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.
So far, Peru has been an interesting experience. The change in climate, culture, and views has been somewhat shocking. The 20+ hour bus ride to get to and from our first mining town was also an ordeal in itself.
I stayed two days at a mining town deep in the mountains and was able to see first-hand how Peruvian miners live. Unfortunately, although this was supposed to be a case study on a successful union fighting for fair working conditions, the successes have been quite small. The workers were able to organize a strike and a union, which is very difficult, almost impossible, in Latin America, but their living and working conditions were far from just. Being there just two days, I could feel and see the pollution being dumped from the mine into this poor town. On top of that, the measly salaries of the miners barely covered the expensive necessities in the town.
It was difficult to experience and heading on the bus out of the town, I oscillated between anger, depression, and guilt. I felt guilty that I was able to leave that place and come to a comfortable hotel in Trujillo. I also felt guilty that these people looked to me and my boss for answers to their problems, which we certainly did not have. We had come to learn from them, but in two days, I still could not understand how this town could put up with these conditions day in and day out. I felt anger that I could not do more, and how development work is often about very small changes and often takes more than it puts in. My main contribution would be to tell this town’s story and hopefully build some international support for their cause, but is that enough? With millions of similar stories around the world, and the massive changes that would need to be made, my depression set in. Am I truly contributing to change or are these small wins not enough to confront the tide of rapid expansion, globalization, and neoimperialism?
On the bright side, it seems that the next union we will visit has achieved some more concrete successes. Change is a long process, fraught with failures, and many times, it feels like “one step forward and two steps back.” In the end, I just hope that the small steps forward will be enough to overcome the many steps back, and that my role in creating change will be much clearer and more contributive.
For my internship, I recently travelled to Ayacucho, Peru, a region whose name means, “Land of the Dead” in the local, indigenous dialect. It is called “Land of the Dead” because as far back as the rule of the Inca, many bloody battles took place in this region. In more recent history, Ayacucho has continued to earn the name “Land of the Dead”, for it was in a rural university campus in this region that Professor Abimael Guzman formed the Sendero Luminoso, or Shining Path in the 1970s. What started as a revolutionary movement soon turned into an armed guerrilla organization that committed horrendous atrocities against political opponents and citizens alike. The Peruvian government responded by sending armed forces-which were equally brutal-into the region and between 40,000 and 60,000 people were killed or disappeared in the resulting civil war. Many of the victims were indigenous people from Ayacucho.
The aftermath of the civil war is still felt in Ayacucho today. Although in the last decade the region has experienced peace and is now safe for visitors, it still remains very poor. In addition to the poverty, there are a lot of social problems. Many people have turned to alcohol to numb the painful memories of the civil war and often times alcoholism leads to domestic abuse and incest.
The organization I am working with, CHIRAPAQ, is an indigenous-led organization that seeks to build up leadership potential among members of Peru’s indigenous populations. The project I am working on is a series of educational workshops for indigenous youth on sexual and reproductive health. The organization seeks to empower these youth with knowledge of their bodies and an understanding of their rights. CHIRAPAQ hopes that through the workshops it will help reduce unwanted pregnancies and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, both of which are very high in Ayacucho. As sexual and reproductive health is still a taboo issue between parents, teachers and youth in this region, I strongly believe the work CHIRAPAQ is doing is both important and effective. This week I am off to the Central Jungle for our next workshop. I will keep you posted…
Working as a Kiva Fellow in Honduras and Bolivia led to many adventures for me over the past year. Before I left, I knew I´d be exposed to the surprising ins and outs of microfinance (Kiva uses the internet to connect lenders and borrowers across the world, I would be facilitating that interaction). I did not, however expect the experience to lead down so many unique roads.
I´m travelling now in Northern Peru, post Kiva Fellowship, and on my long bus rides and often quiet nights I´ve been remembering some of the moments. Most of the time, I was face to face with the dynamic, colorful and crushing poverty of two nations as alike in their optimism as they were different in their culture. I´ll forever be moved by images of children with severe iron deficiencies holding the hem of mom´s skirt who used her micro loan to sell jello to school children for less than 3 pennies a cup in a desperate effort to squeak out a living in her home clinging to Tegucigalpan hillsides. Still other moments make me laugh. One in particular caught me off guard on a taxi ride this morning, winding up a dirt road above lost hot springs in a tiny ¨town¨ called Llanguat.
I was riding with my roommate from Coroico to La Paz in the back of a minibus, jaw dropped at the Lord of the Rings- like scenery, when suddenly a cool sensation spreads under my knee. Looking down I realized that in our rapid altitude climb, the wine bottle of honey held by my neighbor had spontaneously exploded! Honey sticking, spreading and oozing across the seats covered my lap, stuck to my fingers and quickly to my hair, the wall, my shoes everything. Everyone starts passing back pathetic little scraps of tissue we tried to use to scoop up several liters of honey. Though my drinking water is always of very high value, I handed over my aligner, here use this. To my surprise, it turns out she was completely unconcerned with the mess is trying to salvage as much honey as possible!! Quickly she dumps the water out the window and starts pouring the remaining honey into my bottle. Thanks so much for this gift she tells me. I didn´t quite get it that she thought I had given her the bottle and thought I´d leave the matter until we arrived back in La Paz.
We get there and I´m trying to tell her, please I need my bottle back, what can we do? I´m thinking, buy another little bottle but she thinks, oh I´ll just buy this one. I cringe when I tell her it is 89 Bolivianos or 12 dollars. A sum she simply cannot fathom for a simple water bottle. I suddenly realize that I´ve come from very far away. Hopefully the honey can stick us together.
This was written by Sierra Visher
More articles about her fellowship can be found at www.svisher.wordpress.com