In honour of Brazil’s leader of participatory governance, Cezar Bussato

This week we lost a remarkable leader. On Monday 13 August, Porto Alegre’s former Minister for Local Governance, Cézar Bussato passed away after a lengthy illness. He was only 66.

Thousands will be mourning in Brazil and the loss will be felt in many corners of the world. I write today from Australia, sharing my memories and my experience, needing to acknowledge my dear friend Cézar and his important legacy. And also to process his passing.

Cézar Bussato was an extraordinary man. He was a visionary leader with a long political life, his great gift was connection. Both charismatic and deeply compassionate, Cézar reached out and touched many people.

Cézar had a very clear agenda, he wanted a better world – a fairer world. He worked tirelessly to address the inequity in his city. He wanted the people of his city – and cities around the world – to have equal access to employment, to citizenship, to prosperity, to happiness. He wanted those that were excluded to be included. He mobilised people, created systems and mentored many leaders to achieve that end.

Cézar leaves a very big hole with his passing but he also leaves us with a remarkable legacy – and a call to action.

A leader in social innovation and participatory governance

Many will say that Cézar’s greatest achievement is his establishment of the innovative Local Solidarity Governance (GSL or Governança Solidária Local) framework. The GSL builds on the participatory budgeting system that Porto Alegre is world famous for – the OP or Orçamento Participativo – in which citizens set the priorities for the city’s budgetary spending.

The GSL is social innovation at its best. It facilitates cross-sectoral/citizen networks to build the capacity of those living in informal settlements (vilas) so that they can access the resources of the city through the OP.

Working with the most vulnerable communities, the networks tackle the city’s hardest problems – poverty, exclusion, lack of access to electricity, water, housing and formal livelihoods. 

Cézar established the GSL system in 2007.  It is institutionalised into the operation of city government and it continues today.

Below: Cézar speaks of the Local Solidarity Governance system and the Porto Alegre Sustainability and Citizenship Networks. 

It was as part of the first ground breaking GSL-supported initiative that I met Cézar. This was at the inauguration of Residencial Nova Chocolatão on 13 May 2011.

This day was a huge celebration, marking the relocation of the informal settlement, Vila  Chocolatão, where some 800 people had lived in abject poverty in the city centre for 30+ years. This was a high profile community, there had been years of preparation and the inauguration of the new village was a big occasion for the city.

Cézar with Antonio Campos, who is receiving the keys to his new home at the opening of Residencial Nova Chocolatão in 2011.

At this peak moment, as we walked through the crowds, Cézar was drawn away. He went to talk with a heated group of dissenters; some of whom opposed the move and others who believed they should have been included in the new village.

As I was to find, this was classic Cézar. Another politician would have simply continued on to the stage. With Cézar, there was always time to talk. He believed everyone’s voice should be heard.

From what I observed over the years, this compassion earned Cézar deep admiration and respect.  I don’t think I’ve met a political leader as loved as Cézar was.

The Local Solidarity Governance (GSL)  participatory framework reflected Cézar’s values and vision and his collaborative approach.  Focused on equality, inclusion and empowerment, the Sustainability and Citizenship Networks fostered local leadership and engaged the private sector, civil society and many parts of government.

Cézar was very proud of the Networks’ achievements which included the multi million dollar recycling cooperative at Nova Chocolatáo, the solar powered community gymnasium at Vila Santa Teresinha, constructed by women from the community and the connection of electricity and water to Vila Santo Andre.

Under Cézar’s leadership, the GSL network model went on to be integrated into the Resilient Porto Alegre work, which Cézar led as Chief Resilience Officer, funded through Rockefeller’s 100 Resilient Cities (100 RC). 

The model is also central to the highly successful Todos Somos Porto Alegre (We are all Porto Alegre) inclusion and recycling program that helps the city’s street pickers – carroceiros and carrinheiros – to transition to formal, safe livelihoods.

The space for dialogue, created by the Networks, arguably had the most impact.

Cézar was always there when needed. Complex problems were tackled relating to violence and the ‘parallel power’. Bureaucratic silos softened across government, progressing communities’ projects. And most importantly, the trust of excluded communities was slowly won through respect, consistency and delivering on promises – concrete actions that improved lives.

An international mobiliser

Cezar and I shared a passion to promote this methodology to other cities and countries. We first needed to evidence the system. With GSL Coordinator, Vania Gonçalves de Souza, and the support of the UN Global Compact – Cities Programme, Felicity Cahill and I led a four year research project to document the Chocolatão story and the work of the Sustainability and Citizenship Networks.

We took the model to international stages. Cézar was an inspirational speaker. He would implore audiences from across the world to collaborate, to overcome cities’ poverty and inequity through partnership.

This began at Rio+20 in 2012 where he and Vania Gonçalves de Souza presented to the United Nations Global Compact. The last global gathering Cézar attended was Habitat III in Quito, Ecuador in 2016.

New friends. Cézar with Javíer Cortes, Head of the Americas for the United Nations Global Compact, at Habitat III.

At this point, the Sustainability and Citizenship Network model was being applied throughout Porto Alegre.  Cézar presented to private sector leaders from across Latin America.

In Quito, Cézar looked like he was going to overcome his illness. He told me it was the limitless love of his wife, Miriam – and the care of his family and his many friends – that was raising him up;  this and his passion to continue the work.

A leader of leaders

My last time with Cézar was in November 2016 in Porto Alegre. It was a highlight moment in our collaboration and friendship that I will never forget. I had no idea that I might not see him again – he looked very well.

We participated in a special meeting at Vila Flores in the Fourth District which was instigated by Cézar and Vania. It brought together leaders from a number of the Sustainability and Citizenship networks, including the 100RC team.

The network meeting process says much about Cezár’s unique approach to governance of which dialogue, respect and equality are at the heart.

Cezár blended in with the group. Set up in circular formation with no head of table, all were equal. Members told their story, speaking of the challenges and the achievements. Each speaker then invited another colleague to speak, the process was seamless and organic but also powerful. Dayane Belmonte Ramos’s description of life at Vila Santo Andre was particularly moving.

Cezar after the Circle Dialogue at Vila Flores in the Fourth District

The meeting finished and Cézar was glowing. He was in his element – in connection with people who were unilaterally committed to improving the lives of others.

This was a powerful community of social change pioneers whose leadership had been fostered by Cézar and by leaders like Vania Gonçalves de Souza and Denise Costa de Souza, who Cézar had mentored. He was very pleased – and rightly so. It had taken years of unrelenting effort to achieve the unity, the commonality of purpose and the breadth of work reflected in that room.

Whilst all will say there is so much yet to be done, their achievements are the realisation of long held dreams.

Cézar’s thoughts on this work are beautifully articulated in his report to 100 RC in 2016:

In my 30 years in public life, the task of coordinating, articulating, and spreading a new model of urban resilience, in a city of 1.5 million people, has been the greatest challenge of all. This job has given me great joy and satisfication and I am proud of our progress, which does not stop here. I will continue on the path of collaboration to build a world with more opportunities for all.

I believe we are honour bound to take Cézar’s work forward.

Muito Obrigada

In finishing – which I am reluctant to do because it means I am saying goodbye – if I could speak directly to my friend, I would say: “dearest Cézar, you leave a hole in our hearts the size of Sydney Harbour with your passing. You will be sorely missed. But the work that you have started will continue – and it will grow. And your  words will continue to inspire  … amigo mío especial, te extraño mucho. Muito obrigada por todo”.

Our deepest condolences are offered to Cezar’s wife, Miriam and to his children, grandchildren, family and many other friends.


Feature Image: Cézar Bussato with wife Miriam Linera and Rodrigo Corradi at the Inauguration of Nova Residencial Chocolatão, Porto Alegre, 13 May 2011.

Above Right: Vania Gonçalves de Souza and Cézar Bussato on the same day and occasion.

Below: Sandra Moye, Cezar Bussato and Elizabeth Ryan at Habitat III, Quito, Ecuador, October 2016.

Author: Elizabeth Ryan


Note: In addition to the roles described above, Cézar Bussato was the Deputy Governor of the State of Rio Gran do Sul and an Economist from the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS). Cézar was also a Global Advisor to the UN Global Compact – Cities Programme.