Andrea Torrens Flores
Like many Latin American capitals, Bogotá is a city of contrasts. From bustling hip cafés and reformer pilates studios in the gentrified urban neighbourhoods to piled-up tin houses on muddy, unpaved streets in the informal settlements on the city´s outskirts: living in Bogotá and working for TECHO has granted me access to see and engage with this diversity and vast inequality.
TECHO works to tackle a traditional humanitarian need, namely the access to housing. Any visitor would agree that it is one of the most visible problems, it can be grasped simply by walking around the city and looking up at the hills. The work of organizations in this field is therefore very tangible too: by building a house, we provide someone with a clear, countable, and material benefit.
This has been my first experience working in humanitarian aid. In previous roles in the field of international development in Europe, I became familiar with complex projects using long theories of change attempting to quantify their impact. I was surprised at first by how simple and relatively inexpensive it is to implement TECHO’s main project: the building of emergency housing. However, understanding the needs of the population in informal settlements, deciding which families are in major need, all while making sure the population is engaged and takes
ownership of the process, is less easy. In recent years, I have become increasingly interested in the debate around humanitarian assistance, the shift of power and resources towards local communities, and the importance of community ownership of projects. My experience in Colombia has so far confirmed the significance of community-led, localized response to emergency.
The owner of one of TECHO’s houses in front of his own in the recently legalized neighbourhood of Laureles Colombia is a country with high levels of violence and conflict that is dealing with an added humanitarian crisis. Millions of families have been displaced in the last decades escaping internal conflict, compounded by the more recent surge in Venezuelan migration. With the secondhighest number of internally displaced people (IDPs) in the world, nearly 90 per cent of Colombia’s IDPs have migrated from rural to urban areas, and informal urban settlements have become a refuge for many. Because these settlements are not officially recognised as legal neighbourhoods, they are neglected by public institutions, and neighbours must organise to demand access to basic services, like water, electricity, and sanitation.
The strong presence of TECHO in informal settlements has allowed me to get a grip on the story of their creation as well as on the individual and collective stories of their inhabitants. I learnt about the perception Colombian society has of them. I remember how shocked I was the first time I heard the term barrio de invasión to refer to the urban settlements, a concept often used by media and found in institutional documents. Not only did I find it politically incorrect, but also extremely stigmatizing, broadening the existent inequality gap by adding an element of blame
to the already complex situation of resorting to shelter in an illegal, neglected setting. This leads to an arduous journey for the population in informal settlements to find employment and to access the health system, let alone to attend higher education.
On the other hand, when getting to know more about the progress made in some now legalized neighbourhoods, I was fascinated by how people from very diverse backgrounds find ways to work together towards a common goal. They are neighbours who come from different parts of the country: the mountainous department of Tolima, the humid Pacific coast, or the Cauca Valley, most of them with the common trauma of having experienced high levels of violence close to their homes and families. All of them arriving at a very different setting to the rurality they are accustomed to and building a new house where the land is affordable, hours away from the city centre. And then creating their own governance structure called Junta de acción comunal, where the long litigation processes start, a fight that takes years, only to achieve what is already granted when you live in the city: sewage treatment, electricity, gas, and water.
Leaders from different informal settlements in and close to Bogotá share their experiences of leadership Displacement constitutes one of the biggest political issues of our time, affecting millions of people worldwide. Consequently, international aid to those in a situation of displacement has become a big business that draws a lot of resources. A key question here is what drives the decisions around who should get this aid and which organizations should be reinforced. I believe that supporting these existing societal structures, groups of organized people who have the common goal of improving their living conditions, should be the focus of humanitarian aid