Journal Article

IDS Bulletin Vol. 35 Nos. 2

Civil Society Representation in the Participatory Budget and Deliberative Councils of São Paulo, Brazil

Published on 1 April 2004

Civil society organisations participate as representatives of a range of social groups, values and interests in the participatory budget and deliberative policy councils in the city of São Paulo, Brazil. This participation is significant, both in terms of numbers of organisations and in terms of organisations’ assessment of the value of participation.

In our study of civil society organisations who work with or for the urban poor and working class, 59 per cent had some form of participation and the vast majority of those who participate stated that doing so was very important or indispensable. One of the questions this poses is how do organisations that participate differ from those that do not and, what increases the likelihood of participation?

Organisations’ differential capacity to participate has remained hidden in studies of citizen participation. Most studies on participation share a civil society perspective that makes few analytic distinctions within civil society and pays little attention to factors, such as institutions, that shape actors’ differential capacities for action. Most work, for example, does not distinguish, empirically or at the level of theory, between the participation of individual citizens and that of civil society organisations. Yet the two obey quite distinct logics; individuals and organisations have different capacities for action (including participation) and these capacities are likely to be shaped by different constellations of factors. In this article we therefore suggest a polity perspective on civil society participation that is sensitive to the differential capacity for action and to institutional effects.

The dispersed and heterogeneous nature of citizen participation, its relative youth in many parts of the world and the particular epistemological and historical origins of the debate on civil society and participation, has meant that the state of knowledge in this area in fact lags behind the concrete experimentation that is being undertaken. Most empirical research has taken the form of case studies of particular experiments or of particular civil society organisations. To draw conclusions that are reasonable across diverse contexts, analysts have had to engage in forms of comparative anecdotalism, that is, idiosyncratic cases from different contexts are herded together into a single explanation or generalisation. Furthermore, most studies select on the dependent variable, that is, they focus on actors who are participating, making it impossible to compare the characteristics and strategies of actors who are in participatory spaces with those who have stayed out of them.

This article is based on a unique survey of 229 civil society organisations that work with or for people in low-middle class, working class and poor neighbourhoods to solve individual and collective problems and/or to provide some degree of representation vis-à-vis government in São Paulo (municipality, population 10 million). The survey sought to identify factors that increase the propensity of such actors to engage with policy-making participatory institutions. It used modified snowball sampling to meet the challenges posed by the diverse and dispersed nature of civil society actors. It generated a representative sample of civil society actors that are more active and hence, most likely to enter and use the three types of participatory policy-making institutions in São Paulo: the participatory budget, deliberative policy councils and an aggregate type of all forms of participation in policy-making institutions.

The findings support the claims that, in the case of São Paulo, there are powerful institutional effects on the participation of civil society organisations. The best predictor of whether an organisation participates, in any of the three types of spaces, is the presence of relations to traditional institutional actors: the Workers’ Party or the State, and the design of the institutions. The organisational form actors take, in terms of a typology of organisations developed in the article, also has a significant impact on who participates. What we call advocacy nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) are less likely to participate than community associations and coordinators. In contrast, the wealth of an organisation does not influence participation, nor do the issue-areas in which an actor works, nor how it works.

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This article comes from the IDS Bulletin 35.2 (2004) Civil Society Representation in the Participatory Budget and Deliberative Councils of São Paulo, Brazil

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Acharya, A., Lavalle, A., G. and Houtzager, P., P. (2004) Civil Society Representation in the Participatory Budget and Deliberative Councils of São Paulo, Brazil. IDS Bulletin 35(2): 40-48

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Image of Peter P. Houtzager

Peter P. Houtzager

Research Fellow

Arnab Acharya

Adrián Gurza Lavalle

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Houtzager, P. P.
IDS Bulletin, volume 35, issue 2


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