12/03/2011 01:23 EST | Updated 02/01/2012 05:12 EST

Creating Lasting Change in Colombia

A number of images may come to mind when Canadians think of Colombia. For some tourist or business travellers it may be of extravagant cruise ship ports or the hustle and bustle of its major cities and economic centres. For others, it is images from Hollywood movies and media -- of conflict, drugs, crime, poverty, kidnappings, or even natural disasters, like the Colombian floods that happened just this year.

In reality, and like many countries, Colombia -- one of Canada's closest partners from both a business investment and development assistance perspective -- is really a complex mix of extremes. It's something my Plan Colombia colleagues and I talked about when I was there last month.

On the one hand you have Colombia's beautiful and secure urban centres, where there is a rising middle-class and where big businesses, like Canadian banks and mining companies, are placing their bets by investing in the country. On the other hand, you have vast slums, poverty, hundreds of thousands of displaced persons left homeless after natural disasters, youth coming out of school with few career options, and children drawn into the armed conflict of the countryside. While this dichotomy of extremes has its challenges, Colombia is not a country without potential.


Okay now, everybody say, "Colombia!" Rosemary and a few children she met during her visit.

Photo courtesy of Plan Canada.

A New Generation of Hope and Change

Since 1962, Plan has been working in Colombia, helping children access health, education, livelihoods and protection. With money raised in the country and matched by the Canadian Government and Canadian donors, we directly support about 140,000 young boys and girls and as many as 700,000 families. This includes our work in Colombia's urban centres to help children who have been drawn into the commercial sex trade.

But make no mistake -- this is not about giving poor children and their families a handout. It's about creating lasting change. I saw some powerful and pragmatic examples -- as vast and complex as Colombia itself -- of how Colombian youths are leveraging our support and working together across communities to improve their own lives, and the state of their entire country:

... Like the youth I met in Padilla who are running a Plan-supported village savings and loans program. Through this program, youth have accumulated savings and have established a social fund for emergencies in their village. Of their own will, and despite their own personal needs, these youth have chosen to designate their savings to replace the sagging roof on their local community health clinic and pay for other repairs...

... At a Plan school and agricultural training centre in Jamundi -- equipped with a model farm and real livestock -- youths are learning about crop production, food processing, the business of modern farming and agriculture, and about what profits can be made in smart approaches to farming. It may not be the typical career choice for many youth today, but the Colombian youth I visited were quite excited about this career path. They could see a whole world of opportunity opening up for them, and a way out of the long-time poverty that affected their families...

... In other parts of the country, youth are developing disaster preparedness plans for their communities, a vital exercise as Colombia is high-risk for natural disasters. Using media training and other resources provided by Plan, these youth are becoming photojournalists, travelling across communities to "map" areas for vulnerabilities to future disasters. They are also meeting with community leaders to discuss and remedy risky systems and infrastructure -- like poor sanitation and drainage systems, and homes built on flood plains -- that pose harm and danger to both children and adults in emergency situations....

... In 2010, and with Plan's support, a group of youth produced a rap music album,

Rap Paz Joven to spread the message of peace to other youth through the driving beats of Colombian hip-hop. Today, in Tumaco, where Canada has invested heavily in youth programs, youth continue to lead peer-to-peer peace-building initiatives to stem the tide of violence and conflict that has troubled the country.

Colombia's Lesson for All of Us

The Colombian youths I met represent a new generation of change in the country. The passion and potential I saw in all of them affirmed for me how important it is that we not turn our backs on them. Their work demonstrates what development assistance is really all about: investing in people to build their own capacity for sustainable change and development in their communities, and to become their own agents of social change.

More broadly, Canadians should know Colombia better. They're our neighbours. (Air Canada has direct, non-stop flights!) It's in our hemisphere, our own backyard. We vacation there, we do business there, and we invest our charitable dollars there -- but how well do we know it? Look a little closer, not just at Colombia but other places we support or visit for business or pleasure. There's much to know about a country -- and its people -- beyond cruise ship stops and newspaper headlines.