Lynne Rienner Publishers Logo

Inventing Local Democracy: Grassroots Politics in Brazil

Rebecca Neaera Abers
Inventing Local Democracy: Grassroots Politics in Brazil
ISBN: 978-1-55587-893-1
ISBN: 978-1-62637-137-8
2000/274 pages/LC: 00--022608

"Should interest anyone concerned with the development of democratic institutions and practices in Latin America.... Impressively researched, theoretically sophisticated and cogently written. —Eliza Willis, Journal of Latin American Studies

"Inventing Local Democracy is a welcome and much-awaited piece of research.... Addresses not only the traditional political processes that take place in Brazil, but also the initiatives underway to transform them into more democratic ones."—Carlos Pessoa, Canadian Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Studies Review

"A rich case study of an important phenomenon that speaks to a divers array of topics, including decentralization, social capital, urban policy, and democratization. Readers with an interest in these topics will find this book compelling."—Lisa Baldez, Political Science Quarterly

"Highly informative for those interested in social movements, state-society relations, participatory democracy, and exceptionalism as a means of testing the limits of general propositions.... It makes a significant contribution to the discipline."—David Covin, American Political Science Review

"A giant leap forward in [the] analysis of grassroots participation in democratic governance. It is also a riveting read.… This book is a study of Porto Alegre in the sense that Jane Mansbridge's Beyond Adversary Democracy is a study of New England, or Philip Selznick's TVA and the Grassroots is a study of Tennessee. It has the potential to join these as a classic contribution to the field."—Margaret Keck


Countless studies of citizen participation in public decisionmaking point out the limitations of direct democracy when it is transported from the realm of political theory into the "real world." In contrast, this book examines a case where an innovative city government gave major decisionmaking power to ordinary citizens on a large scale—and managed to survive and prosper.

Since 1989, the government of Porto Alegre, Brazil, led by the Workers' Party, has implemented a participatory budget program that is becoming a model for policymakers worldwide. Each year in this regional capital of 1.3 million people, residents meet in their neighborhoods to determine budget priorities. Tens of thousands attend the annual budget assemblies. Nearly a thousand work as delegates year-round, and a popularly elected council has final say on all city spending.

Inventing Local Democracy tells this dramatic story of a group of activists who came to power in a city long dominated by patronage politics and elite rule. At the same time, it is a sociopolitical study of the impact that state-sponsored participatory forums can have on civil society. Examining this dual transformation, Abers provides a groundbreaking contribution to the theory of participatory democracy.


Rebecca Abers is associated researcher at the Center for Public Policy Research at the University of Brasilia.


  • Introduction: Participation, Empowerment, and State-Society Relations.
  • Urban Politics and Neighborhood Organizing in Brazil.
  • Transforming Local Governance: The PT and the Challenges of Participation.
  • Participation and Governability.
  • Building Political Support.
  • Who Participates? Inequality and the Participatory Budget Process.
  • Mobilizing Neighborhoods.
  • From Clientelism to Cooperation: Strengthening Civic Organizations.
  • Building "Enlarged Thinking."
  • Resisting Co-option, Contesting Government Control.
  • Navigating the Dilemmas of Participatory Democracy.