Participatory budgeting and the bohemian lifestyle: some notes on the consulta virtual, deepening democracy, spatial fragmentation, and a sense of place in Barranco, Lima

I’ve been back in DC a couple weeks now. It’s strange, after Southern winter, to be immersed again in the dense sweaty soup of this city. And I’m still processing my time in Peru, which I spent in part attempting to engage deeply with a social and political context deeply inflected by distinctive patterns of citizen participation and contention, and by institutional arrangements meant to variously channel, contain, enable, and thwart those currents of participation.

The process of digestion is still ongoing; it’s been helped along by a piece I’m writing for the International Budget Partnership recapping and updating my earlier reporting on Lima’s innovative reforms to Peru’s participatory budgeting process (I’ll insert a link once it goes live). For now, what follows is a set of related, if slightly rambling, notes on local governance and participation, a sense of place amidst fragmentation, and the participatory budget process in Barranco, Lima.

Lima is a sprawling and disjointed place, full of local pathologies and local problem-solving. It has been called a “hackable city,” and indeed I found a sort of civic hacking coexisting quite well with urban disjunctions of all kinds in a primary site of research: Barranco, Lima’s lovely old bohemian neighborhood. It has also a bit of a shady reputation, some perhaps merely atmospheric, but some plenty well-deserved. It has its own municipal administration, part of the cluster of municipalities that make up the entirety of Lima. It is surrounded on several sides by more marginal neighborhoods, Surquillo, Chorillos, gritty, working-class and the not-working class, and this produces a distinctive dynamic as these denizens of the city intersect with artists, young and old hippies, purveyors of organic goods. It’s a curious vibe: while I have fond memories of nights spent in beautiful little cafes, drinking craft beer or great coffee, and enjoying the newest Limeña hipster electronica, I also remember a street full of car repair shops, men sitting out drinking in the middle of the day, parks full of dog shit and broken glass, people staring at me as though to say “what the hell are you doing here.”

Swimming up from nostalgia: this cluster of municipalities, aided by the policies of a city government which has committed to enhancing public participation and meeting the needs of the city’s poor and working class, has recently undertaken a sort of push toward self-help, pushing various initiatives at the local and neighborhood level to improve education and after-school programs. One of these initiatives, the creation of a youth enrichment center at the boundary of these three neighborhoods, was recently proposed for funding in Lima’s participatory budgeting exercise. As such, it was also part of the inaugural group of projects proposed in Lima’s brand-new online consulta ciudadana, an effort aimed at using online voting to expand participation in the participatory budgeting process, about which I’ve written here.

The consulta ciudadana has all sorts of interesting potential implications for the politics of Lima, and perhaps even for the institution of participatory budgeting more widely in Peru. At the most local level, I found fascinating the way that activists, residents, and members of local government took ownership of the participatory budgeting process in Barranco.

A hackable poster.

A hackable poster.

Sometimes this manifested itself in quite striking visual forms. Note, for example the photo showing a poster publicizing the virtual consultation, to which someone (perhaps municipal workers, perhaps local neighborhood activists) have affixed a sticker, indicating the number of the project proposal for which to vote. The raw material of a larger project, at the level of the entire conurbation of Lima, filters down to the smaller constituent municipalities in distinct ways, which include “hacking” posters – and also hacking processes, adding additional signifiers and appropriating political projects in ways that add layers of local ownership.

It will be interesting to watch the extent to which municipalities in Lima rally around their participatory budgeting projects. My research and conversations in Barranco indicated, as I’ve noted above, that municipal governments push hard for these projects; they stand to gain from their implementation, and are not shy about going into the streets to promote not just the consultas in general, but PB projects in their municipality. Moreover, as local citizen participation offices are staffed with veteran advocates for public participation and PB, in some neighborhoods officials and activists make common cause, overlapping in networks of mutual imbrication.


Municipal square, Centro Barranco.

Walking through Barranco one drizzly, foggy afternoon in late autumn, I met a handful of women, activists and officials, handing out fliers urging people to vote for option number 77, the youth center. With one of them, Vilma, I talked at length: she’s spent a decade working to promote citizen participation. She now works for the municipal government of Barranco, and spoke passionately of her hopes for the neighborhood should the youth center receive enough votes to earn funding. Through these participatory exercises, iterated, they might build a better Barranco, she and the women around her bundled in windbreakers and holding up signs. Another woman, Mary Elena, told me in urging their vecinos to vote, to participate more fully, these women were catalyzing a genuine revolution. A lot of the change that could take place around the PB process depends on this sort of local-level engagement by committed activists, who will have a variety of reasons to engage.

Spine-tingling graffiti. Photo credit: La Mula

Spine-tingling graffiti.
Photo credit: La Mula

So it seems likely that neighborhood policy entrepreneurs will mobilize vecinos to support geographically specific projects. And because categories of neighborhood activists, NGO figures, and municipal employees are not necessarily mutually exclusive, mobilization may occur along explicitly geographical lines, with the active participation local government figures in the neighborhood. But as voters can vote for a maximum of four projects – more than were allotted to any one neighborhood – this mobilization still could leave room for voters to vote beyond the simple confines of their neighborhood, based on more complex calculations of geographic proximity or self-interest, on gender or class solidarity. (But maybe not – while this assumes that voters use all four of the votes which they’re allowed to cast, it’s clear from the numbers that some voters did not use all their four votes, probably casting votes only for projects of the most direct significance to themselves, and leaving their remaining votes on the table, so to speak.)

This is a process which is compatible with a profound geographic fragmentation that characterizes governance across Latin America. I’ve described the (many) dark sides of this fragmented mode of governmentality in a review essay. But Lima’s PB experience presents, perhaps, a more benign face of this phenomenon of fragmentation as local actors – ordinary citizens, not just brokers and bosses – gain greater agency. This may even help knit neighborhoods previously subject to a sort of contingent political marginality – useful to central governments at the national, regional, or (in Lima) municipal level at key electoral junctures – into a broader political whole. (Note that I’m distinguishing this form of political marginality from the “myth” of economic marginality.) It is too early to say for sure, but perhaps participatory budgeting can help break patterns of brokerage by placing more power in the hands of citizens. Then again, brokerage in Peru is relatively weak by Latin American standards, so PB could, ironically, strengthen clientelistic relationships by giving brokers another point at which to insert themselves in political processes. Both of these possibilities bear watching.

As the process of expanded citizen consultation in PB is repeated, and as neighborhoods mobilize around programs, these sorts of contradictions and ironies may play important roles. I recently exchanged emails with Vilma, and our correspondence strengthened my sense that plenty of questions await resolution.

  1. Perhaps the most important single issue will be proper implementation of projects once they’re funded. Seeing the projects that they voted for actually implemented will be crucial, in Barranco and elsewhere, to ensure the long-term viability of PB and of broad-based consultations. Indeed, the ordinary people who have been invited to vote online for projects may be even less patient than seasoned advocates should projects not be implemented. This is great, of course, if it means public pressure on local governments to fulfill their obligations; but it’s very bad if it causes people to throw up their hands in disgust and exit the process.
  2. How does losing a vote affect the losers’ perception of the process’s legitimacy? When I was in touch with Vilma, she was happy, and I was happy for her; the youth center had placed seventh in overall voting, a fact that should (if implemented properly) make a real difference to young people in need of social assistance. But only 14 or 15 of the projects seem likely to be funded, out of 167 proposals. What was the reaction of the “losers” to having projects, potentially of great benefit to them, voted down? I hope that they don’t give up on the PB process, but it’s hard to make even an educated guess as to what their reaction might be.
  3. Related to that second point, if neighborhood mobilization helps determine public expenditures, at least from certain pots, what role might a sort of mobilization gap play in creating long-term barriers to realizing the benefits of the PB process? In such a case, the consulta virtual might entrench profoundly spatial divisions between winners and losers, with ambivalent or negative consequences for local legitimacy of the program in “losing” neighborhoods, and for the potential of PB to effect positive change.
  4. Finally, it’s hard to say what role straight-out resistance to expanding PB may play in some neighborhoods. In conversation, public officials have indicated that not all functionaries are as eager to push forward participatory processes as others (for example, the stalwart Vilma). Some officials are likely to be jealous of their own power and distrustful of public participation in policy-setting. If such local actors act on these sentiments, by not publicizing or campaigning for the process, they can in fact have an impact, making sure that residents do not vote, are not mobilized. In the long term, this could create another spatial marker of fragmentation, between neighborhoods that are relatively more fiscally democratic, and those that are more authoritarian.


Although I didn’t live in Barranco proper, I spent a lot of time there, and a lot of time thinking about it, spatially, politically, culinarily, and so forth. It is a neighborhood in transition, as more little boutiques are opening, and fair trade coffee shops and art galleries, and a brand-new gorgeous brewpub. And on the heels of these places are coming new apartment buildings, up-market wine bars, business lunch spots. This is all for the good, largely; I remember one conversation with a friend in which she told me that in past years taxis would not even come to the street on which her thriving café sits, in a handsome old townhouse – the street used to be too dangerous, a haunt for addicts and other marginal types. And these changes reflect well on the efforts of dedicated public servants like Vilma, who have dedicated big chunks of their lives to making Barranco a better place to live. Still, with any such changes come uncertainty.

And so there’s another question for Barranco: with respect to the PB process, might the kinds of PB projects and proposals that the neighborhood sees change in nature as the neighborhood shifts toward a more wealthy – dare I say, even a little Brooklyn – flavor of bohemianism? How will participatory institutions in Barranco change as Barranco itself changes? And will participatory processes, iterated and reiterated over the next decade, entrench spatial, political, socio-economic divisions, or knit them together and alleviate the inevitable pain and disruption which attend upon these changes?

With regard to these questions, Barranco has a lot in common with the rest of Lima, and indeed with the rest of Peru. It may offer a useful example in thinking through the implications of participatory institutions, variance in their practice, and trajectories of political and economic change.

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