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Popular participation in the city: 20 years of decentralisation in Cochabamba’s barrios

Popular participation was introduced in Bolivia in 1994 as part of comprehensive decentralising reforms. At the time the state, international development donors and commentators suggested that popular participation and decentralisation could help alleviate poverty and inequality, democratise governance and planning processes, and even empower citizens.

Over two decades later, the impacts are disputed. There has been extensive analysis of the often-positive implications for low-income rural communities – alongside criticism of the weak institutions and corruption that can undermine the process. There has been less reflection on the impact that this process has had on the development of low-income and informal urban communities.

This paper outlines how popular participation has been deployed unequally across low-income, peri-urban settlements in the southern zone of Cochabamba. It considers how low-income communities have developed parallel informal participatory institutions at the community level to identify and meet their development needs.

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