Creating a Platform for Social Change

This post is part of IPSA‘s pre-conference blog series. It was cross-posted from GoldmundGalarza.

by Nicolás Galarza, MUP ’13

While working at the Presidential Agency of Social International Cooperation in Colombia, my coworkers and I set out to harness the power of the internet to help us in deploying a comprehensive poverty alleviation strategy for the country’s poorest citizens.

Our challenge was to use technology to build a volunteer network that could help Colombian citizens. We first turned to the internet, and thought about how it could be used to create new possibilities for the poorest families inColombia. Just over 50 percent of Colombian households have access to the internet, compared to 78 percent of American households.

Then we thought; if the poorest ofColombiacannot access the internet, we should deploy a strategy that involved volunteers that were already linked up.

Like in theUnited States, plenty of citizens inColombiawere willing to help, but many didn’t know how. So we started working on a volunteer strategy based upon technology and social media. We were inspired by volunteermatch.org in theUS, and “portal do voluntario” inBrazil.

Even though we knew most people were concerned about poverty, we wondered why they were not taking concrete actions to help the poorest population. We found that it was because they are largely unaware of the roots of the problem, much less the consequences and the policies that were being implemented to address it. To find the information, they would have to at the very least read a policy paper. This begged the question: should willing citizens have to read policy papers before they could help? The answer was self-evident.

We thought about how to make this information accessible to the public, and then we had it: we could launch a website with easy to digest content on poverty issues. Then we could set out to develop a volunteer campaign, using an E-Government strategy to engage citizens to take action on alleviating poverty inColombia. We started designing info graphic pieces, clearly stating the problem, why it was important to solve it, what the government and other organizations were doing, and what a citizen could do to collaborate.

Although our approach to poverty alleviation had been a comprehensive strategy, we decided to focus our project on housing. It seemed feasible that we could gather people to donate their time on a weekend to help improve the home of a poor family.

To begin, we selected one of our constituent families who was in need of a home improvement intervention. This particular household had dirt floors, a roof threatening to fall down, no private space for children, and very poor sanitation services.

We expected between 15 and 30 volunteers. After two weeks of campaigning, however, we had a startling 120 citizens sign up on the website and 70 actually showed up to volunteer. The project was funded by the government as well as private donations, which were used to supply labor, construction materials, and bedding for the children. Private and non-profit organizations also lent their time and technical expertise, including Architecture for Humanity Bogotá, OrganiZmo and Somos más.

After the intervention, living conditions for this Colombian family were so improved that they were no longer considered poor according to the Colombian standards (which are higher than World Bank measures). The Colombian government recognized our initiative as the best “E-Government Solution” in 2011.

At the Presidential Agency, we knew we had figured out a way to use technology for development, despite limited access among poor families. And this was just the beginning. After this successful intervention, several organizations in different cities expressed their interest in implementing a similar initiative. As citizens committed to public service, we have to know technology is one of our biggest allies.

Here you can find the entire fall edition of The Wagner Planner.

This is the actual platform the article talks about: www.colombiaenaccion.gov.co

 *The Wagner Planner is an independent student newsletter of the Urban Planning Students Association (UPSA) at NYU Wagner. It is published and circulated via Adobe PDF format in the Fall and Spring semesters.

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