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Making Democracy Real: Participatory Governance in Urban Latin America


A growing body of literature shows that experiments with participatory governance, which most often occur at the urban level, can help make democracy more real by establishing institutional mechanisms that effectively link what citizens want and what governments deliver. Within this literature there is broad agreement that successful participatory governance is most likely when two conditions are present: a left-of-center party with an ideological commitment to participatory democracy is in local office and local civil society is strong and autonomous. This dissertation shows that neither of these conditions is necessary for successful participatory governance by demonstrating that participatory reform can succeed in making democracy more real in cities run by right-of-center parties and when local civil society lacks autonomy vis-à-vis the national state and ruling party. These claims are based on nineteen months of ethnographic fieldwork comparing participatory reform in four cities in Venezuela and Bolivia, with research conducted on a city governed by a Left and a Right party in each country.

To explain the unexpected findings generated by this research I develop a novel framework for understanding participatory governance centered on the concept of an urban political regime, which refers to the overall pattern of state-society relations prevailing in a given city. Data from the four cities researched shows that the importance and effectiveness of participatory decision-making varies markedly across different urban political regimes: in some regimes participatory decision-making is central and effective, in others it is practically non-existent and ineffective and in still others it is in-between. To explain the emergence of particular urban political regimes in particular cities, and transitions from one regime to another within a given city, this study examines the interaction between socioeconomic structure, historical legacies of past regimes and national political change. This framework facilitates analysis of participatory governance that goes beyond binary distinctions between success and failure. It also draws attention to two sets of relationships that have received little attention from other scholars of participation: between the past and present, and between local and national politics. Finally it highlights the mutability and dynamic nature of political processes. In so doing this study shows that democracy is not a finished product but an ongoing process.

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