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From Farm to Forum: Paysandú, Uruguay

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Asociación Productores Lecheros de Paysandú (APLP) provides an example of how an already-developed civic culture combined with a sympathetic government boosted grassroots participation in a rural area. The context for the grant APLP was an ongoing exodus to urban areas that fueled the disappearance of family dairies in Paysandú. Many farm families were poor and their rudimentary services did not include electricity. The migration of young people was a source of real pain in families unable to keep their children on the farm. The economic crisis of the 1990s worsened the situation.

The grantee’s goal was a stronger network of dairy farmers, increased production and more participation in mesas zonales, literally “area tables” but functionally neighborhood boards where rural residents negotiate the maintenance of community infrastructure, health care and education. The mesas had been created by the Consejo Económico Social (CES), which in 2000 brought together organized citizens in Paysandú, including representatives from APLP, business, government agencies, the local university and grassroots groups to draft a long-term development plan for the department. One of APLP’s goals was to train 120 residents to participate in the mesas zonales. When IAF funding ended, 250 had been trained and six mesas zonales, working together, had moved beyond presenting proposals and were involved in allocating the budget in Paysandú. Economic goals were also achieved. Members of the producers’ association saw advances in technical knowledge, access to farm inputs, higher income and a more productive relationship for the dairy sector with the Uruguayan government, not least because the APLP’s secretary general became president of the Instituto Nacional de la Leche, which sets the price of milk.

Five years after the project ended, the evaluator noted further gains. The organization’s store supplied farm inputs to 90 percent of the members. The variety of goods it sold increased almost tenfold and yearly receipts soared from US$100,000 to US$2.5 million. The IAF grant had reinforced APLP’s reputation for solvency and it continued to receive funds from local and national sources to finance its operations. Farmers were taking advantage of a wide variety of programs to improve production. APLP members had moved beyond a traditional vision and style of work to an entrepreneurial focus. Material achievements reported included a system that piped potable water; better school facilities offered Internet access, a library, study spaces and discounted fares for transportation. In civic participation, advances were even more notable. Based on testimony from government officials and others, the evaluator concluded that the design, practice and continuation of participatory budgeting in Paysandú is directly attributable to the efforts of the CES and to APLP’s IAF award. There are no figures to show the effect of these improvements on migration. But those who remain now enjoy much better services, more access to information and training.

The key mechanism for civic participation is the 3 percent of the budget, an average of half a million dollars a year, set aside by the provincial government to fund initiatives chosen by the public, with no official intervention in the process. The Unidad de Presupuesto Participativo en el Departamento de Descentralización was created by the government of Paysandú to manage access to funds allocated; a website informed the public of government revenues and expenditures. The participatory budget process has led to quicker and more efficient government response to demands for public services. Repair of access roads after storms, for example, is reportedly more prompt.

Given the combination of active citizens and support from both government and political parties, civic participation in Paysandú seems sustainable. However, in practice much depends on the individuals in relevant government offices. Participation dropped somewhat as the Uruguayan economy began to improve and needs became less urgent. The evaluator, while confident that civic participation would continue, pointed to concerns that younger leaders are not emerging and noted recent attempts to emphasize projects involving more young people.