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Practical Politics for You and Me: Participatory Budgeting

From big cities to remote villages, participatory budgeting takes many different forms. (photo by Kent Chuang)

From big cities to remote villages, participatory budgeting takes many different forms. (photo by Kent Chuang)
 

Taiwanese citizens are fortunate because our constitution guarantees many civil liberties, including universal suffrage, freedom of speech and thought, the right to life, and the right to education, among others. Put into practice, this not only means that we are allowed to vote in elections, but the various rights which we enjoy also require that we—as responsible citizens—should proactively engage with public issues, reject trash talk and empty words, and take the initiative to act.

 

As members of society, we all understand that the world is not perfect, and that established systems are often less than satisfactory. We can take charge of our private affairs, but effecting social change is no easy task. However, since “parti­cip­atory budgeting” was introduced to Taiwan in 2015, we have been able to redress some of the defects of our representative democracy. This new system provides an ideal opportunity for every­one to get involved in politics.

Never too old to participate

“It’s all hot air!” You used to hear these words very often from elderly residents of Longtan Village in Yunlin County’s Dongshi Township. In that remote, predominantly rural com­mun­ity with its aging population, most people will probably be baffled if you talk to them about “civic engagement.” But when asked what they think of their community, they all have something to say.

Things were quite different there a few years ago. With the disappearance of the close-knit interpersonal networks that characterize traditional rural communities, old farmers went to work alone and then returned home alone to sit in front of their televisions, day in, day out. Some of those who lived alone even died alone, their bodies not being dis­covered until several days after they had passed away.

The involvement of the Yunlin County Participatory Democracy Association has brought significant changes to this community. Devoted to the promotion of grassroots demo­cracy, youngsters like Wang Jyun-kai, Wu Song-lin and Hsu Wei-ching have been collaborating with Yunlin Favorlang River Community College, which has obtained funding from the Ministry of Education’s “Learning Cities” project. They have gradually obtained the support of the village chief and of members of Longtan’s community development association in order, slowly but steadily, to make changes happen in the village, which had so long been in decline.

But mobilizing the villagers has turned out to be a herculean task. Past experience showed that you could at best expect two or three people to turn up at meetings to discuss communal matters. These meetings inevitably came to nothing. In order to encourage more villagers to par­ti­cip­ate, the village chief went to great lengths, visiting every household to listen to opinions and to invite every­one to attend public meetings.

Although the budget available to the villagers amounted to just NT$100,000, a consensus was reached during a meeting that a community kitchen needed to be established, something that many residents had long hoped for. “The idea of a com­mun­ity kitchen is not just to ensure that there’s good food for old people; it’s also to ensure that we can see them every day.” Village chief ­Huang Shi­yuan is very much aware that even more than protecting the physical health of elderly people, it is vitally important to forge stronger ties between the villagers so as to establish interpersonal networks that can provide mutual care and support within this ageing community. “I call this ‘a connection of love.’”

Participatory budgeting in Taiwan

Longtan’s elderly villagers were not unfamiliar with meetings and discussions, but experience told them that residents’ assemblies always turned out to be more about form than substance. They therefore came to view these occasions as producing nothing but “hot air.”

It was precisely to address problems of this kind that participatory budgeting—which puts into practice the idea that “my budget is for me to decide”—came into being. First seen in Brazil’s Porto Alegre in 1988, participatory budgeting was originally intended to redress deficiencies in representative democracy. In addition to attending more closely to the needs of the people, the system aims to better care for underprivileged citizens by redistributing public resources.

Participatory budgeting has been practiced in other countries for more than 30 years. It is relatively new to Taiwan: not until the 2014 local elections was the idea floated and debated by Taipei City mayoral candidates Ko Wen-je and Sean Lien. It has since developed into the two mainstream models we see today.

Headed by government agencies, the first model allows agency chiefs to allot part of their budgets to promote projects within their remits. At the local level, this model is represented by the cities of Taipei, Taichung and Taoyuan. At the national level, a prominent example is the Ministry of Culture’s “Community Development 2.0” initiative.

The second model of participatory budgeting centers on local councilors, who can allot money from the government funds that are at their discretion. Because it originates in Chicago, where a similar system of discretionary funds is operated, this is called the “Chicago Model.”

Starting with civic engagement

Chen Yi-chun was the first councilor in Taiwan to try her hand at participatory budgeting. Hitherto, the main way councilors serve their constituents has been that individuals visit councilors to ask for help with their problems, which councilors then handle on a case-by-case basis. By contrast, what participatory budgeting emphasizes is proactive civic engagement. Chen says: “Citizens take the initiative to come forward and discuss changes they want to make. Far from being confined to specific individuals, the impact will be collective. We join forces to make our dreams come true.”

In 2015, Chen began an experiment with the community she was serving, Daguan in Taipei City’s Xindian District, and allocated the small amount of NT$600,000 for local use. Over the past few years, this has risen to NT$5 million, and the local residents have been encouraged to put forward their proposals.

The practice of participatory budgeting has made residents realize that “politics” is actually not something beyond their reach. Those mothers who bring their children to play in the local park used to do little more than grumble to each other about the cookie-­cutter plastic playground equipment. But they have now teamed up with “Taiwan Parks & Playgrounds for Children by Children” to design their own bespoke playground facilities, thus transforming the com­mun­ity’s antiquated park into an inclusive modern space with a lot of character that suits young and old alike.

Is there anywhere you think your local government falls short? Can you suggest ways to make improvements? Come and have your say through participatory budgeting—do your part as an active citizen and reap the rewards!