News and Features

Pork and its Alternatives


By C.J. Chanco. First published in A Cynic Meets Hope 

In late October, the House of Representatives approved the 2014 General Appropriations Bill (House Bill 2630), which spells out the government’s spending priorities for the next fiscal year [1]:

  • P316.402 billion for education (inclusive of DepEd and SUCs budgets)
  • P97.964 billion for social welfare (inclusive of DSWD and DOLE budgets)
  • P85.123 billion for health
  • P306.147 billion for infrastructure (Inclusive of DPWH, DA and DAR budgets)
  • P182.378 billion for defence and security (DND and DILG budgets)
  • P440.931 billion for debt-servicing (automatic appropriations)

The 2014 National Budget approved by Congress differs little from the original Php 2.268 trillion Budget first proposed by President Aquino, and leaves the controversial Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) whole and intact.

To counter what some have called the Executive’s “fiscal dictatorship”, as well as the excesses of a corruption-prone legislature, we propose something radically different.

Why Participatory Budgeting?

Today there is an urgent need to think about, debate over, and push for, a concrete set of alternatives that will challenge the fundamental assumptions underpinning the Pork Barrel System and public spending in general.   We believe participatory budgeting can be one of those solutions, in line with our other calls for Freedom of Information (FOI) and electoral reforms.

This paper does not intend to elaborate on the technicalities of the participatory budgeting process that are discussed in depth elsewhere (see links and attached documents [2]).    It only proposes that the #ScrapPork movement be a vehicle through which the wider public can push for these changes on the ground.

The National Budget is a concrete expression of a government’s priorities – as well as the diverse array of   interests that go into decision-making over the spending of our taxes.  For many, the fact that a sizeable amount of public funds still go to line the pockets of a handful of politicians, through the completely legal channels of the budgetary process, is proof of just how entrenched corruption has become, even after decades of wrangling over the Pork Barrel System.

For others, the fact  that  we intend to spend more on the military and debt-servicing  than education and healthcare combined is just one sign among many  that political priorities have changed little over the years,  and have varied little from one administration to the next.

There are, however, some things everyone can agree on. a) Political institutions have remained largely unaccountable; b) The complex processes that go into decisions which affect ordinary people the most are hidden from public view; c) Patronage, in all its forms, continues to dominate the political scene.

Corporations, political dynasties and economic elites have in fact tightened their stranglehold over our “democratic” institutions through kickbacks, electoral funding and lucrative contracts that call into question the very merits of the electoral process [3].  Millions of the economically marginalised continue to depend on politicians for often inadequate social services, in the absence of universal welfare programmes and genuine solutions to poverty and inequality. The politicians, in turn, continue to rely on their votes.

And so goes the old adage: “they have kept the people poor to keep themselves in power.”

Participatory Budgeting (PB) is one way to open up much-needed political space for marginalised sectors of society to take charge of their own lives. In contrast to government programs that treat citizens as passive recipients of aid, charity, or public funding, PB can empower communities on the ground, hand in hand with grassroots assemblies and other institutions of direct democracy.  This has been proven time and again in numerous communities across the globe, from rural hamlets in Great Britain and the cities of Venezuela, to rural villages in Kerala, India and the favelas of Porto Alegre, Brazil.

PB builds on, but goes beyond, Alternative Budgeting Initiatives [4] generally restricted to formal Civil Society Organisations (CSOs).

Where it has been put into practice, PB has challenged old ways of doing things, called into question dominant structures of power, redistributed wealth and political influence, engaged more people in the democratic process, and given impetus to social movements demanding greater transparency and institutional reform.

In Brazil, Rebecca Aber notes, “the constant threat that participants would demand evidence pressured the administration to carry out only those actions that it could, at least, justify.  The consequence of this kind of transparency was the total elimination within the municipal budget of the corruption and clientelism that are entrenched in most of Brazilian government…It was impossible for money to disappear, for contracts to be overpriced, for promises to be ignored, and for unnecessary investments to be made…” (Inventing Local Democracy: Grassroots Politics in Brazil).

What is Participatory Budgeting?

Participatory Budgeting is a process where ordinary citizens decide on public spending priorities, usually at a local level. Budgetary deliberations involve village assemblies, municipalities, barangays, barrios, and similar grassroots communities. PB works on the assumption that communities on the ground are most in touch with local concerns and thus know best how to allocate resources from the hiring of school teachers to the construction of new roads and classrooms.

Political power rises from the bottom-up, ultimately influencing decision-making at the national level.

The models of participatory budgeting and direct democracy spelled out here, drawing on successful examples from Brazil and Venezuela, are by no means a rigid template.  They are, at best, guideposts that could work in the Philippines using existing local institutions (for example, a radically reformed Barangay system refashioned to work the way it’s supposed to) – not least by diverting all Pork or presidential discretionary funds for this purpose.

The first full-fledged participatory budgeting initiative began in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 1989, on top of other progressive reforms that sought to increase the autonomy of municipalities, promote grassroots political participation, and slow the rise of social inequality.  At the time, at least a third of Porto Alegre’s residents lived infavelas, slums at the city’s outer limits, that were more or less cut off from access to everything from clean water to education and healthcare services.

After several setbacks, the new programme mobilised thousands of citizens which began with an intensive education campaign to help barrio residents make informed decisions on the budget.

Today, participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre (see Fig 1.1) begins with a series of public meetings held annually, involving hundreds of neighbourhood and citywide assemblies tasked with identifying spending priorities on several key areas: taxation, culture, urban zoning, health and public safety, transportation, infrastructure, education and general economic development.

The local government spends approximately 200 million dollars a year – funds subject to rigorous deliberation by citizens’ assemblies, with the exception of fixed expenses including pensions and debt servicing. Participation comes from people from all walks of life, and is on the rise.  In Porto Alegre, close to 50,000 people – of all classes and all political stripes – take part in a programme of radical participatory democracy that has seen both poverty and corruption rates decline over the past twenty years [5]. Since PB began, the region’s education budget rose from 13% to 40% by 1996, while the PB programme’s overall share in the national budget rose to 21%.

By 1997, close to 99 per cent of all households in Porto Alegre had access to clean water and close to ninety per cent had piped sewage. Over the past decade, at least 29,000 families have benefited from public housing initiatives funded and constructed by residents themselves.  Over the same period, more than a hundred schools have been built in a city that boasted only 29 in a region of more than a million people.

The literacy rate in Porto Alegre, still one of the poorer towns of Brazil, is today close to one hundred per cent.

Above all, formerly marginalized residents have gained a voice and have learned to leverage their power to hold local government officials to account. New roads that would have bypassed poorer districts in the past now offer them pride of place. At least five thousand other municipalities have picked up on Porto Alegre’s example, and its model of participatory budgeting has spread across Latin America.  In Europe and the United States, tentative attempts at the same began last year [6], through the Participatory Budgeting Project.

Venezuela has taken an even more radical approach, tying PB with the formation of local cooperatives and community councils, or consejos comunales:

“Each council is composed of about 150 families in urban areas, while in rural and indigenous areas, each council is composed of 20 and 10 families, respectively. The councils are involved in everything from road building and maintenance to cultural activities and events, housing improvements, and providing basic services like water and electricity—all while struggling for the official government recognition that provides the opportunity to get funding for their community projects.

Communal councils were modelled after participatory democracy in Kerala, India, and community budgeting practices pioneered in Porto Alegre, Brazil. In Kerala, citizens play an important role in conceiving and implementing development projects at the local level. Since 1989, Porto Alegre has successfully run a system of decentralized planning whereby citizens determine local spending priorities through a series of public meetings. Communal councils in Venezuela embody both of these municipal participatory reforms”(Andrew Kennis, The Quiet Revolution: Venzuelans Experiment with Participatory Democracy [7]).

alternatives to pork

“The participatory budgeting cycle starts in January and assemblies across the city facilitate maximum participation and interaction. Each February there is instruction from city specialists in technical and system aspects of city budgeting. In March there are plenary assemblies in each of the city’s 16 districts as well as assemblies dealing with such areas as transportation, health, education, sports, and economic development. These large meetings—with participation that can reach over 1,000—elect delegates to represent specific neighborhoods. The mayor and staff attend to respond to citizen concerns. In the following months, delegates meet weekly or biweekly in each district to review technical project criteria and district needs. City department staff may participate according to their area of expertise. At a second regional plenary, regional delegates prioritize the district’s demands and elect 42 councillors representing all districts and thematic areas to serve on the Municipal Council of the Budget. The main function of the Municipal Council of the Budget is to reconcile the demands of each district with available resources, and to propose and approve an overall municipal budget. The resulting budget is binding, though the city council can suggest, but not require changes. Only the Mayor may veto the budget, or remand it back to the Municipal Council of the Budget (this has never happened). [Lewid, David. Porto Alegre’s Budget Of, By, and For the People]

Fig 1.1 Participatory Budgeting: A general framework


[1] Rappler. Did Congressment favour your budget priorities?


Interaksyon. Budget Wars: Sideswiped by majority train, critics keep up attacks on fiscal dictatorship.


Department of Budget and Management. 2014 National Expenditure Program.


[2]  Chanco, Christopher. 

Radical Patronage

Docena,  Herbert. Alternatives to the pork barrel system.


Wagner, Sarah. Citizen Power and Venezuela’s Local Public Planning Councils.


Ellner, Steve.  Venezuela’s Social-Based Democratic Model: Innovations and Limitations. ellner-venezuela-social-based-democratic-model

Harnecker, Marta. Ideas for the Struggle.

United Nations. Participatory Planning and Budgeting at the Sub-National level. Participatory Planning and Budgeting.2005

United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Budgets as if People Mattered: Democratizing Macroeconomic Policies. budgets_people_mattered_democratizing_macroeconomic_policies

World Bank. Case Studies on Social Accountability. Case studies on social accountability


Philippine Centre for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ)

Mafia of Executive and Legislature.            


Abuse, misuse of PDAFT linger under Daang Matuwid.                                                                                                                          


High rollers rule: donors give Php 795 million in campaign funds.                                                                                                



Social Watch.


BusinessWorld. Participatory budgeting: A silent respite.



Wikipedia. Participatory Budgeting.


World Bank. Participatory Budgeting in Brazil


Yes! Magazine. What would democracy look like?



The Progressive Press. Occupying the Budget: Participatory Budgeting in Latin America and its Global Diffusion



Kennis, Andrew. The Quiet Revolution: Venzuelans Experiment with Participatory Democracy


Dangl, Ben. Common Ground: Learning from Latin American Social Movements.


Serafimov, Alex. Social Change in Venezuela.


About the Author

CJ Chanco is a freelance writer, photographer, and researcher at the College Editors Guild of the Philippines.