, Democracy and the Public Space in Latin America (Princeton, 2002), pp. 36–54.

65 Kees Koonings, ‘Surviving Regime Change? Participatory Democracy and the Politics of Citizenship in Porto Alegre, Brazil’, in Patricio Silva and Herwig Cleuren (eds.), Widening Democracy: Citizens and Participatory Schemes in Brazil and Chile (Leiden, 2009), pp. 220–1.

66 Ibid., p. 13.

67 Lowndes, Vivian, ‘Rescuing Aunt Sally: Taking Institutional Theory Seriously in Urban Politics’, Urban Studies, vol. 38, no. 11 (2001), p. 1955CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 1960.

68 I use the term ‘contingency’ in relation to ‘the condition of being free from predetermining necessity in regard to existence or action’ (Oxford English Dictionary,, consulted July 2009).

69 See respectively Merton, Robert K., ‘The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action’, American Sociological Review, vol. 1, no. 6 (1936), pp. 894904Google Scholar; and Cleaver, Frances, ‘Moral Ecological Rationality, Institutions and the Management of Common Property Resources’, Development and Change, vol. 31, no. 2 (2000), p. 382Google Scholar.

70 A parallel can be made with the notion of institutional ‘bricolage’ (see Mary Douglas, How Institutions Think (London, 1987), pp. 66–7).

71 Emphasis in original. Abers, ‘From Clientelism to Cooperation’, p. 530.