Q&A: Colombia aid head asks donors to tie aid to national plan, build institutions

Sergio Londono, director of the Colombian Presidential Agency of International Cooperation. Photo by: APC Colombia / CC BY-NC-SA

NEW YORK — Colombia is the good news at this year’s United Nations General Assembly — a bright spot for peace in an increasingly unstable world in which many conflicts seem to be moving in the other direction.

But the challenge ahead for the South American country is in some ways greater now that peace accords with the guerilla Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, have been signed.

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To secure the peace, the Colombian government is beginning an ambitious implementation plan that reads like a comprehensive development initiative: building roads, improving local services, and improving land access and agricultural markets.

While it negotiated an end to the war, the country simultaneously studied what has made other peace processes around the world fail and then targeted its implementation plan at avoiding those pitfalls. “People need to feel that peace has arrived,” Sergio Londono, director of the Colombian Presidential Agency of International Cooperation, told Devex on the sidelines of the Concordia Summit. “When you remove violence, you become a citizen, and citizens demand from the state, and the state has to be there.”

Londono’s job is to secure and shape international support to the task ahead. He spoke to Devex about how donors should think about shaping their aid and the importance of maintaining the momentum. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What is the most helpful way for potential partners of Colombia to contribute to peace process implementation?

What we’ve done in the international cooperation world and at the agency is that we have set up four funds basically one from the [Inter-American Development Bank], one from the World Bank, one from the U.N., and another from the EU. They sum up $400 million right now, and we’re trying to move toward more money in the coming years, because the implementation plan of the peace accord is for 15 years. [The future investment on this] comprises funds from the Colombian government, but also an important part of those funds come from international cooperation. Our partners cannot only contribute financially through non-reimbursable funds, but also the funds that they give to NGOs, it’s very important that these NGOs work with government institutions in order for a holistic approach to be determined.

The only way to get development in rural areas affected by conflict is working together with local and national governments to solidify institutionally and really touch the lives of people.

One of the main reasons why peace processes don't work out is because there are a number of different actors working simultaneously in regions in a non-articulate form, so you spend a lot of money with no real results. The only way to get development in rural areas affected by conflict is working together with local and national governments in order to solidify institutionally and really touch the lives of people.

At a personal level, political support for people is really important. Because the optics [of the peace agreement] internationally are very different from the optics at the national level. We are polarized; everyday less, but we are polarized by politics. At an international level, you see the real value of peace. So advocacy and human rights movements and SDGs — all these language that we speak here in New York and Vienna and international forums can really do something for Colombia if the local people understand what they’re all about.

What is the model of aid you see as most effective? Is it most helpful for donors to give you untied cash? Technical assistance? Implemented projects?

The most important part is how you tie your aid, whatever it is, into the national plan. Whatever you do, whatever you give needs to be articulated into the national development plan, and in the case of Colombia, with the implementation plan.

The most valuable contribution you can do in aid is to help institutions strengthen themselves

The most valuable contribution you can do in aid is to help institutions strengthen themselves, be it local, national, or regional. But you really do need to give in order for programs to be sustainable. We have too many projects of international aid and cooperation that have sunk because of non-articulation.

Tell us how your agency is playing a key role as articulator.

I came into office after working for the president in February 2017, and the main target that the president wanted me to do was the role of articulator between private sector initiatives, cooperation social responsibility of companies, production alternatives like sustainability funds, carbon contributions — all of those initiatives and linking that with international cooperation, in order to reach inside communities.

We developed a very strong network of public-private partnerships working toward SDG 17. The cooperation agency has shifted from just looking toward government and opening its scope toward private sector and NGOs.

The logic in past years was that NGOs wanted to be a part of the agency or national government to receive funds; now they see us as partners. They see us as we develop public policy, with the ministries, and we tell NGOs how we would like them to work. That’s a very different approach compared to what was going on in Colombia, and that is basically attributable to peace, because peace opens up not only the opportunity for people to live in a peaceful way, but also to access communities and to access remote areas that were shut down before. That’s the role of articulator.

People need to feel that peace has arrived, independently of the letting down of arms. Peace for people is access to markets, to public services and goods, security of state and its institutions.

Do any examples of successful coordination stand out?

We have an initiative called Bosque de Paz, peace forest. The president wanted to maximize the environmental dividends of peace, but we cannot do it at the government level alone; we needed to involve the private sector. What we are doing is that the compensation funds of different extractive companies, we’re telling them, don’t put money into a tree here, a river there. Let’s create a holistic environment that will benefit vulnerable communities affected by conflict and the environment.

A peace forest is a reforestation initiative but with projects from local communities for sustainable agriculture and for those communities to become park rangers. It gives them jobs and food security. We have two peace forests moving along now in Colombia with two very big companies, so we are working to get to public private initiatives that really have an effect on local communities.

Within the implementation plan, are there any gaps at the moment where you would like to see more donor solidarity?

In institutional strengthening at a local community, and really bridging the gap between the national government and the local governments. I have a really good example of the Canadian Municipal Federation: they are now in Colombia, and they are working with different local governments either to strengthen their capacities and articulating them with national government. That’s what we need and that’s the implementation plan that’s agreed in the peace accord.

The peace process implementation plan lays out 15 year goals. What is the strategy to sustain international interest for the long haul?

Most peace processes fail when the individuals don’t realize what peace has done for them.

I think early victories. The key is showing the world. President Santos always talks about the individual dividend: how peace is changing people’s lives. Those stories and the construction of those stories, based on international aid and government work, is very important to keep the international community aware of Colombia. We need to keep on being the good news for the world. Right now we have said to the U.N.: there is no way we can build peace without international support.

The international support that we receive and we thank during the [peace negotiation] process is critical to have [even] more of that now. We cannot underscore enough the importance.

Most peace processes fail when the individuals don’t realize what peace has done for them. That’s where we need to tackle in the short term. If we do this, we’re going for the next 15 years to have the interest of the international community and local communities as well.

Take tertiary roads, for example: Colombia is very well connected between regions but not within regions. We have a road that goes from A to B but then all that is derived from that is missing. Tertiary roads are a very important part of the international aid program because people don’t have the pressure to produce illegal crops. They need to have an alternative and that can only be done if those crops can get to market. That’s a clear example of early victories that we need to ensure in order for peace to be successful.

Are there any other pitfalls you’re aiming to avoid, based on lessons from past processes?

[President Santos] has been working with the U.N. mission and EU mission to really understand what makes peace a success. That’s the road on which the implementation has been built upon. The [major] pitfall is what we spoke about earlier: the early victories. That’s the most critical and important pitfall: people need to feel that peace has arrived, independently of the letting down of arms.

Peace for people is access to markets, to public services and goods, security of state and its institutions.

Colombia has presidential elections upcoming in 2018. What is your strategy to ensure continuity in the peace process implementation, regardless of who wins?

So much energy, passion, and goodwill has been brought upon this peace process, and international solidarity has really kickstarted the process, and pushed it forward. We need to see that as an added value in this peace process and understand as Colombians that we are in a unique moment in time. For us, it’s basically saying to people in Colombia, look, Colombia has changed. Lift your face, put your head straight and see toward a future that is now possible because of the peace accords. Independently of who wins, you now have a different country.

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About the author

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    Elizabeth Dickinson

    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.