Today, the Latin American community in the UK is still not recognised as a minority in the census. Despite this, there has definitely been a change in the way people see countries like Colombia over the last few years. Tourism is up, the economy is improving, and the region is coming out of a damaging third wave of the Covid-19 virus.
While there are positives and progress, there is plenty of room for improvement before we can consider Latin America a developed region and Colombia, my home country, a developed country. According to the Administrative Department of National Statistics for Colombia (DANE), 3.6 million people entered the condition of poverty and 2.8 million the condition of extreme poverty in 2020. These people need help, but the country has four issues that need to be tackled in order for this to happen.
Colombia is a country that has always been in conflict. Some thought that with the signing of the peace treaty, the country would start a new era of peace, but that is far from the reality that the country is currently living in. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), Colombia has the second highest rate of internal displacement of people in the world (after Syria) due to violence and conflict.
This year, over 130,000 people had to leave their homes and migrate to the major cities in order to save their families and their lives. Even though the country has become a safer place to visit, this is not the same reality that the more marginalized communities live in. Trying to reach the people that need the most help can be dangerous. This has been the case for the thousands of social and indigenous leaders who have been killed trying to make a change in their communities since the signing of the peace treaty.
According to the European commission, Colombia has a great need for international funding. These include basic necessities like food, healthcare, education, safe water, and housing. The Venezuelan asylum crisis added to the internal displacement and now Covid-19 has impacted the quality of life of the most vulnerable. Historically, Colombia has been the largest recipient of international aid in Latin America. So where is all that money going?
Colombia has been through several corruption scandals that affect those who need this aid the most. The most recent scandal made the Minister of Technology and Information renounce her position. She paid out money towards a contract worth 70,000 million Colombian pesos (£13 million pounds without following the proper procedures to a company that was providing false credentials. The contract was looking to provide internet access to remote areas of Colombia, especially rural schools that still don't have this service.
Another scandal that shocked the country happened in the region of Santander. It was revealed from audio evidence that the School Meal Plan (PAE), a scheme in Colombia which helps provide school meals for children that can’t afford them, was feeding the poorest children with donkey and sick horse meat for over a year.
Corruption costs Colombians an astronomical amount of 50 billion COP per year. The money that should be going to the most vulnerable gets lost in the way and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) don’t receive the funding they need to tackle the key issues.
Colombia is a beautiful country with breath-taking landscapes that combine jungle, desert, the Andean Mountain range, and oceans. Having a section of the longest mountain range in the world dividing the country makes transportation and building roads more difficult. As of 2019, the Portafolio Newspaper revealed that only 6 percent of rural roads are paved and 86 percent of those that are paved are in bad condition. This makes it especially difficult to bring any help to these communities, especially if there is a natural disaster which would make conditions only more difficult.
This also affects children trying to get to school. One case to be highlighted is that of the children from Coromoro in north-central department Santander. They have to travel for five hours through a dangerous road known for the constant collapse of rocks to get to school. This is due to the collapse of a bridge in 2016 after rainfall which has still not been rebuilt..
Covid-19 has created opportunities for the greedy to steal money from Colombian tax payers. There are already citizen complaints about irregularities in the contracts and help that citizens should be receiving. There was also a report on more than 100,000 children leaving school during the pandemic. The pandemic has impacted the health system the most, with ICU occupancies at 97 percent in the main cities during the height of the third wave in June 2021. Colombia’s economy had the biggest decline in the country's modern history and there has been a reported fall of £50 billion in the economy.
There is a lot of work that needs to be done and the pandemic has put pressure on NGOs. Most of the time, these organisations are filling the shoes of the government which has been shown to be inept at best.
NGOs have a vital role in the building of a country like Colombia. Yes, there are a lot of structural challenges that need to be overcome in order for them to operate effectively. However, charitable organisations and aid funding will continue to be a lifeline for many that struggle everyday for the foreseeable future. The danger is that in the UK we focus on Africa and Asia and think that Latin America is rich enough to not need the skills and expertise that NGOs can bring. Colombians and Colombia have huge challenges, but also the energy to change Colombia for the better. International aid and NGOs are a key partner in creating a better Colombia.
Finally, I wanted to make an acknowledgement to Justice For Colombia for continuing to bring visibility to the struggles of my home country. Their work lobbying MPs and facilitating links between union movements has make a massive difference in the latest National Strike protests.