Participatory budgeting has become increasingly popular as a tool to give citizens a way to engage directly in the democratic process. In Mexico City, however, there is no way for ordinary citizens to monitor the decisions made in the participatory budgeting process; as a result, most do not participate. Those with power and influence have used these low participation rates to their advantage — further corrupting an already corrosive political process. 

Young people like Aline Yunery Zunzunegui López are trying to change this dynamic. López is the founder and director of LOOP Mexico, an organization that promotes participatory budgeting in schools to encourage a broader swath of Mexican society to engage in the process. She sat down with me to discuss how young people can use participatory budgeting to change the political culture throughout Mexico — by demonstrating the importance of a consensus-driven political approach, shifting the balance of power, and showing the possibility for real change.


How is participatory budgeting currently being used in Mexico?

In Mexico City, participatory budgeting is used for security [for elites], like to have more police in the streets, fixing potholes, or creating more street lights — activities that the government should already be doing. The local government already has funds for these measures, so local officials are often double dipping into existing funds and using it for their own campaigns. They’re using participatory budgeting to buy votes and win campaigns. It is important to note that while participatory budgeting is often seen as an innovative democratic practice, it can definitely be used for corrupt means if it’s not monitored, and if people don’t actually participate in the process.

But when young people participate, the results are more creative: music schools, robotics classes, gardens, sports.  Young people are using participatory budgeting to actually change the nature of the game of politics in Mexico.


How do you promote youth political participation through your work at LOOP Mexico?

We are working with an activist school in Mexico City to promote participatory budgeting in a community called Puebla. In the entire country, only Mexico City and two other states currently use participatory budgeting, but not many people know about the process. Annually, only about five percent of the population in Mexico City votes in the [participatory budgeting] process, and very [few of them are] young people. LOOP Mexico works to ensure that young people are aware of participatory budgeting and that they participate in the process.

The hope is that participatory budgeting can be one mechanism towards changing the overall corrosive political culture in Mexico. Throughout the country, young people are not participating in political parties and are not participating in the government. But young people are volunteering and participating in organizations. So that means that young people in Mexico want to do something for the world, want to do something positive, but not politically. Participatory budgeting can start to change this dynamic. 

LOOP Mexico gives workshops to young people about how to use participatory budgeting. We start with workshops about identity: who I am, my culture, my values. We give workshops about identity and cultural dialogue and how to share ideas with others. Finally, we talk about community power. In general, the young people we work with often think that power is violence. In our workshops, we teach the importance of communities wielding power to get something done.


Do you see participatory budgeting as a way for young people to engage with politics outside political parties?

It’s important for us that participatory budgeting is not just about results but changing culture. So only after these sessions on identity, culture, and power do we begin to go into the tools to engage with participatory budgeting.

When young people think of politics in Mexico, they think of corruption and a lack of transparency. When young people think of politicians, they associate them with bad people. But we have this mechanism that we can use, and we do not need to be part of a political party to do something for our country. When young people go through participatory budgeting, they are doing so not because a political party is asking for their votes but because they are trying to better their community. It’s, of course, just one activity, but in a country with a political system as corrupt as Mexico, it’s important to start with culture change.


How do you think that young people realizing their voices through participatory budgeting can lead to wide-scale change in Mexico?

I’m not saying that participatory budgeting on its own will change the nature of politics throughout the country. But [it is] a way to fundamentally change how young people conceive of political participation. We want participatory budgeting to change culture.

In Mexico, politicians understand politics as a zero-sum game, a constant competition between political parties. I’m passionate about creating more of a “feminist” model that’s communitarian in nature, and not just about one person or even one party.

We’ve seen this start to play out as we implement participatory budgeting. The process necessitates young people working together to compromise on the activities they want to fund. In turn, their views towards politics itself begin to change. Young people begin to fight against corruption because they want to build a community-led approach. They realize there is another way to do things.  


How do you deal with the fact that many politicians do not want to share power.

It’s hard! We have to fight against that. For example, I'm part of the Fight Against Inequality Alliance, and we are preparing a national campaign focused on taxing the rich because of the deep inequalities throughout Mexico. We are preparing a protest, going outside of the Congress and pushing them to pass the tax and give young people more benefits. But we also need to sensitize leaders into our agenda and bring them into the process. The culture that participatory budgeting breeds allows for a path forward: for young people to claim more power while also envisioning a new, more community-focused [form of] political power.


What does success look like?

It's not about numbers. Because if we have more people engaged in the political process, it doesn't mean that we have better politicians. More people can be voting or participating in a corrupt process and not changing the process itself. This is a problem with many political reform efforts geared towards young people: they are about trying to get more young people to participate rather than changing the culture of how young people conceive of political participation. For us, success is about changing the mindset and working with transparency and community values. The idea is to create a political system with people who share the values of transparency, of solidarity, of respect, and of inclusion. Participatory budgeting is a way to start to change political culture. It’s not everything, but it’s something.


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