Brazil’s emergence from two decades of military dictatorship in the mid-1980s gave rise to a flowering of democratic innovation. Experiences during the struggle for democracy shaped the experiments that took place over the following years to create institutions that could ensure the accountability and responsiveness of the new democratic state. Innovations in participatory governance, such as participatory budgeting and sectoral policy councils and conferences at each tier of government, provided crucibles for new meanings and expressions of citizenship and democracy.
Brazil’s participatory institutions have attracted considerable international attention. Academics, activists and practitioners in countries, with very different political histories and cultures of governance, have looked to Brazil for inspiration and have sought to replicate Brazil’s democratic experiments in their own contexts. Brazilian models may seem an attractive new component to include in the democracy building packages favoured by aid agencies. But, this paper suggests, the contribution that Brazil’s democratic innovations have to deepening democracy, enhancing accountability and engaging citizens may lie not only in their innovative institutional design but also in what Brazilian experience can teach us about the pre-conditions for effective participatory governance.
Focusing on the north and north east of the country, whose experience is under-represented in the international literature, this paper draws together insights from four extended case studies, carried out as part of a research process that brought together activists, practitioners and academics, in a collaborative study of the meanings and practices of participation and citizenship in Brazil.