Article for ROOF Magazine, October 2003
Lessons from Colombia
Municipality of Medellin, the Colombian City notorious for its drug traffickers, is
rightly proud of its efficient utilities company. I visited with a delegation of
British MPs at the invitation of the Colombian Congress. Empressas Publicas de
Medellin (EPM) is the third largest company in Colombia. Pride exuded from the
employees who showed us round their modern HQ that includes gym and restaurant
facilities. According to their impressive female Chief Executive, the workers
commitment to the Company has allowed them to defeat private competitors. But what
really grabbed my attention was her throwaway comment that poor people paid less for their
water and electricity. My mind boggled at the complexity of having to take wealth
into account when calculating a persons bills even more complicated than
Gordon Browns tax credits!
the system was simplicity itself. Bills depend on where you live. I shuddered
at the thought of poverty zones, even Gordons extension of means-testing seemed
better than such a concept. My gut reaction was soon to be reinforced.
stop was Commune 13, originally run by FARC guerrillas, then taken over by right-wing
paramilitaries. Following a fierce battle last October, the Government took control.
As we made our way there with an armed police escort, the modern City gave way to
ever poorer buildings and the police presence on the street increased massively. Our
destination was a shanty town on a mountain slope. Those that were lucky enough to benefit
from EPMs services would surely be paying the lowest tariff but who would choose to
live here? At the police station, more like a fort with its watch towers and
gun slits, the Chief of Police explained that the murder rate had been cut from twenty to
three a month. With some trepidation, I walked down the hill to talk to a group of
With residents from Commune 13
now felt more secure but what they wanted was jobs. No-one would employ them when
they said where they lived. One man, a widower with seven children, was
desperate. Though the local school provided free education, even the nominal (£5 a
year) registration fee was prohibitive. Cheap electricity was clearly no substitute for an
challenged on the discrimination suffered by the people in Commune 13, the Mayor was
disarmingly honest. People there were labeled as criminals and terrorists.
Reports about social cleansing in Colombia suddenly seemed graphically
real. I had read about young people on street corners being gunned down by
paramilitaries who regarded them as little more than vermin. Effective policing was
clearly vital but the Mayor also had a novel approach to the situation. Music
schools were being set up in all the poor districts and a 5000 strong childrens
symphony orchestra was being created. The aim was to convey a positive image of
these youngsters, to show they were intelligent and could contribute to society if given
the opportunity. He had taken the unusual step of directly employing some young
people to advise him.
heartened by the Mayors response. But designating areas as poor enough to receive
cheap utility bills, though understandable, only reinforces their underclass status.
We have done something similar in the UK by limiting the supply of affordable
rented housing to exclude everyone but those most in need.
goodness we do not have the same inequality I witnessed in Colombia but Commune 13 is
surely a demonstration of the effects of social exclusion at its most extreme. Mixed
tenure (a euphemism for higher incomes) is the latest recipe for creating sustainable
communities. However, in some areas, the stigmatisation of social housing has gone so far
that substantial demolition has been seen as the only solution. Homes lost have not
been replaced with the result that displaced residents are concentrated on remaining
estates. To break this vicious cycle, we don't just need investment in education and
work opportunities and better policing but also a substantial publicly-funded programme of
homes for rent.
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