The past month I have been living as a local ‘gringa’ in the South American nation of Colombia. Colombia is a country that is filled with colourful culture but simultaneously saturated by crime, conflict and chasms between rich and poor. Efforts to resolve the five decade long conflict that has divided the nation led to the 2016 Peace Agreement between the Colombian government and FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). A transformative component to the Peace Deal with FARC is the effort to improve life in Colombia’s rural areas. The planning tool PDET (Rural Development Plans with Territorial Approach) aims to empower rural communities to make decisions about their local economic development and formalise land rights. Central to the idea of territorial peace is the idea of peace as development. I will further expand on the implications of the PDET programme for healing the wounds of a hurting rural Colombia that has physically and psychologically been hit the hardest by a devastating conflict.
In Colombia there are 1300 municipalities and the PDET programme works with those municipalities who have been most affected by the conflict. 170 municipalities are grouped into 16 subregions and were prioritised based on the levels of poverty and degree of impact from the armed conflict. These areas are known for the presence of illicit crops and other economies.
PDETs are a special planning and management infrastructure for realising the Comprehensive Rural Reform posited in the final Peace Agreement. The aim of the programme is to close the gap between the urban and rural areas in a country where there is a huge divide in socioeconomic status. For example, according to the 2014 National Agricultural Census, 57.2% of rural homes have no access to drinkable water, 94% have no access to sewage systems, 73% of youth between the age of 17 and 24 do not attend school, and poverty is as high as 45.7 percent, compared to 15.4 percent for urban centres. The implementation of the programme therefore does not only help with peacebuilding but it also addresses a lot of other structural issues concerning the lack of public health services and infrastructure provision.
The theory of localism is helpful when considering the benefits of the PDET framework. In particular, there are a variety of benefits from taking a localist approach to government structure and service provision. Proven benefits associated with localism include an increase in the levels of civic participation, local economic development and greater support to indigenous communities. Localism as an approach to systematic government organisation, however, needs to be applied at a macro level. In Colombia there needs to be a more decentralised state in order to empower municipalities to build stronger communities. Currently many municipalities are very poor and do not have a strong rating base to finance community projects. They therefore require the devolution of funding to enhance education, health and sanitation outcomes in communities.
Furthermore it is interesting to consider the voter turnout statistics compared at a local and national level. In the recent 2019 local elections, there was a voter turnout of 64%, whereas in the 2017 Presidential elections voter turnout was 54%. I perceive this to mean that voters place a higher level of importance on municipalities and the change they can affect in their everyday lives. The PDET programme therefore builds on the stronger democratic ties held at a local level.
The point of difference of the PDET programme is that it is not focused on imposing a top down agenda on communities, but rather, it seeks to involve and empower communities to lead the way for change in their communities. This has been demonstrated through the different working groups created in the various municipalities, which have seen 32,808 initiatives prioritised. However, due to the lack of available resources, there are challenges with the implementation of all the initiatives. This raises the potential for further disengagement and disenfranchisement with government processes and agencies.
The main objective is the implementation of activities that strengthen community organisations to develop community infrastructure project initiatives focused on responding quickly to the needs prioritised by communities. This is to help build a strong social fabric and strengthen relations within communities. It is also a sustainable approach that enables building capacity within the community organisations for the long term. This is particularly important when considering that there is a lack of state presence within Colombia’s rural communities.
The video from the PDET Government Agency’s website provides an insight into the community led approach that has been taken to transform the conflict affected areas.
Note: English subtitles are available for use.
As determined by community engagement, in order to achieve the structural transformation of rural areas the following 8 pillars have been prioritised.
Whilst the programme is specifically working at a local level, it involves a variety of strategic actors. This includes national entities, territorial entities, private sector as well as international cooperation. It is essential that central government plans align with those of local municipalities. In taking a localist approach, this is what will most align with the needs and desires of local communities. However, in relation to addressing the production of coca cultivation and drug trafficking issues, there needs to be a high level of national and local coordination. One mechanism which was established to achieve this level of coordination is the Mayor’s Peace Office. This office ensures local consultation and understanding of local needs, as opposed to technocratic solutions that may not be in touch with the realities for individual communities.
For example, the photos below show the ‘Pacto Municipal’ community consultation sessions held in San Pedro de Uraba.
A positive side effect of the PDET programme is the rebuilding of trust between conflict affected areas and the Colombian government. This is particularly of significance for those who have felt incentivised to join FARC’s guerilla movement and hold grievances against the government. If the state can prove it is receptive to allowing rural communities to lead their own development agenda then it will help to discourage further recruitment.
There are however challenges to the implementation of the initiatives and potential for disillusionment at the slow progress of implementation. For example, it takes about 15 years to successfully design and implement a road map for the implementation of the initiatives. The length of time and lack of understanding of bureaucratic processes could lead to further frustration. This therefore means that extra effort needs to be taken in order to ensure that residents are actively engaged in not just the high level conceptual design but also equipped with the tools themselves to increase their own livelihoods, such as through economic assistance programmes. This will ensure the programme’s sustainability.
Other challenges also include ensuring diversity of those engaged in the process. For example, community leaders that the government has worked with to date are not necessarily representative of all ethnic groups. Currently there are only 8 representatives of different indigenous groups. There needs to be comprehensive representation in order to prevent any alienation from certain communities.
Further challenges at both a local and a national level include corruption and stable elections. For example, mayors are usually financed by local companies who will return the favour by securing contracts with local companies to build certain infrastructure. Good governance is essential for the successful implementation of any of the project initiatives. This principle has also featured prominently in responses from a variety of municipalities.
Despite the clear positive benefits of the PDET approach, there have been opponents to the government’s programme. Arguments against the programme are founded on the belief that it will hinder agro-industrial development, private entrepreneurship and dampen the national economic benefits from large scale infrastructure investment projects. It is however suggested that the two different approaches to economic development go hand and hand. In neglecting the needs of rural communities, the large scale development projects promoted by national policy makers will not necessarily materialise.
What can New Zealand learn from Colombia?
Colombia demonstrates the embrace of localism as a solution to a complex national conflict. While New Zealand has not suffered the effects of a devastating civil conflict, there is a lot of merit for Central Government looking to Colombia for inspiration in applying localist solutions to its own complex social, political and economic issues.
While there is still much progress to be made with the PDET programme in Colombia, I believe that it is an exemplary conflict resolution model to be implemented elsewhere. It is a model that places development and peace objectives hand in hand.
Finally, in light of national protests within Colombia against the Duque government’s inaction on the implementation of the Peace Agreement, the PDET programme has potential to be one of the mechanisms in which to instill confidence in the government.
The PDET programme in theory, promises peace, reconciliation and development, therefore Duque must prioritise its implementation in order to heal a bleeding nation.
By Caitlin Watson