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Postconflict in Colombia (15). Citizen participation, key for a sustainable peace

To encourage citizen participation in the peace process, demographic and socioeconomic factors of territory, capital, institutional capacities, and the nature of the power groups are key. Português Español

The Citizen Commitment to Peace project
23 June 2016
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Two women hang a banner reading ' Colombia without FARC'. 2013. AP Photo/Paul White.

On March, 30, after two years of rapprochement, the government of Colombia and the National Liberation Army (ELN) set a negotiation agenda. This process will be brought to pass in parallel to that which the government is carrying out with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in Havana, Cuba, since November 2012. These processes involve the two largest and long-standing guerrilla forces in the country; each process, in its own way, is counting on the active participation of former combatants and victims, citizens and communities.

In the case of the negotiations with the FARC, the idea of actively involving citizens has been emerging as a crosscutting issue for the implementation of the agreements that have been reached. The Ideas for Peace Foundation (FIP) has identified, so far, 64 references in these agreements to specific bodies and participatory mechanisms through which citizens will be able to put into effect and assess the results of the negotiations in Havana.

Meanwhile, the announcement of impending negotiations with the ELN suggests that participation is not only a matter of negotiation but, rather, the very methodology of the process. For the ELN, citizen participation has been a key issue in its contacts with previous governments[1]. It should thus come as no surprise that the first point of discussion on the agenda with the government of Juan Manuel Santos is, precisely, the participation of civil society in the building of peace. Nor is it odd that the second point on the agenda, "democracy for peace", includes the input of citizen proposals to solve social conflicts and improve coexistence, some of which will be reflected in the third item on the agenda, "peace transformations", the aim of which is to put forward plans and programmes in the regions that have been most affected by the armed conflict.

A bittersweet story

The option for citizen participation is not new in Colombia. More than two decades ago, the Constitution gave a strong boost to citizen involvement in public administration, and this has resulted in a quite a number of laws[2]. The idea underlying this option is that participation involves two types of values: an instrumental value, for it is expected that the involvement of citizens in public management will result in more effective and inclusive public policies; and an intrinsic value, for participatory exercises tend to deepen democracy in so far as citizens and institutions get closer to each other, debate on matters of mutual interest, and build confidence.

Today we can say, however, that these two values ​​have not materialized decisively. In fact, different sectors in academia, public institutions and social organizations agree that there is a large number of provisions in Colombia to promote citizen participation, but this does not translate into having a public administration that effectively involves the citizenry. They also agree that the numerous councils and committees resulting from these provisions make participation a difficult and expensive task for governments, mislead citizens as to where to present their demands, and encourage the presence of the same leaders in multiple places. And that public participation has been promoted from the top down (from national to local level) through standardized and de-contextualized mechanisms which discourage the involvement of communities.

What is different this time?

Rather than a different option, the difference of what the current processes are proposing in terms of post-conflict participation has to do with the ability to learn from this bittersweet story. This is the spirit under which we make the following reflections.

Assessing and drawing upon what already exists

Before thinking of creating new processes, entities or participation mechanisms we should make the effort to work on what already exists. In this regard, a recent bill (Law 1757 of 2015) allows the removal, the merging and the modification of existing participation bodies in order to improve institutional effectiveness. We believe that this task of "saving" on spaces should be taken seriously in a post-conflict scenario, and that the role that the existing participation entities have played and can play in the future should be carefully assessed[3].

On the other hand, we have noted that the institutions and the communities tend to restrict the scope of participation to the planning phase, and to concentrate the bulk of their effort at this stage. This denotes unawareness of the potential of citizen involvement in implementing and keeping track of public policies, and contributes to viewing planning as an end and not as a means to transform the territory. Finding a path requires doing some exploring, so this is an invitation to moderate the expectations and the efforts of planning and to achieve progress in transformative actions, even at micro level.

At the same time, we must seize the opportunities offered by current technological and methodological advances, which enable a more innovative participation, the inputs of which can be systematized in a more reliable manner and can be shared more effectively with parallel processes. They also favour the involvement of sectors of the population who are traditionally apathetic to this type of exercise, particularly the young, and offer the possibility of remote participation, free of the constraints of time and space.

Measuring to improve

Once the participation exercises included in the agreements are in operation, we need to have the necessary tools to reveal in more detail their failures and when do they occur, as well as to identify the achievements. In this sense, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), through its Citizen Commitment to Peace Project (CCP), after carefully reviewing the specialised literature on the matter, has presented a set of indicators for measuring the quality and the degree of effectiveness of citizen participation driven by public institutions, which is currently being tested in three of the country’s regions.

Facing, as we do, the enormous challenge of activating citizen participation to put into effect the agreements signed between the government and the FARC and to negotiate with the ELN, we believe that this measuring can produce useful information and turn on timely warnings which must be taken into consideration for the success of the participatory processes in transforming relations between the citizens and government. The results of this measurement will be a significant contribution to the endeavour of regional actors who seek to improve the functioning of the participation scenarios, and to incentivate interest in the impact of citizen participation in peacebuilding.

Context matters

We know that to have new or existing spaces for citizen involvement is a necessary but not sufficient condition to ensure the inclusion of the most vulnerable sectors of the population and change in their living conditions. The characteristics of the contexts where participatory processes are carried out will undoubtedly affect the incentives and the costs that citizens face while participating, as well as the chances that their participation results in decisions and actions which contribute to the building of the public sphere.

In this sense, the IFJ’s Citizen Commitment for Peace project has highlighted the importance, when promoting citizen participation, of taking into account demographic and socioeconomic territorial factors, social capital characteristics, local institutional capacities, and the nature and influence of power groups. Our analyses have shown, for example, that participation processes carried out in mainly urban areas tend to diminish the chances of incidence of rural communities; that the existence of strong ties between leaders and their bases result in a higher incidence of certain groups within the spaces of participation and, thus, in a positive perception of the participatory processes, whereas communities that feel under-represented or whose leaders have little management skills perceive the scenarios as useless and exhausting. We have also noted that existing political, administrative and budgetary difficulties prevent public institutions from responding to the huge number of claims that are being processed through citizen participation spaces, and that their low responsiveness and the scant presence of institutional actors in these spaces strengthens the perception of the illegitimacy of the State and deepens the distrust of citizens. We have observed, finally, that where the private sector is openly, transparently and democratically involved, positive synergies can be found which have a significant impact on the legitimacy of the process.

The CCP project recognizes the effect of the conflict and violence on the dynamics of participation, and this actually poses one of the greatest threats to citizen involvement. As with the FARC, the negotiations with the ELN will begin while the armed conflict is ongoing, and we believe it is necessary to move quickly towards de-escalation. Without security guarantees and without a clear demonstration of the parties’ political will to negotiate, it will be very difficult to encourage community involvement in the process.

The increase in the number of threats to and murders of community leaders registered in 2015 and so far in 2016, as well as the escalation of violence by criminal gangs in some areas of the country, affect social mobilization because they thwart the actions of both leaders and community members. This in turn can lead to the existence of empty spaces of participation that then become available to be filled by power groups looking to position their agendas, or to torpedo the development of inclusive processes. This type of violence should not be viewed as "isolated cases", nor should it be excluded from the discussions on participation.

The importance of the intangibles

We would finally like to rescue the value of the intangible elements in the participation processes. For instance, participation implies carrying out the physical act of hearing and listening to others, which is something that can help to attract those who are outside the participation space and feel distanced from it, either because of deep-seated emotions like fear, or because they deny the existence of those who think differently. In this line, we propose to focus on exercises that allow unlikely dialogues – that is, exercises where actors with wildly different, even antagonistic views, meet and interact. Intangibles are a long-term shot, in so far as they generate conditions and attitudes that lead to profound cultural transformations, such as the creation or restoration of trust: the strategic pillar on which any post-conflict setting rests.


[1] The convening of a National Convention has been the ELN’s reiterated proposal for broad participation of citizens and organized sectors in its negotiations with the governments of Ernesto Samper, Andrés Pastrana and Álvaro Uribe.

[2] Examples are to be found in: Law 152 of 1994 on planning, Law 434 of 1998 on Peace Councils, Law 1448 of 2011 on victims and land restitution, among others.

[3] En particular, llamamos la atención sobre las siguientes instancias: Consejos Territoriales de Paz, Consejos Territoriales de Planeación, Consejos Municipales de Desarrollo Rural, Comités Territoriales de Justicia Transicional y los recién creados Consejos de Participación Ciudadana

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