Is Showing Up Enough? Lessons from Mobilizing for Participatory Budgeting in Rural Kenya

Calculator on a spreadhseet of numbers

This post was first published on the Ash Center's Challenges to Democracy blog on April 18, 2016. In this post, Juliette Keeley, MPP ‘17, explores the issue of elite capture in participatory budgeting processes. She highlights HKS Associate Professor of Public Policy Ryan Sheely’s randomized experiment in rural Kenya, which seeks to understand the links between mobilization, participatory budgeting, and elite capture. The study finds that mobilization is important in increasing participation, but may not prevent government officials, the wealthy, or other elites from co-opting the participatory budgeting processes in ways that serve their interests. More research and innovative solutions are necessary to ensure participatory budgeting enables everyday citizens, not elites, to decide how local funds are allocated.

How do you get rural Kenyan communities to fund solid waste management projects? This is the question that SAFI, a Kenya-based non-profit focused on sanitation projects, asked itself. In particular, could mobilizing communities to partake in participatory budgeting increase local funding for waste management projects?

Participatory budgeting (PB) has gained popularity as an innovative tool of democracy and development. However, PB is vulnerable to “elite capture,” or cooptation by governing leaders to serve the interests of the few. Harvard Kennedy School Associate Professor of Public Policy Ryan Sheely examines the links between mobilization, participatory budgeting, and elite capture through the efforts of SAFI to secure funding for waste management projects in rural Kenya.

In its simplest form, participatory budgeting empowers citizens to participate in the planning of their community by directly engaging in government budget planning. Citizens attend community meetings where they help identify policy problems and propose projects to address these problems.

PB began in Porto Alegro, Brazil, in 1988 and has since spread to over 1,500 municipalities, regional, and state governments around the world. PB was implemented in a number of towns in Spain, France, Italy, Germany, and Portugal. In the United States, PB appeared first in Chicago in 2007, where in the neighborhood of Rogers Park, Alderman Joe Moore used his discretionary funding budget of $1.3 million to fund 14 of the most popular projects proposed by everyday citizens. These included projects to build more bike lanes, community gardens, murals, traffic signals, and street lighting.

New York City council members began experimenting with PB in 2011, eventually winning the Harvard 2015 Innovation in American Government Award.  Last year, over 50,000 New Yorkers cast their ballots in PB sessions. This year, 28 council members are participating, giving residents a say in over $30 million in taxpayer money.

Click here for the full interactive map initiated by Tiago Peixoto

One challenge facing participatory budgeting processes around the world is elite capture. But what does elite capture mean? Who are the elites, and what exactly are they capturing? Elite capture is a jargon-y term that roughly describes the following: If the elite, in this case elected leaders or appointed bureaucrats, are able to capture planning meetings in any way, then PB’s intended purpose could be undermined. There are two main ways in which elites can do this:

  • Elites disregard the priorities chosen by citizens and choose others instead
  • Elites fill planning meetings with their supporters and exclude others

So, how do we prevent elite capture of PB initiatives? As our past posts suggest, mobilization is imperative to the success of participatory budgeting. Engaging people throughout the entire process is a crucial component of making PB truly participatory. However, mobilization on its own may not be able to stymie elite capture of PB processes. It is necessary to consider who participates and to what end, in order to measure the true ability of PB to grant citizens a say in budget allocation.

Looking at PB efforts in Nepal, Agrawal & Gupta found that those who are economically and socially better off, closer to government offices, and more educated were more likely to participate.  Lund and Saito-Kensen found that in Tanzania, hierarchical social orders within communities tend to be maintained and reproduced . However, Tanzania presented an interesting longitudinal case study in which initial ‘losers’ from PB realized what was at stake and acted to change their situation, eventually organizing and becoming more effective after a decade of PB.

In some cases, elite capture resulted in positive outcomes: studies in West Bengal showed that elites were committed to pro-poor development and prevented other bureaucrats from co-opting funds. Despite these unique cases, elite capture more often works counter to the egalitarian mission of PB initiatives. Ironically, while PB operates at the local level, a strong pro-poor government in power is crucial for reducing elite capture. This, of course, is a difficult and long development solution to achieve.

Development practitioners have sought to use mobilization campaigns to encourage participation and reduce elite capture in a variety of contexts. A randomized field experiment in Uganda, in which community members were mobilized to hold their local health providers more accountable, found that health outcomes did improve.

In the context of participatory budgeting, however, the link between mobilization and better budget allocation outcomes has not been established. Even when people are effectively mobilized, there is a risk that politicians, bureaucrats, and interest groups may still capture PB processes by filling meetings with their own supporters. In fact, there is little evidence that mobilizing community members is sufficient on its own. Professor Sheely’s study explores this link, raising serious questions about mobilization’s impact on PB.

Sheely takes a deeper look at the actual effects of mobilization on participatory budgeting outcomes through a randomized experiment in rural Kenya. In Kenya, participatory meetings were created in the 1990s as part of major decentralization efforts. The local government budgeting and planning process, known as the Local Authority Service Delivery Action Plan (LASDAP), is supposed to guarantee that community-voted projects get funding every year. In practice, however, many of the LASDAP rules are disregarded: local politicians, or elites, would either dominate planning meetings or ignore the results of the meetings.

Sheely worked with Sanitation Activities Fostering Infrastructure (SAFI), a charitable trust working to improve sanitation and recycling in the Laikipia region of Kenya, as it tried to raise local government funds through LASDAP in order to sustain its sanitation efforts. The SAFI Project Waste Management Experiment was designed to jumpstart waste management efforts by mobilizing communities in PB processes.

Sheely decided to conduct the experiment in a sample of 14 wards. Using a randomized block design, wards were matched in seven pairs based on observable characteristics. These criteria included the extent of prior SAFI activity in the ward, and ethnic heterogeneity. Within each pair, one ward received SAFI’s mobilization campaign. Randomized block designs are used to reduce the variability in a sample. The pairs of wards were more homogeneous than the group of wards as a whole.

Mobilization spurs participation but not support for SAFI

© LASDAP Mobilization Experiment 2009

Mobilization, as Sheely found, encouraged participation in targeted ways, but did not generate support for SAFI’s waste management projects.  The number of people in attendance at the LASDAP meetings in communities partaking in the mobilization campaign doubled, increasing by 40 people. Mobilizing did not affect the number of people speaking at the meetings, but the meetings did last longer.

Participation is the first step, but SAFI’s goal was specific: to get waste management projects on the list of priorities. In this respect, the results were tempered. More people showed up to meetings, but they did not vote for SAFI-related projects significantly more than the control groups. Waste-management may not have been a top priority for participants.

In response to increased mobilization, local elites in the test communities adapted their strategies to influence PB processes to secure their interests. Once two projects were proposed by participants, elites made the executive decision to fund only the one they preferred, even when each ward had been allocated funds to support both projects. Sheely says that elites were responding to possible threats to their power by “adapting the way they intervene” in participatory planning. This result was interesting in its own right because it suggests that mobilization on its own cannot prevent elite capture.

In the United States, PB seems less beholden to elite capture, perhaps because it targets small amounts of discretionary funding. Hollie Russon Gilman, author of Democracy Reinvented: Participatory Budgeting and Civic Innovation in America, says that neighborhoods and communities are the primary drivers of PB.

Hollie Russon Gilman speaking about her new book, Democracy Reinvented

In New York, for example, Community Voices Heard, a membership-based organization, has effectively mobilized low-income minority women to participate in PB processes. Strong ties to the community, the localized approach, and small amounts of funds involved contributed to reducing the incidence of elite cooptation in the United States.  More research is needed to understand the applicability of the U.S. case in developing countries.

Participatory budgeting is a powerful concept rooted in a fundamental belief in the merits of democracy. Direct participation of citizens in decision making processes and budget allocation is what democracy is all about. The image of citizens gathered together in a room, speaking up about issues that matter to them gives the sense that democracy, though messy and imperfect, is alive. Mobilization is important in participatory processes, but getting to the meeting is not sufficient. As Sheely’s research demonstrated, elite interests are resilient and will adapt to greater citizen mobilization. More research is needed to explore innovative ways to prevent elite capture and to ensure participatory budgeting accomplishes what is set out to do: give a greater voice to everyday people in the issues that matter most.

The views expressed in the Government Innovators Network blog are those of the individual author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, the John F. Kennedy School of Government, or of Harvard University.

Related Topics

Related Topics