Lessons from Colombia

Article for ROOF Magazine, October 2003

Lessons from Colombia

The 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 person’s bills – even more complicated than Gordon Brown’s tax credits!

However, the system was simplicity itself.  Bills depend on where you live.  I shuddered at the thought of poverty zones, even Gordon’s extension of means-testing seemed better than such a concept.  My gut reaction was soon to be reinforced.

Our next 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 EPM’s 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 residents. 

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With residents from Commune 13

Yes, they 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 income.

When 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 children’s 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.

I was heartened by the Mayor’s 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.

Thank 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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