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You’re listening to "Meet a Researcher" for the UNRISD E-bulletin and I’m Suroor Alikhan. Today we’re speaking to Enrique Peruzzotti, a visiting research fellow at UNRISD from September 2009 to June 2010.
Well, I’m Enrique Peruzzotti, I was a research fellow at UNRISD last year and I am currently a professor at the Department of Political Science and International Studies at Di Tella University in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
E-Bulletin: Could you tell us about your research? What brought you to UNRISD?
: I work on civil society and civil society politics in Latin America. I started working with different social movements, particularly the human rights movement in Latin America and later on movements organized around demands for accountability. After that I started expanding my analysis of civil society to include other types of initiatives that were particularly interesting in the area of social policy, such as development of social councils and participatory budgeting. That’s why I decided to choose UNRISD as an ideal place to develop this second part of my research project, given the expertise of UNRISD in social policy and in comparative studies from not only in Latin America but all over the world.
E-Bulletin: While you were at UNRISD, you were working on a book that at the time was titled
Representation as Mediated Politics: Rethinking the linkages between participation and representation in Latin America. Is that still in progress?
: I’m still working on the book. I actually made a significant progress while at UNRISD. I hope to be able to finish by the end of the year.
E-Bulletin: Could you tell us more about your work on social movements? How has your work on civil society evolved?
: The first part of my research concentrated on to what extent the movements were developing a type of politics aimed at institutionalizing an independent, autonomous and vibrant civil society.
The initial work on civil society emphasized the importance of autonomy of civil society from the state and it was largely influenced by the experience of the state terrorism, with the state intervening in a very authoritarian and repressive way in civil society, violating human rights, exerting censorship etc. The second concern had to do more with civil society and the democracy and to what extent the civil society is able to develop fluid channels of communication with the political systems.
The actual work on mediated politics focuses on different arenas that have been established or created where different social groups try to engage or influence the process of decision making in different areas, be it urban planning, health, education, participatory budgeting etc., mainly at the local level.
E-Bulletin: What are some examples of social groups that have successfully influenced the decision-making process?
: Perhaps the better known example and the one that has been exported to many places including Europe is participatory budgeting. Participatory budgeting represents an arena or a space in which different neighbours and civic associations decide and deliberate over what should be the investment priorities for the current year within a city. The idea of participatory budgeting is for citizens to establish among themselves the priorities, with the focus on deliberative process, open process, public process of deliberation and negotiation, and also processes that take into account the previous distribution of public goods in the population of a city. So, participatory budgeting aims at prioritizing investment to the poor or to sectors of the city that in the past have not had significant access to public goods.
There is a second type of arrangement, social councils. Social councils are quite widespread in Brazil and are perhaps less known than participatory budgeting. And social councils are of two types. You have a social council that has been established to address social policies in the areas of health, of education, of social services and of children and adolescent rights.
And what is important about these institutions is that usually they have decision-making responsibilities and the decisions of these spaces are mandatory. In the case of the health council, if there is no agreement over the plan and yearly budget, the municipality will not receive the funds from the federal government. So there is a very strong incentive for these institutions to work and to make decisions every year on investment and distribution of public funds.
E-Bulletin: What trends do you see for civil society in Latin America today?
Fundamentally, the argument is that civil society is the crucial actor for the proper functioning of democracy and that existing democracies require or need to engage in the process of further democratization. …Many of these civil society actors are actually pushing for processes of democratic deepening that could lead to the incorporation of new actors into the political sphere to address chronic problems of social inequality in the region.
So what we are seeing right now is a fundamental push by many actors to move from a very minimal definition of democracy to a stronger notion of democracy. A democracy that not only allows for the existence of a number of fundamental freedoms, and free elections but also a democracy that can establish institutions that can address not only legal accountability but also address social issues, and therefore a great part of analysis on civil society in Latin America today is focusing on to what extent civil society along with the creation of these spaces that I mentioned on health councils and on participatory budgeting can provide one possible way for more inclusive, effective, egalitarian public policies.
I think this is one of the central debates in Latin America today: to what extent these democracies that are already consolidated and institutionalized, can move forward and can begin improving their performance, leading to more effective and equitable distribution of public goods.
If you have suggestions for future interviews, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.. For the UNRISD E-bulletin, I’m Suroor Alikhan in Geneva.