Opportunities for INGOs in Colombia peace implementation

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos Calderon shakes hands with Cuban President Raúl Castro at the peace agreement signing ceremony in Havana, Cuba. Photo by: PresidenciaRD / CC BY-NC-ND

Colombia’s government is looking to international donors, aid agencies and nongovernmental organizations to help kickstart a rapid development program after a peace deal with the country’s largest rebel group is signed.

The 18-month Rapid Response plan, or “RR,” will be activated immediately if a peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia is ratified in a national plebiscite set for Oct. 2. The country’s Presidential Agency for International Cooperation is seeking $3.3 billion in international grants over the next three years to help fund post-conflict programs.

The RR aims to avoid some of the pitfalls that have unraveled previous peace accords across the globe in their first year after signing, according to the post-conflict ministry. Accords can fall apart, the RR plan warns, if promised initiatives take too long to get started, armed actors leave vacuums for other illegal activity, and reconciliation flails.

A series of concrete initiatives in the fields of justice, development, and governance can “stabilize the post-conflict agreements and boost confidence among citizens in peace and in the state,” according to RR planning documents. Authorities say the idea is to hit the ground running from day one, rather than waste valuable moments planning.

International aid agencies and nongovernmental organizations can contribute by targeting their proposals and plans directly toward RR objectives. Possibilities range from income generation projects, to technical assistance for local governments, to education and vulnerable youth assistance. Rural development is also a particular focus of the accords, since the FARC insurgency originated from agrarian and land grievances.

“Peace is a great thing, and it has also created a lot of expectations,” said Irene Manterola, Handicap International’s country director for Colombia. “Now, we have to put together a strategy for a possible change of scenario” on the ground.

Focus areas for development projects

The Rapid Response plan aims at concrete changes on the ground that are immediately visible to the population. The country’s peace agreement is premised on the idea that the Colombian government will increase its presence and services in territory now occupied by the FARC, as well as other neglected rural areas.

That’s a big remit and one reason that the government wants to produce a few quick, highly visible results as the longer, hard work of development unfolds.

“Achieving small things will be as important as rushing out and setting out big goals,” Norwegian Refugee Council country director Christian Visnes told Devex in an interview in July.

Both the Colombian government and NGOs based there say that international experience and support will be vital to that initial push. The government is already forging specific alliances, for example, last week authorities formally requested that the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization assist in rural food security. On Monday, the U.N. refugee agency said it planned to sign a letter of intention with Colombia’s comptroller general to help better direct funds toward a “comprehensive program of reparations and assistance for victims.”

“International actors in Colombia have … built up significant skills in transitional programs from humanitarian assistance to development,” said Provash Budden, country head for Mercy Corps. His organization is already discussing opportunities to contribute to the plan, for example working to prevent the recruitment of youth into armed groups.

“We can provide best practices at national and local levels for state institutions to adopt,” Budden said. “We can also continue advising on long term development initiatives and provide technical assistance and additional resources — especially in rural development.”

The RR plan focuses on activities directly linked to peace building. Security projects will aim to improve citizens’ perceptions of their safety. This includes, for example, technical assistance to local police and improved access to judicial mechanisms. Demining is another significant project; some 20 municipalities are still replete with landmines.

Justice programs aim toward reparation for victims and community reconciliation. The country’s land restitution body, for example, is already working to return internally displaced persons to their homes.

Economic and social development will begin with projects such as road and local infrastructure development, job creation, small business support, and food security.

And finally, the RR aims to improve governance. Many rural areas deeply affected by the conflict have little confidence in state institutions — something that will need to change if the government is to truly consolidate its control there. The national government aims to boost the capabilities of local authorities and also ensure the protection of civil society leaders, who have previously been targeted by armed groups.

“The main theme of the conflict was land and resources, but the principle theme in order to construct peace is fear,” said Manterola. “You have to reconstruct the confidence of the people.”

A great deal of existing NGO programming in the country already touches on these post-conflict themes. Organizations in Colombia say that they hope a peace deal would allow them to extend efforts into parts of the country currently under the control of armed groups.

Persistent challenges

Although a ratified peace deal would create enormous development opportunities, NGOs and human rights groups warn that the post-conflict era also carries risks.

Security remains a primary concern. If the FARC live up to their promise to abandon illicit drug trafficking and mining, other groups may try to capture those markets. Already, civil society organizations across the country are warning of a reconfiguration — rather than an end — to the conflict.

“Just because one group gives up arms doesn’t mean that all the groups do so,” said Manterola. “There’s going to be a redistribution of territories in the open spaces left by the FARC. It’s already happening.”

NGOs told Devex that these new dynamics could cause displacement and other human rights abuses just as the surge of post-conflict funding for Colombia comes to an end. As Devex reported in July, some donors are likely to reduce their allocations to Colombia in the medium term.

“The international community also has a moral obligation to ensure the safety and welfare of individuals, households and communities and fill in operational gaps where needed,” said Budden. “We are concerned that humanitarian funding will be reduced in Colombia, despite the indication that conflict caused by newly formed armed groups linked to the drug trade, illegal mining and extortion practices may continue to displace people.”

There are also question marks over what would happen if the electorate fails to approve the peace deal in October. The agreement faces strong political opposition and at least 13 percent of the electorate must turnout for the vote to be valid.

The FARC have previously said they would still plan to disarm if the plebiscite fails, but they have also argued that they will not reopen negotiations. Over the weekend, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos told El Pais that if a No vote took the majority in the plebiscite, “the guerillas would go back to the jungle and the armed conflict would continue.”

At least some of the RR plan may still go ahead, particularly on victims reparations, which has already been codified into Colombian law. But the challenges could be even greater without a clear public mandate to build peace.

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About the author

  • Dickenson beth full

    Elizabeth Dickinson

    Elizabeth Dickinson is a former 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.