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Taking on Decentralization in Metropolitan Lima

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The nongovernmental organization Centro de Investigación Social y Educación Popular (ALTERNATIVA) demonstrated the possibilities as well as limits of an exclusively top-down introduction of participatory mechanisms in three municipalities in metropolitan Lima. The grantee began not with civil society but with helping municipal authorities decentralize efforts at poverty alleviation through civic participation, as required under legislation enacted in 2001 and adapted from measures used in Bolivia and Brazil. The goal of developing the oversight skills of community leaders came later. With its focus on municipal authorities, the effort ran into a problem common in funding development: Elections and the resulting change of personnel can disrupt plans. By the end of its IAF funding, ALTERNATIVA’s model was functioning in one municipality, San Juan de Miraflores; the process had been abandoned in Ate, when all officials connected with it left government; and in Comas it was functioning at a scaled-back level.

The grantee had some success in creating mechanisms for consultation that included both geographical representation and thematic issues such as clean water, green spaces and security. In certain municipalities, this led organized groups to focus more on agreed-upon priorities for the area, rather than competing with each other for funds from the municipal budget, a problem throughout Peru. Another positive outcome cited by the evaluator is a more balanced sense among civil society leaders of the limitations under which municipal officials work.

ALTERNATIVA had a record of assisting grassroots groups in the poor areas of the Norte de Lima but the evaluation contains scant information on the experience that participants in those groups acquired in democratic problem-solving. Nor is there information on if and how that experience led to changes in political culture. All relevant opportunities for political participation described in the evaluation were brought into being by the Peruvian government. After more than three decades of erratic economic and social policy, in 2001, with Alejandro Toledo’s election, Peru adopted the form of civic participation already in practice in Brazil and Bolivia, and made it obligatory. In 2003, the government allowed each subnational government to manage an investment fund through a process that permitted input from organized citizens. Major changes to this system have come into effect since ALTERNATIVA’s IAF award ended in 2008. In 2010, funding was limited to projects that fit strategic areas of national interest defined by the Peruvian government —poverty reduction, sanitation, security, infant nutrition. Each locality applies the criteria assigned by the Peruvian government for choosing investment projects.

ALTERNATIVA worked with a group to facilitate the adoption of the participatory model in San Juan de Miraflores. In Comas, where ALTERNATIVA had worked for some 30 years and had good connections, it was perhaps too successful at mobilizing interested people. Active participation in the elections raised the suspicion and ire of the mayor, who then cut back on municipal support. In Ate, where ALTERNATIVA had few contacts, organizing went well but when an election changed municipal authorities, it had to start from scratch. The budget system never changed from a simple allocation to defined geographic areas.

Frequent elections, and the consequent turnover in government officials, make for an easier transition from civil society into government and out again, resulting in a more widespread understanding of the reality of governing. Civic participation appears sustainable as long as it remains state policy, as it has been through the four administrations in office over the last decade. In Peru, government, not civil society organizations dependent on external donors, is responsible for the annual three months of training that enables people to participate effectively in the process. That is an important distinction. On the other hand, does government-funded training prepare participants to ask hard questions?

A decade of experience in Peru shows a drop-off in civil society participation due to lack of mechanisms for a truly effective role in publicly-funded development. Participation, however, spikes when citizens have a specific need. Not all groups will get the desired response, but all can be heard. Tension still exists between increased civic participation and the democratically-elected authorities on whose goodwill participation depends. Participatory budgeting has lost some attractiveness for young people, in part because, rather than a novelty, it has become the norm. Nevertheless, participation has helped new leaders gain experience and some of them have gone into government. San Juan de Miraflores now has a program to train young leaders. And recent municipal elections rewarded governments that had undertaken projects agreed upon and chastised those who hadn’t. In several cases, government officials who had worked with ALTERNATIVA were returned to office.