Strength of WordsJose Alberto Gutierrez, a garbage man in Bogotá, Colombia, turns trashed books into treasure for the children in his community. For the past 20 years, Gutierrez has collected discarded books in the trash of the wealthier neighborhoods in Bogotá. He takes these books to his home in southern Bogotá, where he turned the first floor of his home into a free community library called The Strength of Words.

Gutierrez’s family could not afford for him to remain in school beyond primary. However, Gutierrez said his mother would still read to him every night and he credits her with his appreciation for books. So when he found a copy of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, the idea sparked. He began taking 50 to 60 books home with him each day on the job.

The Strength of Words now holds more than 20,000 books, all of which were found in the trash. Before the library, the children in his neighborhood didn’t have easy access to reading material. Now, they have unlimited access to books that can help them with their schoolwork and fulfil their other interests. Either way, The Strength of Words has made it easier for the children in his community to learn.

The library is not just for school children. Adults also have access to the wide variety of texts. They can use the books to learn skills they otherwise did not have, which can help them get jobs or advance in those they already have. Gutierrez also provides books for Colombia’s peace process after being contacted by a fighter from the FARC rebel group, who wanted books to help transition fighters back into civilian life and prepare them for jobs.

No longer able to contain the whole collection in his home, Gutierrez distributes books to other poor and remote towns throughout Colombia. He believes that there should be multiple libraries in every neighborhood in all towns, cities and rural areas. And he is making strides to see his dream become a reality.

The success of The Strengths of Words is an inspiring story of how one man recognized a need in his community and sought to fix it. Because of Gutierrez, many children and adults now have easy access to educational reading materials in their own neighborhoods.

Hannah Kaiser

Photo: Pixabay

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.

Five Ways USAID Can Help Build Sustainable Peace in Colombia

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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

Photo: Flickr

Noting her country’s unrelenting stance on its budget, musician Shakira will be opening her seventh school to provide better education in Colombia for impoverished children.

Since the 1960s, education in Colombia has changed drastically, with government funding growing ten-fold. In fact, because government funding has increased 5.75 percent in 2015, Colombia’s primary school enrollment has doubled, secondary school enrollment has increased six-fold and university enrollment has increased fifteen times over.

In 2009, the country’s Education Minister, Cecilia Velez, noted that high school enrollment rose from 400,000 to 700,000 in the past five years. However, it wasn’t always like this. In fact, much of Colombia is still catching up to modern times and is still striving to lower poverty that keeps children out of school.

Approximately 30.6 percent of Colombia’s population lives below the poverty line, and Colombia ranks as the tenth most unequal country in the world. Among those most affected by poverty and inequality are children. In addition, of that 30.6 percent, 42.8 percent are impoverished rural people, while 26.9 percent live in urban areas.

Although Colombia has made great strides over the past few years in reforming education, little has been done to accommodate children in poverty trying to go to school. Students have even resorted to protesting on the streets, demanding a better investment in schools and making education in Colombia a priority.

However, Velez noted that achieving higher quality and more accessible education would take a greater investment by the government, and with a strict budget going toward security and defense rather than education, little can be done.

To combat this budgetary issue, Shakira and her foundation, the Pies Descalzos Foundation, have been building schools around Colombia for nearly 20 years. The singer specifically chooses rural, impoverished areas where the government has little to no involvement to give children the opportunity to attend school. She has already built six schools, and this time she’s focusing on her home, Barranquilla, where 25.7 percent of the town’s population lives below the poverty line.

Teaming up with FC Barcelona and La Caixa Banking Foundation, 1.2 million euros will be donated to build the new school, which will be named “Institución Nuevo Bosque.” The Colombian Ministry of Education and the City of Barranquilla have also volunteered to donate the remaining balance of the project.

Shakira noted that by providing education to children shackled down by their economic status, they are being liberated and having their minds opened to things they could never have imagined. In addition, the singer hopes that the opening of a new school will help provide jobs, security and peace to the conflict-ridden town.

With the construction of her seventh school, set to be finished in 2019, Shakira will be providing education in one of the darkest corners of Colombia.

Amira Wynn

Photo: Flickr

FARC Peace Deal

In Colombia, the conflict between the government and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) has officially ended as of September, after 52 years of unrest. From Havana, Cuba, the historic FARC peace deal between the left-wing rebels and the Columbian government is a vital step on Colombia’s path to prosperity. For Colombians, peace has been given a chance at last, and it is now time for society to create new hope for its children.

According to the Fitch Ratings, the peace deal is already paying dividends and will allow the government to rebuild its revenue base while also reducing debt. The cessation of conflict in previously-uninhabitable areas would prompt investment and allow space for new international markets, especially in mining and agriculture.

Furthermore, President Obama pledged $450 million in aid to Colombia in the next year. While many analysts do not expect a quick change, the economy itself has been recovering for the past decade. With the coming peace package, the economy will receive a much-needed boost.

The peace deal heralds great opportunities for Colombia, but progress will not come without considerable challenges. Reintegration, disarmament and a period of stabilization will have high costs to begin with. Alberto Ramos, head of Latin American Economics at Goldman Sachs, said that “over time, the economic peace dividend is expected to more than offset the initial costs associated with the disarmament and integration of the rebel forces into civil society.”

One possible threat to the FARC peace deal is the reconfiguration of rebel groups, since nothing is stopping guerrilla fighters from forming new extremist political groups and alliances. Violent groups and non-state actors could mobilize individuals to their cause and set their sights on any political power vacuum created by the emerging peace. Therefore, a new security game plan for Colombia is required.


Noman Ashraf

Photo: Flickr

Across the world, landfills are awash with plastic that takes at least 500 years to decompose. Poverty in Colombia is on the rise, and so too in numerous countries around the globe. In addition, there is a major shortage of inexpensive housing for the 40% of people in Africa and Latin America who are homeless. Thankfully, a new Colombian enterprise has found a way to solve both of these problems simultaneously, thus helping to alleviate poverty in Colombia.

Conceptos Plásticos

The organization Conceptos Plasticos turns recycled plastic into interlocking, lego-like bricks that can be easily and inexpensively assembled by four people in five days. The houses do not require adhesives, so they be dismantled and transported easily.

Founder Oscar Mendez created this program as part of his architecture graduate thesis. Inexpensive, mobile housing that helps the environment serves as the perfect solution for impoverished people in Colombia.

The lack of dwellings and abundance of plastic make Colombia the perfect place to launch this project. Across Latin America, 33% of families live in unsuitable homes. His project acts as a solution to poverty-stricken Colombians’ difficulty of getting the materials and skilled labor required to build in remote, rural areas.

Another complication is the large amount of internally displaced people. Since so many citizens do not stay in a permanent location, investing in homes proves very difficult for many even those who have the resources.

An Environmental and Fiscal Solution

The environmental impact of these homes is wonderful — Bodega, Colombia alone throws away 750 tons of plastic, and Conceptos Plasticos transforms this unused resource into inexpensive housing.

The organization boasts prices are 30% cheaper than other systems; each house costs about $130 per square meter, or $5,200 total. Their traditional model is 40 square meters, with two bedrooms, a kitchen, dining room, living room and bathroom.

The blocks can be used to build larger structures as needed. Ease of construction and mobility sets this organization apart from others, and having a house that can be taken apart and moved is invaluable for people in unstable living situations.

Since its founding in 2010, the organization has accomplished a remarkable amount. In Guapi Cauca 2015, Conceptos Plasticos built homes for 42 displaced families. Last year, they built three shelters and four houses.

On July 14 of this year, the organization was one of five out of 2,500 organizations to win funding from the Venture, a competition for businesses providing positive social change. Conceptos Plasticos was awarded the highest amount of $300,000.

Founder Oscar Mendez states that, “We will improve all of our processes and increase our capacity. We want to replicate our business model in other countries.” This funding will help him to not only alleviate poverty in Colombia, but the money will also allow Mendez to provide his innovative housing solution to people all over the world.

Jeanette I. Burke

Photo: Flickr

Cormack FamilyDave Cormack, president and chief executive officer of the healthcare software provider Brightree, along with his family, are funding a new Children International Cormack Family Community Center. The Cormack family is helping to benefit nearly 12,000 children in Cartagena, Colombia.

In Colombia, 11% of the country is unemployed and 37% of the country lives below the poverty line.

Children International has been working with Colombia for over 25 years to help children break the cycle of poverty. It has 10 community centers in Colombia serving more than 40,000 children.

“After having the opportunity to visit other Children International community centers, my family and I recognized the importance of these safe spaces,” said Dave Cormack. “We knew we wanted to help fund a center so that more kids have the opportunity to utilize Children International’s services.”

The new community center will include the Brightree Youth Computer Center, where children can do research, homework and learn valuable skills such as English as a second language. It will also have medical and dental clinics, a library, pharmacy and other meeting spaces.

The new youth center will have an outdoor multi-sport court, an art studio and other multi-use spaces. The centers give families a place to escape the negative influences of their poor communities.

Children in the program have access to a team of doctors, dentists, tutors and sponsors. The Children International Cormack Family Community Center is a safe place in the community and a path out of poverty.

The organization provides health benefits, including annual medical exams and health care during illness, providing nutritional support, counseling for children and families, dental care, clothing, school supplies and fees and items for the home.

The programs are focused on health, education, empowerment and employment. Through early intervention, Children International addresses children’s critical needs through daily interaction in community centers. The centers are unique facilities that enable Children International to reach its goal of eliminating poverty from children’s lives.

Jacqueline Venuti

Photo: Children International

War with FARC in Colombia

June 23, 2016, marks the historic ceasefire between Left-wing FARC rebels and the Colombian government, concluding the fifth and final item of negotiation. While peace talks have been ongoing since 2013, the peace deal witnessed by five South American presidents and a U.N. official should bring an end to the half-century war with FARC in Colombia. The U.N. will oversee the disbandment of FARC and hopes to collect all weapons by December 27, 2016.

Colombia’s long civil conflict was caused by many class tensions that hail back to its colonial history. The social classes are highly stratified between rich landowners of primarily Spanish decent and the poorer, generally mixed-race majority.

The power imbalance led to the formation of left-wing guerrilla groups like FARC. Drug trafficking financed their weaponry, significantly escalating the violence in the 1980s. Because the state was unable to defeat these groups, a right-wing paramilitary group called AUC (United Self Defence Forces) formed as a result. While the AUC was disbanded in 2006, FARC has continued to be in conflict with the government.

Both left-wing and right-wing groups have been criticized for horrible human rights violations. It is estimated that seven million people are victims of massacres, disappearances, kidnappings, murders and forced displacements perpetrated by both sides during the war with FARC in Colombia. Internal displacement alone currently affects 224,000 people, more than any other country in North or South America.

Five topics have been resolved over the last three years:

Rural Reform

Because much of the war with FARC in Colombia between the factions was fueled by social inequality, the agreement takes measure to balance land distribution to reduce poverty.

Political Participation

FARC’s leftist leanings caused the government persecution of nonviolent groups with similar political ideologies. FARC has argued for fair channels of political participation.

Illicit drugs

Drugs, particularly cocaine, have funded FARC and increased violence. The government is encouraging crop substitution and, most importantly, differentiating between rural growers and criminal groups driving trade.


To bring justice to the U.N.’s estimated seven million victims, Colombia’s government will allow an “international justice tribunal and a Truth Commission.” A Victim and a Land Fund will provide financial reparation. Amnesty will be given to FARC rebels who have not committed human rights violations and are willing to participate for justice.


This final phase began on June 23 with the official ceasefire. The U.N. hopes to have completely disarmed FARC by the end of the year.

While the ceasefire will not end all the Colombian people’s troubles, the agreements between FARC and the government provides a concrete end to the atrocities that have plagued them for decades and a plan toward peace.

Jeanette I. Burke

Photo: BBC

A Green Colombia

Humankind has achieved a level of greatness unknown to its predecessors: today we freely traverse the globe as we please and live comfortable lifestyles, infatuated with the belief that we live in a place where almost anything is possible.

Unfortunately, this whimsical attitude cannot last in a world unable to keep up with each and every whim and passing fancy of the human heart. With the inevitable effects of climate change ravaging the one and only planet in which we live, a growing endeavor to find sustainable approaches and solutions for countries around the world continues to be a top priority on the nation’s agenda.

Recognizing this importance, the World Bank Board of Executive Directors approved a $700 million loan which supported green growth in Colombia as well as environmental developments within the country. It was through this Development Policy Loan (DPL) that Colombian administration’s budgetary program was supported.

The National Development Plan for Colombia has several initiatives in support of a green growth strategy which include “reducing water and air pollution as well as the final disposal and recycling of solid waste,” states an article by the World Bank.

Challenges that Colombia faces in this effort include an aversion to adaption in the face of climate change and a “reduction in the costs of environmental degradation on health,” says the World Bank. However, this loan will present a unique and golden opportunity to promote social, economic and environmental developments for this country.

According to the World Bank, “the rate of exploitation of Colombia’s natural resources is greater than the average for Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation (OECD) countries. For example, extensive cattle raising, mostly undertaken in unsuitable lands, has caused significant deterioration in land use. Equally, the industrial sector is one of the biggest culprits behind organic pollution and the deterioration of water quality in Colombia.”

With the poorest and most vulnerable people suffering the most from environmental degradation issues, advances in environmental sustainability will be welcomed and embraced throughout this region. This loan will not just benefit the very poor but also seeks to improve productivity and overall quality of life for all Colombians.

Future endeavors will focus on strengthening the response capacity to climate change and natural disasters that affect the country. As often as this is repeated, its message stays true: only by investing in these issues today can we create a future for tomorrow.

Nikki Schaffer

Sources: DNP, World Bank

Colombian Small-holder Farmers Expand their Markets
Whoever uttered the phrase “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” wasn’t kidding. In today’s times, connections are key, and for Colombians trying to make a living in farm-based agriculture, the size of your market makes a significant impact on your income.

In fact, many challenges exist for small-holder farmers in Colombia. Hindrances such as low productivity, distorted information about pricing and selling prospects, and limited marketing access all remain obstacles for this group of farmers who end up selling their goods at open-air markets where there is more competition.

This automatically decreases a seller’s profits, furthering a cycle that seems inescapable.

Being a small-holder farmer can prove to be a difficult existence, at times feeling closed off from the evolving international markets of the world.

Other setbacks faced by farmers include selling through intermediaries, steep transaction costs to reach distant markets, and finally, a lack of means to produce the “volume, quality, and timely delivery” which large agricultural producers are able to generate.

Ultimately, the inability to expand and grow has contributed to poverty in this rural sector.

However, significant strides have been taken for those who fall under this title. An article from the World Bank addresses the solutions underway to improve the livelihoods of these farmers.

“In an effort to support Colombia’s smallholder producers to build entrepreneurship and compete more effectively, the Rural Productive Partnerships Project has been addressing the above-mentioned challenges by establishing, strengthening, and promoting productive alliances between rural producer organizations and private agribusinesses.”

Since the Rural Productive Partnership Project’s launch in 2002, many groups have received support through a process where partnerships are formed by competitive bidding partnered with an independent evaluation procedure. Today, this program continues to flourish and build from where it started.

The World Bank describes the program’s goal as one which involves keeping “production, sales and productivity” up through “investment grants, technical assistance and business development training.”

Aside from financial assistance, this project also seeks to dispel inequality however it can by reaching people who may have been neglected within the system, such as women, indigenous people and Afro-Colombians.

Colombia’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (MADR) reports that between 2002-2014 more than 820 successful partnerships have been formed helping 55,000 households, with 72 percent of the productive partnerships continuing to work together after the conclusion of the program.

With the second phase of the program ending in June 2015, targets have been reached within the project with more than 9,900 female-headed households benefiting in the first phase, and more than 9,250 indigenous peoples and Afro-Colombian households receiving assistance.

These successes have not only helped one small sector of farmers—but have reached far-away consumers and provided support for the vulnerable who live in Colombia, ultimately endeavoring to keep both their community and the world’s economy thriving.

Nikki Schaffer

Sources: World Bank, YouTube
Photo: Google Images

Four years ago, the newly formed Colombian Ministry of Information Technology and Communications pledged to have 100 percent Internet access across the country by 2015. That goal is soon becoming a reality, with 96 percent of the country already connected via fiber-optic or satellite Internet.

The program is called “Vive Digital,” which means “Live Digital,” and its goal is to bridge the gap between connected urban Colombians and those living in rural communities who had no Internet access until recently. The Ministry of ICT states the increasingly well known fact that greater digital connectivity leads to higher employment, greater economic output and significantly reduced poverty rates.

Colombia is following the lead of another South American country. Chile recently achieved universal Internet access, and has since seen a 2.6 percent drop in nationwide unemployment. Colombia hopes for similar results.

The Ministry of ICT and the Colombian government hope that “Vive Digital” will inspire development in rural communities as well as bolster the ICT sector within Colombia’s urban areas. “It’s been proven that there’s a direct correlation between that massification, job creation and poverty reduction. Removing barriers to technology access is key to this objective,” said the minister of ICT, David Luna.

The initiative has seen some 8,000 Internet access points and hot spots set up across the country. These facilities house computers, printers, scanners and phones so as to connect all communities across Colombia. In addition the Ministry has provided 1 million computers to public schools and launched ICT training programs for publicly employed teachers. The Ministry of ICT expects to meet its 100 percent goal by the end of 2015.

Joe Kitaj

Sources: Mintic, FOX News/span>, University of Pittsburgh
Photo: Sucre Communicaciones