Cabo de Santo Agostino is a poor suburban municipality, outside of Recife, that has a population of around 170,000. In 2005 local residents’ associations, NGOs and social movements got together and created the Forum of Poor People’s Entities of Cabo (Forum de Entidades Populares do Cabo). The objective of the Forum, which has a membership of around 20 organizations, is to monitor local public policies in the areas of housing, sanitation, transportation and environment and also to influence the city planning process. During its first five years of existence it has become a significant political actor in Cabo.
Starting from the first meetings of the Forum, participants demanded that a strategy be developed to influence the City’s budget. Nivete Azevedo is the director of a local civil society organization called the Centro das Mulheres do Cabo, and a founding member of the Forum. “It wasn’t enough to protest,” she says, , “we wanted to act within the local budgeting process.”
This turned out to be trickier than they first expected. To understand how the Forum managed to achieve its goals one needs to know a bit about the local government budgetary process in Brazil. According to a law passed in 2001, called the “Statute of the City,” all towns over 20,000 have to create a participatory development plan which orients/ the annual budget. Participation is guaranteed by law in the form of public debates and hearings during which the annual budget is presented, and by allowing “people’s legal initiatives” in which any budget line can be altered through a petition as long as it doesn’t shrink the size of certain federally mandated disbursements for areas like Health and Education. Although the Statute of the City represented a huge step forward, the Forum soon discovered that there was enough flexibility in the law for local governments to effectively limit participation.
In a typical Brazilian city the mayor’s cabinet prepares the annual budget before submitting it for analysis and ratification by the City Council. According to Brazilian law the public has to have access to the budget and time to participate before it is submitted to the Council. In Cabo de Santo Agostino, however, the mayor only opens the budget for public scrutiny for two hours each year, allowing exactly one day for the public to suggest alterations. After it is submitted to the city council it is opened for public scrutiny for one month so that City Council members can suggest modifications and bring it up for vote. According to Ms. Azevedo, 30 days proved to be too short of a time period for the Forum to analyze the budget proposal and gather together the 10,000 signatures needed (based on population of the city) in order to submit a people’s amendment. In this case, participation in the city budget process was merely symbolic.
In order to bypass this obstacle, the Forum came up with a new strategy. Every year when the budget is opened to the public, the Forum meets and creates its own budget amendments. Then it searches for allies in the City Council to submit them for vote. During the year the Forum holds a series of monthly meetings in which an annual plan is made that establishes priorities for the following year’s budget. Once the objectives are established Forum members decide whether they want to create a full amendment or merely suggest line item alterations in a manner that will strengthen their objectives. The alterations are drafted and then Forum members look for an ally in the City Council to sponsor the changes and go door to door asking for all the City Council members to vote on the initiative.
In 2010, the Forum decided to give priority to low income housing in their annual plan. An amendment was drafted up, allocating more money for low income housing, guaranteeing that the social movements would be able to decide who receives a percentage of the housing and, in accord with the women’s rights’ objectives of the Forum, designated a priority in housing allocations for domestic workers.
In the 5 years since the Forum was created, it has become a significant political force in Cabo de Santo Agostino. Now, once a year, an extraordinary session of the City Council is held in which the Forum presents its ideas in an attempt to build recognition and supporty for the suggested changes and convince the councilors to ratify them.
After its success at the local level the Forum was invited to help develop a strategy with the Pernambuco Urban Reform Forum to influence the state budget on urban poverty issues.
According to Nivete Azevedo, the biggest challenge faced by the Forum de Entidades Populares do Cabo is to pressure the government to implement the budget after it has passed in the city council. “Our strategy is working in the sense that we are able to influence our proposals to be included in the annual budget”, she says, “but although we have been partially successful, we are still having problems guaranteeing that all of the money is allocated properly”.