Fifty-two years of war has plagued Colombia, leaving some 220,000 people dead and millions more displaced from their homes. For too long, the terrifying trifecta of guerrilla groups, paramilitary operations and drug trafficking has made a horror out of everyday life for countless Colombians.
Finally, hope is in sight: Colombia’s government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia have reached a deal to end a half-century of conflict, which will be voted on in a national referendum this Sunday.
In a world where so many wars — from Syria to Afghanistan to South Sudan — convey nothing but hopelessness, this deal, years in the making and still fragile, shows that peace is possible.
Still, the peace agreement will not immediately close the chapter of violence in Colombia’s history. Whether or not Colombia achieves lasting peace will depend largely on how this nation of 48 million people partners with the private sector and civil society to tackle the persistent — and even new — challenges that threaten its endurance. Here are three things that must happen next for Colombia to achieve the lasting reconciliation, stability and economic growth its people have long waited for.
1. Continue international investment to meet persistent needs.
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The period after the signing of a peace agreement often sees spikes in violence, new displacement of civilians and increased humanitarian needs. Currently, Colombia has 6.9 million internally displaced people because of conflict — a near-tie with Syria for the highest number in the world.
Many of these people are marginalized, rural, indigenous and Afro-Colombian populations, unable to meet even their most basic of needs. In the department of Putumayo, Mercy Corps, the global organization I work for, found that nearly half of the population has only limited access to adequate food, hygiene and shelter.
The situation is the same in numerous pockets of Colombia. A 35-year-old woman named Sandra, from the department of Narino, told us, “The hardest thing is that one remains traumatized by losing everything in one night and arriving in a new place after being threatened by armed groups. It’s difficult to survive. I woke up many times and didn’t have enough food to feed my children.”
Mercy Corps has helped Sandra and more than 18,000 people meet their immediate needs, in addition to providing legal assistance, psychosocial support and opportunities for people — especially women — to earn income, thanks to grants from the U.S. State Department.
Although the government of Colombia does have adequate policies in place, resources to meet the needs and protect the rights of displaced populations are still lacking. Humanitarian funding often dries up as soon as the peace agreement ink has dried — shifting instead to new development initiatives. International assistance has saved lives and filled gaps that we hope the government of Colombia will eventually manage on its own. In the meantime, this work needs to continue, and donors including the United States, European Union, Canada, Norway, Sweden and Germany should continue supporting humanitarian efforts and strengthening state capacities to meet humanitarian needs.
2. Protect the next generation of youth from violence.
Child soldiers who have fought for the FARC will now re-enter as adults the society they left as children. Thousands of Colombian youth remain at high risk of experiencing or perpetrating violence after a peace deal is signed. Not all of the thousands of child soldiers fighting for urban militias and other armed forces in Colombia will be demobilized. It is likely that we will see increased recruitment as other armed groups and criminal gangs move to fill the power vacuum left by the FARC and continue to manage illicit economies, including the drug trade. Ensuring that there are structures in place — such as better access to education and opportunities for employment and civic engagement — to protect vulnerable youth is key to preventing the next generation from falling prey to violent groups.
We applaud the efforts of the Colombian government to work with civil society and private sector actors on reintegration programs for ex-combatants. But it is equally important that a process of reconciliation occurs at all levels of society of Colombia to establish a true peace and avoid sowing seeds of retribution over past, unresolved injustices.
3. Prevent new investment from further marginalizing vulnerable populations.
As the peace process unfolds, Colombia is already attracting new development in a country rebranded as a stable, middle-income investment haven. It is imperative that new investment doesn’t further harm already marginalized populations and create new inequality and grievance.
A key point of the peace deal is focused on agricultural reform and rural development, and this is a positive step. However, in creating an operating environment for new (and expanding) business, investors and the government of Colombia must be cautious to avoid the harmful development practices traditionally seen in Latin America.
Typically, these practices have been enacted with limited citizen participation, further deepening economic inequalities in rural areas and putting pressure on fragile natural resources. We encourage the private sector to develop strong criteria and standards for companies to invest in sustainable ways, engaging rural populations in development plans and mitigating harmful environmental practices.
For example, Mercy Corps works closely with private sector companies such as Starbucks to support land titling, agricultural value chains and natural resource management in equitable ways, in turn reducing the propensity for conflict over business deals that are — or are perceived to be — unfair and detrimental to the local community.
After five decades of war, we are right to celebrate the monumental progress made to achieve peace. But we must also realize that a peace agreement with one armed group will not wash away the endemic issues that have allowed a cycle of violence to thrive. We must continue meeting the urgent needs of today and protect those still vulnerable, while ensuring new investment does not create new victims of marginalization and inequality. Peace in Colombia can serve as an example for the world, if the international community doesn’t retreat, and instead steps up to the plate to ensure continued success now.
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