My book, Building Participatory Institutions in Latin America: Reform Coalitions and Institutional Change (Cambridge University Press, 2019), asks: Why do some participatory institutions develop into powerful sites for citizen engagement, while others exist only on paper? National mandates for participatory institutions—state-sanctioned spaces that engage citizens in policymaking—have proliferated throughout the developing world. Prior studies have shown the benefits of these institutions for deepening democracy and improving policy outcomes, yet cannot explain why only some become institutionalized. I explain the divergent trajectories of participatory institutions by highlighting the powerful and lasting impacts of their origins in distinct policy-reform projects. I argue that participatory institutions take root when they are bundled into sweeping policy reforms, which often have little to do with promoting civil society engagement. Major policy reforms disrupt bureaucratic structures, displace vested interests, and mobilize unexpected coalitions in ways that create opportunities and incentives to build participatory institutions. In contrast, participatory institutions created with the primary aim of enhancing citizen engagement are easy for entrenched interests to dismantle.
Building Participatory Institutions in Latin America offers the first cross-national study of nationally mandated participatory institutions, comparing across three policy areas—health, social assistance, and planning—in Brazil and Colombia. The book’s findings are based on two years of field research, funded through external awards from the Social Science Research Council and the Fulbright program. The dissertation on which it is based won the 2013 Latin American Studies Association/Oxfam Diskin Dissertation Award, which is granted to the dissertation that best combines scholarly rigor with a commitment to activism—a recognition of the important policy implications of my research.
Building Participatory Institutions in Latin America makes important contributions to theories of interest representation and institutional change. First, nationally mandated participatory institutions promise major shifts in interest representation by increasing the number of sites for citizens to advocate their concerns. My book explains why some participatory mandates develop into living institutions capable of delivering on these democratizing promises, while others only exist on the books. Second, this book adds to scholarship on institutional weakness. Despite an explosion of research into the origins and consequences of institutional weakness, we still know surprisingly little about how to build strong institutions. My book offers broad lessons for the development of new institutions, revealing how sweeping policy reforms can trigger institution-building processes in ways that can both strengthen the state and deepen democracy.