For Colombia, peace brings development imperative and an end to donor funds

By Elizabeth Dickinson 14 July 2016

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos Calderon shakes hands with Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People's Army Commander Timoleón Jiméne while Cuban President Raul Castro Ruz and Norwegian Minister of Foreign Affairs Borge Brende look on. Photo by: Presidencia de la República Mexicana / CC BY

After three years of negotiation, a peace deal between the Colombian government and leftist guerrilla movement FARC looks possible within weeks, resolving one of the world’s longest-standing armed conflicts.

The accord is premised on a fundamental trade: In exchange for FARC renouncing violence, demobilizing, disarming and dismantling the illicit drug trafficking network that has funded its insurgency, the state will address the grievances that first bred conflict a half century ago.

Simply put, that means rural development — lots of it, and quickly. The first point of the six-point agreement lays out plans for vast agricultural land restitution, rural infrastructure projects, the extension of public services to the countryside, and a host of other poverty-reducing measures in far-flung towns and villages. Victims are also promised millions in reparations and socio-economic aid.

Colombia is counting on an influx of donor support to kickstart implementation, and international funds are already being pledged. Canada became the latest donor to promise assistance earlier this month with a $60 million package. The United States is likely to pitch in nearly half a billion dollars in 2017.

“The international community needs a success story,” Martin Gottwald, U.N. High Commission for Refugees’ representative in Bogota, told Devex. “This is the strategic value of Colombia.”

Yet in the medium-term, experts warn the peace deal could be a double-edged sword for development aid. The state has promised a massive deployment into areas its institutions have scarcely touched before, bringing everything from road construction to policing to the justice system.

And yet even as the urgency of those development gains is tested, analysts and aid officials here say donor funds are likely to dry up quickly. Donors will gladly turn the page on a conflict supposedly resolved and a middle-income country ready to fend for itself.

“The international cooperation could easily finish in three to five years,” said Aída Pesquera, director of Oxfam in Colombia. “Relying on international cooperation to secure peace is not a good strategy — the government is responsible.”

A crunch for resources

Colombia’s conflict erupted half a century ago out of a series of grievances in the country’s rural areas. Land ownership was consolidated into the hands of a small number of elite, leaving thousands without access to farms. A leftist insurgency emerged, initially propelled by local grievances and Marxist ideological convictions, the latter popular across Latin America at the time.

As FARC guerrillas occupied territory, large swathes of Colombian land fell out of reach of the government institutions. FARC and other armed groups consolidated their territorial control as they turned to illicit economies — drug trafficking, mining, and other trades — to fund their uprisings.

The peace deal now under negotiation in Havana, Cuba, promises to move control back into the hands of the government on the condition that the state deploy the power of its institutions, finances, investment and capital toward improving life in the rural areas.

Any one of the programs laid out in the peace accord could consume millions of dollars annually, analysts told Devex. For example, the agreement promises a Land Fund for rural dwellers who have insufficient access to land, as well as the formalization of land titles through an exhaustive process of investigation and restitution. In past experiences, similar programs have cost tens of millions of dollars and lasted years, or even decades.

“Just give a skim to the first point of the peace accord [on rural development] and it’s Santa’s wishlist,” said Adam Isacson, senior associate for regional security policy of the Washington Office on Latin America. “As a back-of- the-envelope calculation, if you have spending of about $1,000 per campisino [rural resident] per year, you’re already at $150 billion.”

Adding to the costs is a vast victims reparation system, begun in 2011, that will likely expand with the current agreement. The government estimates there are some 7 million victims of the armed conflict, out of a population of 45 million people. So while widely praised by the international community and human rights groups, the Victims Law may never reach its promise in implementation. “The expectations are so enormous they are undeliverable,” Universidad de Los Andes professor Juana Garcia Duque told a Harvard conference on the peace process in 2014.

In addition to raising the bar on development and human rights spending, the peace agreement adds urgency.

“Maybe some of [the rural development costs] were already planned investment, but they’re going to have to do this in a big way all at once,” said Isacson. Even if donor support doesn’t decline post-conflict, “the international community’s investment will be maybe 10 percent of that.”

Donor interest

For now, donor interest in Colombia is holding steady. The U.S., for example, has transformed its decadeslong Plan Colombia into Paz Colombia (Peace Colombia), meant to help sustain the implementation of the agreement.

But after the first few years, funding could drop off quickly, international aid groups warn.

“The fact of the matter is that Latin America has never been a priority in humanitarian terms, and donor countries would be really pleased to turn the page and close at least one chapter,” said Gottwald of UNCHR.

His organization, as well as other independent groups, worry that such a drop off in donor interest could place serious limits on their ability to operate based on need. As an upper-middle income country, Colombia receives most international support through pooled funds, managed by the government, a collection of large donors, and the U.N. Political priorities often have a strong influence on where and how that money is spent.

“Basically the government is saying, ‘we will now call the shots about where you would like to work,’” explains Gottwald. He worries particularly about social spending in urban areas, where the vast majority of Colombia’s 6 million internally displaced persons live. Because the peace accord focuses on rural areas, cities’ development needs could fall behind, he said.

In addition to a fiscal crunch, a lack of funds could threaten the agreement itself. Many local elites stand to lose business and political monopolies if the peace deal is implemented. Lucrative postconflict investment and development programs are one of the few lures that can help bring them on board — or at least prevent them from becoming spoilers.

“The post-conflict could bring in great gains. And the money is very important,” said Eduardo Alvarez, chief coordinator for the post-conflict program at Fundacion Ideas para la Paz, an independent think tank. “There are local elite who are in it for the money they expect to come from peace.”

From left to right: United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos Calderon, Cuban President Raul Castro Ruz, Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People's Army Commander Timoleón Jiméne and Norwegian Minister of Foreign Affairs Borge Brende. Photo by: Presidencia de la República Mexicana / CC BY

‘The End of Conflict’

If and when implementation begins on a signed peace agreement with the FARC, analysts warn it won’t spell the end of violence in Colombia — only of one, particularly intense chapter. Humanitarian needs will persist — and may even expand in the post-conflict period.

In recent years as the FARC has lost military ground, a host of new organized armed groups have sprung up across the country. Some emerged from a previous demobilization process, in which paramilitary groups were disbanded and their leaders incarcerated. Thousands of members returned to delinquency and illicit economies. The ELN, another leftist insurgent group, is courting the government for peace negotiations but has refused to renounce kidnapping, trafficking, and violent action.

If the government cannot successfully leap into the territories and communities given up by the FARC, other groups could seize them, creating new displacement and possibly a humanitarian crisis. Already, human rights groups estimate that non-FARC armed groups are responsible for at least 50 percent of all violations and displacement.

“We think that once the accords are signed and the peace process is underway, it’s very important to be vigilant for human rights violations, and toward the humanitarian crisis that it can generate as other armed actors take over territory,” said Pesquera of Oxfam.

If donor funds evaporate, Colombia could be left to fend for itself — on its vast development programs but also on more immediate crises.

“The modalities of violence will reconfigure — they are already reconfiguring,” said Pesquera. “We are very worried about this message that when Colombia signs the peace agreements, it will graduate out of all these problems.

“It’s not that simple.”

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About the author

Dickenson beth full
Elizabeth Dickinson@dickinsonbeth

Elizabeth Dickinson is associate editor at Devex. Based in the Middle East, she has previously served as Gulf correspondent for The National, assistant managing editor at Foreign Policy, and Nigeria correspondent at The Economist. Her writing also appeared in The New Yorker, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Politico Magazine, and Newsweek, among others.


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