The media’s obsession with Pablo Escobar and Colombia of the 1980s fails to highlight the massive achievements Colombia had in recent decades. Legitimate progress has been made in improving basic security and economic conditions. While Colombians in previous generations lived amidst some of the worst poverty and violence in all of the Americas, this has changed over the past 15 years. In 2016, the homicide rate in Colombia dropped to its lowest level since 1974.
International aid groups working with local communities were an indispensable part of these improving conditions. This stability has allowed for the government to seek a peace agreement with the FARC jungle insurgency that has been waging a guerilla war against the government for over half of a century. Here are five ways USAID can help build sustainable peace in Colombia.
- Delivering the $450 million of peace aid promised by the Obama administration that was recently allocated by Congress, can help achieve a more stable community. The Secretary of State still has the power to restrict funds and the Trump administration has considered reducing the total USAID budget by 30 percent, putting Colombia’s peace funds at risk. Colombian politicians to the right of conservative President Juan Manuel Santos have even tried to appeal to the U.S. Congress to freeze aid. A bipartisan effort must be made to protect the fragile peace in Colombia by continuing to grow the return on the aid investment in the country.
- Peace can be reached through increased protection of persecuted groups. Although homicides have been at a 45-year low, the targeted killing of labor organizers, human rights activists and former combatants has been steadily increasing in recent years. In 2016, there were 116 human rights workers killed, and 7,000 FARC members have yet to be reintegrated back into society. These killings undermine the rule of law fundamental to democracy and silence those trying to make necessary reforms.
- Syria is the only place with more internally displaced people than Colombia. Whenever possible, USAID should facilitate ways to help people move back to their homes. One successful land restitution initiative depended on ensuring owners land deeds and then paying them to improve their own abandoned farms, this way poor farmers could afford to stay and invest in their home for the season.
- Supporting Crop Substitution Programs, like Cacao for Peace, help farmers develop a sustainable living by teaching them to cultivate alternative crops to replace the illicit drug economy. Areas deep in FARC territory were previously not eligible to receive development funds spent in “pacified areas.” The scorched earth policy of dropping pesticides on coca fields has not worked. Coca crops have increased by 38 percent since the beginning of Plan Colombia. However, USAID’s track record developing crop substitution in pacified areas has been stellar. USAID’s Nebraska Mission aimed to teach rose farming to poor farmers. Fifty years later, roses are a billion dollar vital export industry for Colombia.
- Displaced people in Colombia generally move from the countryside to the city. When displaced residents living in makeshift slums outside Cartagena organized for better conditions, they were able to convince USAID to purchase ground for them to build what would become known as the “City of Women.” Women learned construction techniques, built a city, and were rewarded with deeds to their own homes. This not only empowers women economically, it helps them compete in the labor market. Now, it’s a model the government wants to replicate in other parts of the country.
There are considerable challenges to building a sustainable peace in Colombia. From reintegrating FARC members from the world’s oldest guerrilla war back into society to helping the nearly seven million internally displaced Colombians find adequate housing. However, these challenges shouldn’t discourage us from acting. Critics should note that extreme poverty was halved in Colombia from 2002-2014.
In the 1980s, Colombia was a failing state, today it is a stable American ally with a growing economy and a young fragile peace.
– Jared Gilbert