Postconflict in Colombia (20): 'Paz territorial', decentralisation and citizen participation

The end of the armed conflict is the opportunity to re-route the complementary agendas of decentralisation and citizen participation so as to contribute to building a stable and lasting peace. Español

Juan Mauricio Torres Paulo Tovar
13 October 2016

People participate in a peace march in Bogota, Colombia, Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2016. Fernando Vergara AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

On 24 August, after nearly four years of negotiations, delegates of the government of Colombia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC-EP) publicly presented the text of the Final Agreement for the Termination of the Conflict and the Construction of a Stable and Durable Peace, 297 pages in length, that brings to a close the armed confrontation between the government and the guerrillas, the oldest and largest in both the country and the Western hemisphere. We knew from previously published drafts that the agreement not only includes directions and plans, with more or less detail, for disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration of former combatants, but also proposes a number of substantive guidelines (policies, plans and proposals for deep institutional changes) for the transformation of a context that has favoured the armed conflict. That context is defined as follows:

  1. The significant development gap between the countryside and the cities: according to the report of the Mission for the Transformation of the Rural Areas, people living in rural communities are 2.5 times poorer than those living in urban areas.
  2. The noxious link between politics and weapons: according to the Historical Commission of the Conflict and its Victims, more than 1.700 political leaders have been killed in the armed conflict.
  3. The many faces of the illicit drugs phenomenon: according to figures from the national government, about 64.500 families earn their living growing coca in Colombia, as a result of the critical situation of poverty and weak governance in the rural areas.
  4. The need to offer real reparations to the victims of the conflict: the Victims’ Register reported a total of 8.190.451 victims in the country.

As part of an elected strategy to address these issues, the national government has been developing the concept of paz territorial (peace in the territories). With this, the intended message is that the reforms and policies proposed in the peace agreement must come alongside a renewed decentralisation effort and a general call for the direct participation of citizens in the governance of the public sphere. However, the issues at the heart of the paz territorial, decentralisation and citizen participation, are long-standing, and pose substantial challenges.

To achieve a true transformation of the territories and ensure that citizens in rural areas most affected by the conflict have a decent life, as stated in Article 366 of the Colombian Constitution of 1991[1], one of the major changes needed for the implementation of the Final Agreement which is specifically identified in its first point - on "Comprehensive Rural Reform" -, will necessarily revolve around territorial management and organisation.

Despite some achievements, mainly related to the provision of basic public services, Colombia's model of decentralisation is now exhausted and clearly inadequate for the peacebuilding phase.

In recent decades, successive governments created a number of institutional mechanisms[2] to regulate the operation and organisation of the state in all the territories of Colombia. Even though they were endorsed by the Congress of the Republic, which includes regional representation, the outcome of these formulae has not contributed to a clear and effective distribution of powers and responsibilities, nor to ensuring the autonomy of municipalities and departments in managing their interests. On the contrary, given the lack of resources, local leaders have been forced to find their way through wasteful and confusing bureaucracy and navigate these complex schemes to try to access public funds which often turn out to be nonexistent.

This complex organisational structure and territorial funding should not only be updated and harmonised, but restructured according to the different conditions and realities of local authorities, taking into account not only the territorial extension and the population of each municipality, but its density, degree of rurality, institutional weaknesses and the impact resulting from the internal armed conflict. In this regard, the current National Development Plan (PND), despite its underlying centralist outlook, outlines an initial intention to address these issues through the creation of a National Programme for Delegation of Competences[3].

Despite the fact that the established planning norms highlight the need to integrate the active participation of local authorities in the process of drafting the National Plan, the recurrent tendency at the national level is to prioritise the sectoral agenda over the needs arising from the territories[4]. For example, although the current PND includes a chapter entitled "regional strategy", the said strategy is not a commitment to decentralisation or to some formula to rescue the autonomy of local authorities, but instead a series of regional programmes and projects defined and coordinated from Bogotá.

In the post-conflict period, mayors and governors cannot remain as bystanders or mere spectators of public projects in their regions, due to the simple fact that they do not have enough resources to develop certain competencies and functions. These competencies and functions were irresponsibly assigned by Congress without the corresponding resources to make them happen – that is, without complying with Article 356 of the Constitution which states that "Competencies cannot be decentralised without prior allocation of sufficient fiscal resources to meet them."

In another vein, the strategy of bringing the state in a de-concentrated manner to the territory through agencies, programmes and special administrative units has been widely developed in the past and has yielded several lessons that should be taken into account for the approaching scenario: the peace agreement outlines a number of plans, processes and coordination spaces that must be the result of a joint effort between communities and public authorities, including municipal and departmental authorities. As the High Commissioner for Peace clearly stated in 2014, "the centralist model, by which officials land like Martians on communities to ‘bring them the state’ is no more[5]”.

The implementation of the agreement requires a new relationship and clear institutional arrangements between the federal government, the municipalities and the departments by which the regional authorities will be strengthened institutionally, their local development plans legitimized, and channels of communication between local government and the community made clearly known. 

The time has come to rethink the functioning of the state and to rebuild the relationship between the state and the citizens, which means understanding the state as not only the Nation or the Central State, but instead as constituted and represented by local and regional authorities in the territories.

Without neglecting the fact that the concept of the state bears relevance to all Colombians, from the perspective of citizen participation it is expected that a decentralising effort should lead to better interaction between local authorities and the people in each territory. Several studies undertaken by the Ideas para la Paz Foundation, have led us to identify a vibrant network of leaders and grassroots organisations in the regions deeply affected by the armed conflict. This social and community movement includes such robust organisations as the Women's Peaceful Route (1996),  the Programmes for Development and Peace (1995), or the Union of Agricultural Workers in Sumapaz (1960). These organisations, along with many others, have boosted support for resistance to the armed conflict and have developed a series of ideas, plans and projects for the communities to stay in their territories.

Undoubtedly, these mentioned leaders and organisations do not represent all the interests and positions in the regions, their proposals may also be technically or financially imprecise but, in any case, they are heartfelt responses and sincere reflections from those who have directly experienced the ravages of armed violence.

It is essential, therefore, that under the paz territorial (territorial peace) heading, the objective of improving dialogue between these initiatives and municipal and departmental authorities be pursued. This dialogue is the essence of efficient and high-quality civil participation - and of a properly functioning state. It is not a matter of handing over a blank cheque to the social organisations' discourse and proposals but, rather, to seek arrangements to: first, help local authorities to recognise the paths and processes of their communities; second, to count on the authorities’ and the communities’ willingness to learn from their interactions in participatory entities; and, third, to increase the local institutions’ capacities so that they can respond to the needs expressed locally.

Continuing with the current participation framework does not favour the achievement any of these three issues. On the one hand, local participatory entities as they stand today are not the right spaces for local authorities and communities to achieve dialogue and define paths to respond to the needs of the territories. In addition, the departmental level is usually unable to develop effective participatory processes at the local level. Finally, when the communities, disillusioned with the regional governments' incapacities and invisibility, seek answers to their problems from the national government, they find that their specific contexts are not appreciated there nor is there any willingness to engage in joint learning processes.

Looking at this in more detail:  in Colombia there are multiple participatory entities (usually committees), who do not recognise regional differences. These bodies, established by national laws, are viewed by local officials as extra work to be done, and by communities as insubstantial bodies where, at most, pre-decided matters are formalised. National authorities have not bothered, excepting very few exceptions, to evaluate the functioning of the bodies mentioned, to promote a simplification of the spaces for participation[6], or to help these bodies to tune to the particularities of the territories. Given the innocuousness of these participatory entities, communities tend to seek solutions to local problems from the national government, either by accessing national bodies or through participatory mechanisms outside the institutional channels, such as marches and blockades. We recently saw the creation of several "roundtables" where national government representatives sit down with local leaders and organisations.

While these approaches are well-intended, they are sporadic and often spurred by ignorance and distrust, making it extremely complex for national authorities to come to recognise the context and processes of each community, or that their interaction can provide significant lessons to be learnt.

A new framework is required, we insist, in which regional authorities can develop their autonomy and encourage and commit to a better dialogue with the local communities, through recognition of their specific contexts, learning together and coming up with solutions to local problems, and, of course, with the technical and financial support from the central level oriented towards cooperation, not supplanting or creating new burdens for regional governments.

The end of the armed conflict between the government and the FARC-EP is, then, the opportunity to re-route the complementary agendas of decentralisation and citizen participation so as to contribute to building a stable and lasting peace. And, in so doing, to achieve the purpose of the 1991 Constitution to bring the state closer to citizens, to encourage citizen participation in local decision-making, to make governance more transparent, and to improve the quality and efficiency in the provision of services.



[1]    Article 366. General welfare and improving quality of life of the population are social purposes of the State. Solving the unmet needs of health, education, sanitation and potable water will be a fundamental objective of its activity. For this purpose, public social spending will have priority over any other allocation in the plans and budgets of the Nation and the territorial entities.

[2]    General Participation System -SGP (transfers from the national level to local authorities), General Royalties System, national government's investment budget for the regions ,among others.

[3]    General Participation System -SGP (transfers from the national level to local authorities), General Royalties System, national government's investment budget for the regions ,among others.

[4]    A situation faced every day by mayors and governors, filling out report forms, tracking and monitoring for each of the ministries, the result of recipes made from the centre, ignoring the importance and necessity of a real prior process to generate capacities in the area.


[6] Law 1757 presents a very interesting opportunity in this respect 

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