Grassroots Drivers ofSystem Change

Phase 2 of grassroots global governance is arguably the most important phase. What happens in phase 2 determines whether or not action is taken on the ground to address global problems. But it can also change the way global problems are framed in international discourse, the solutions advocated, and the institutions created to implement these solutions globally. This is because the local struggle over global ideas that occurs during phase 2 is a creative process. Grassroots communities are where global ideas often get road tested. These tests are not controlled and do not occur in a vacuum. They are shaped by local context and contestation among local, national, and international actors. Advocates have to adapt to unique and often fluid conditions. They are designing new local governance arrangements from scratch, based on new policies and practices. Templates proposed from outside are soon recognized as flawed and discarded or adapted. Advocates are forced to improvise and experiment.

Grassroots activists are generally the ones improvising and experimenting. They use their power during phase 2 to adapt global ideas like IWM and sustainable development to fit local conditions. They do this in part through strategic framing. It was local IWM advocates who framed IWM reform as a strategy for improving production and reducing poverty, recognizing this was the best strategy for mobilizing stakeholder support. Grassroots activists also experiment with innovative local governance arrangements that combine elements of global principles and policies with local norms and practices. The mixing of global and local elements produces slippage between the way a global idea is conventionally understood internationally and the way it is operationalized locally. The global idea therefore evolves by taking on new meaning through the creative process of experimentation at the local level. In Ecuador, for example, the concepts of IWM and sustainable development evolved when local actors incorporated indigenous norms and practices associated with sumak kawsay (buen vivir).

When local experiments are perceived to offer viable, effective, and innovative solutions to longstanding problems, they quickly gain a successful reputation. This attracts the attention of outsiders opposed to conventional approaches to tackling global problems like deforestation, poverty, or climate change. Successful local experiments demonstrate that an alternative approach is both viable and promising. Thus, successful experiments provide legitimacy both to these opponents’ cause and to the new way of conceptualizing a global idea.

Whether or not local experiments drive the evolution of a global idea internationally depends on whether transnational networks form to advocate the new version in international arenas. Here too, grassroots bilateral activists play an influential role. They use their relationship with members of broader transnational networks to activate these networks behind the goal of scaling up local experiments. For example, the Ecuadorians that created Quito’s pioneering watershed trust fund, FONAG, used their ties with The Nature Conservancy to activate a transnational network that now promotes similar watershed trust funds internationally. Since 2000, at least 15 watershed trust funds have been created or are under development across Latin America.[1]

This phenomenon is not unique to IWM. Participatory budgeting is another global idea that emerged from a local experiment through bottom-up network activation by grassroots activists. Participatory budgeting was first implemented in Porto Alegre in 1989 following the election of the leftist Workers Party.[2] High rates of citizen participation and studies showing improved government performance gave the experiment a successful reputation. Brian Wampler (2010) describes how local actors involved with Porto Alegre’s experiment used bottom-up network activation to scale up the experiment nationally and internationally (see also Sintomer et al. 2010). As a result, participatory budgeting is now a global “best practice,” promoted by international organizations, donor agencies, and NGOs as a strategy for achieving “good governance”

Participatory budgeting initially diffused nationally through Brazil’s Workers Party and its network of affiliated civil society organizations. Local facilitators from Porto Alegre and other early experiments were hired to train knowledge communities and organize programs in other cities. Participatory budgeting began to diffuse internationally after Brazilian advocates tapped into a network centered around the UN-HABITAT’s Urban Management Program (PGU). PGU is a transnational network spanning 140 cities in 58 countries that works to “promote innovative urban management practices, establish and strengthen municipal networks, and influence local and national urban policies.”[3] UNHABITAT raised participatory budgeting to international prominence by naming it one of the best 40 practices at its 1996 conference. Beginning in 1997, PGU’s Program for Latin America and the Caribbean actively promoted Porto Alegre-style participatory budgeting programs across Latin America. As a result, there were roughly 920 participatory budgeting programs in Latin America by 2010 (Sintomer et al. 2010, 9).

The World Social Forum was a linking institution that played a key role in establishing participatory budgeting as a truly global idea. The first World Social Forum was held in Porto Alegre in 2001. Twelve thousand activists, academics, and policymakers came from around the world to discuss how to create more just societies in the face of globalization and to organize efforts to do so. The forum was co-sponsored by Porto Alegre’s government, which touted its participatory budgeting model as a way to make governance more equitable, just, and democratic. Porto Alegre’s program received widespread attention, and the annual meetings of the World Social Forum became an important site for organizing efforts to replicate it globally. Four of the first five meetings of the World Social Forum were held in Porto Alegre, reflecting its power to inspire transnational organizing around governance reform. Network activation through the World Social Forum brought participatory budgeting from the Global South to the Global North and established it as a truly global idea. Inspired by Porto Alegre, leftist social movements and local governments from Europe attended the World Social Forum and subsequently adopted participatory budgeting in their municipalities.

While participatory budgeting networks were initially highly politicized, due to their origin in radical social movements and political parties, the UNHABITAT network helped depoliticize the idea by framing it in terms of “good" (i.e., efficient and transparent) governance, rather than social justice. This provided a more neutral and technocratic legitimacy. The good governance framing facilitated cooperation between radical local governments and international organizations associated with neoliberalism. Indeed, the World Bank is now a leading provider of information and resources to participatory budgeting programs in Latin America, including in Porto Alegre. In Eastern Europe, Asia, and Africa, participatory budgeting is now promoted mainly from outside by organizations commonly associated with global governance. International organizations like the World Bank, donor agencies like USAID and GIZ, and NGOs like CARE promote participatory budgeting through their governance programs. Participatory budgeting is now a global policy prescription for tackling global problems like poverty and poor governance.

The cases of participatory budgeting and buen vivir both illustrate how leadership in transnational governance networks shifts during Phase 3 of grassroots global governance. As contestation over global ideas shifts back to national and international policy arenas, leadership shifts back to the actors with the power to exert influence in these arenas. National bilateral activists once again become important brokers, helping to scale up local experiments nationally and internationally. For example, leaders of Brazil’s national Workers Party activated transnational networks of leftist politicians and social movements to replicate participatory budgeting globally. Leaders of Ecuador’s national indigenous movements similarly organized pressure on the Ecuadorian state to incorporate the values of buen vivir into Ecuador’s constitution. The activation of Ecuador’s state gave indigenous activists and other buen vivir advocates a pathway for influencing discussions of sustainable development in international policy circles. Once local experiments transform into global ideas, organizations we normally think of as global governors—national governments, IGOs, and international NGOs—once again become leading players. At this point, the cycle of grassroots global governance begins again, with transnational governance networks forming to promote the new global idea internationally.

To summarize, three lessons from grassroots global governance theory explain why grassroots actors and processes affect change in global ideas and governance structures. First, power shifts among members of transnational governance networks as the arenas where global ideas are contested shift from the international to the local level and back. Second, when local experiments endure long enough to produce innovative, unique institutional adaptations of global ideas, they are often perceived as successful and scaled up internationally. This is one way that global ideas emerge and evolve. Third, this process is guided and directed by grassroots actors not usually associated with global governance.

  • [1] “Creating Water Funds for People and Nature.” The Nature Conservancy (website), (accessed April 2,2016). See also Kauffman (2014).
  • [2] For details of the program and the conditions leading to its creation, see Abers (2000); Avritzer(2002); Baiocchi (2005).
  • [3] UN-HABITAT is the United Nations Human Settlements Program; (accessed March 16, 2016).
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