Colombia Reconciliation: A Multi-faceted Task

By Christian Wlaschütz *

U.S._Special_Envoy_for_the_Colombian_Peace_Process_Bernard_Aronson_Addresses_Conflict_Victims,_Ex-_Combatants,_and_At-Risk_Youth_Speak_About_a_Job-_Training_Program_at_the_Escuela_Taller

Last September, a U.S. delegation addressed conflict victims and ex-combatants in Cartagena, Colombia, as part of a transnational effort to encourage the peace process. Many Colombians are distrustful of the “transnational justice” provisions of the peace accord. / The U.S. State Department / Wikimedia / Public Domain

The term “reconciliation” is now omnipresent in Colombia’s post-conflict strategies – and helps attract tens of millions of dollars in aid – but its meaning is still vague.  The intention is more than rebuilding interpersonal relationships and bringing former enemies together to embrace in public.  Political reconciliation is predominantly about social change, and in Colombia that means mending relations between the state and its citizens.  Pablo de Greiff, a Colombia human rights advocate now serving as a UN Special Rapporteur, highlights the importance of “civic trust,” by which he means the realistic expectation that state actors have to act within the law’s boundaries.

Congressional debate on aspects of the peace accord has already demonstrated broad discord on and aggressive resistance from multiple sectors of society.

  • Causing most tensions are the “transitional justice” and “special jurisdiction” provisions, which deal with allegations of rights abuses by both the FARC and the state. It is the centerpiece of efforts to achieve political reconciliation but is also the most hotly contested.
  • Even more difficult will be overcoming the widespread distrust of citizens toward the political system, as expressed by the huge rates of abstention in momentous decisions such as the peace plebiscite in October (63 percent). This distrust is caused by a sense of a lack of representation, a lack of government efficiency, and, more generally, the perception that political actors lack the will to change a system that suits the needs of a privileged elite.
  • The assassination of dozens of social leaders so far this year further fuels citizen distrust, as it reminds them of the initial phase of the extermination of the Patriotic Union – the last attempt to transform the FARC into a political actor some 30 years ago. The violence has raised questions about the state’s willingness or ability to protect civilians who are committed to social change.  It further fuels fear that the territories evacuated by the FARC will simply be taken by other armed actors.
  • Corruption poses a vexing challenge. The peace accord seems to leave open the possibility that corruption will be within the mandate of the Truth Commission, but the result is unclear.  Corruption gets to the root of the armed conflict and its persistence.  It includes the use, or abuse, of public money for private benefit.  For people in rural areas and those who live in marginalized areas of the major cities peace has simply no tangible meaning when there is no basic health system because the social insurance company collapsed because of the flow of resources into private pockets.  The same applies to education and the public transport system, most notably in Bogotá.

In an almost prophetic intervention at the Congress in late November, Todd Howland, the representative of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, stressed the urgency of implementing the peace accord in areas previously controlled by the FARC, where 2 million citizens depend on social investment and measures to increase security in these areas.  In a country characterized by enormous estrangement between the citizens and the state, reconciliation depends on representatives being willing to pursue policies based on people’s needs.  The result of this responsiveness is new trust.

March 28, 2017

Christian Wlaschütz is an independent mediator and international consultant who has lived and worked in Colombia, in particular in conflict zones in the fields of disarmament; demobilization and reintegration; and reconciliation and communitarian peace-building.

Building State Capacity in Brazil

By Katherine Bersch, Sérgio Praça, and Matthew M. Taylor*

Photo Credit: Metrix X / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Photo Credit: Metrix X / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

As the World Cup fades out and Brazilians turn their focus to the October elections, public debate will shift back to economic growth, social services, corruption, and – central to them all – the role of the state.  Is the federal government too big, inefficient and meddlesome, as the opposition argues, or does it need to be strengthened to play a leading role in Brazil’s state capitalist economy, as the incumbent Workers Party has sought?  In a recent paper (click here for draft), based on publicly available data of about 326,000 civil servants working within the 95 most important federal agencies in Brazil, we found a very diverse federal government, with agencies distributed widely on both capacity and autonomy.

Our findings empirically confirm a long literature that highlights the coexistence of so-called “islands of excellence,” with high capacity and high autonomy, alongside low-capacity, low-autonomy laggards.  “Islands of excellence” include Brazil’s Foreign Ministry (Itamaraty), the Central Bank, the Finance Ministry, the Justice Ministry, and the relatively young Comptroller General’s Office (CGU), created in 2001.  Laggards include almost all of the infrastructure agencies, as well as the Ministry of Sports, perhaps helping to explain the recent World Cup construction snafus.  Also interesting are the agencies with high capacity and low autonomy (such as the Federal Highway Police, which most state governors seek to empower and control within their own states), as well as agencies with low capacity and high autonomy, which few politicians seek to control (such as the Public Defenders Office).

We found solid evidence that agency corruption – one of the driving forces behind last year’s political angst and popular protests – is correlated with lower capacity and lower autonomy.  This finding could help frame debate in the upcoming campaigns and beyond: the keys to reducing corruption are to build agencies’ capacity and increase their autonomy from political partisans.  The debate over the role of the state has been ongoing since the return to democracy in the 1980s.  No matter who wins the October elections, the expansion of this data set and measurement effort will provide useful empirical data to more realistically evaluate the evolving performance of the Brazilian state, as well as to recognize the enormous differences and best practices within that state. 

*Katherine Bersch is a doctoral candidate at the University of Texas at Austin.  Sérgio Praça teaches Public Policy at the Federal University of the ABC in São Paulo.  Matthew Taylor, a regular contributor to AULABLOG, teaches at American University.