It’s not often that mayors from nine Latin American countries and even Jordan have the opportunity to come together for three days to learn from each other about how to deal with some of their cities’ most pressing issues: balancing budgets, increasing citizen participation, promoting public-private partnerships, fostering economic growth, improving security, and, of course, strengthening democracy. But that’s precisely what happened in Bogotá, Colombia, last week at a conference organized by the International Republican Institute (IRI) and supported by the National Endowment for Democracy.
The message was clear: these mayors are among those at the front line of creating new, creative policies and programs that respond to their communities’ most urgent challenges. And policymakers at the national level have much to learn from these local laboratories of innovation.
Take Oscar Montes, mayor of the municipality of Tarija in Bolivia. He inherited a city drowning in debt and revived it through a participatory budgeting plan. Montes’ initiative is structured so that citizens and local interest groups submit their priorities for infrastructure projects and jointly decide with the municipality which projects should be financed. Involving local stakeholders in city planning is more time consuming than simply rolling out a budget—but the process has paid off. Tax collection is up because tarijeños now feel like they are part of the city’s development, and project beneficiaries are now willing to financially contribute to infrastructure development that is aimed at their particular interests or neighborhoods.