By Sarah Waggoner, Staff Writer

Exploring Room for Improvement: Governance Gaps

The 30,000 Foot View—

Despite the Colombian national government’s best efforts to institutionalize national stability through the 2016 Colombian Peace Accords (“the Agreement” or “Peace Accords”), progress in the sphere of subnational governance often remains to be seen. The Agreement’s long-term, top-down coordination mechanism has not proven to be the most effective strategy for strengthening local governance, especially in rural communities most affected by conflict. What’s worse, the Agreement’s locally driven, rural development programs, known as the PDETs, have been following a similar trendline—missing the mark when it comes to properly prioritizing departmental state authority and local rule of law. 

Unfolding against the backdrop of the Venezuela migration crisis, Colombian Peace Accords programs have become increasingly difficult to navigate in communities positioned along the Venezuelan border. However, the ultimate success of Peace Accords program implementation within rural border communities should remain a top priority as part of Colombia’s broader national stabilization strategy. Without properly addressing Colombia’s localized, longstanding drivers of conflict in its most vulnerable communities, the Peace Accords will never succeed. 

Similarly, while the large-scale provision of emergency humanitarian assistance rightfully remains a priority for US assistance strategy, a supplemental, and more strategically localized assistance approach could help yield more systemic and sustainable stabilization improvements in Colombia.  

A Localized Approach—

Deeper analysis of Colombian departments and municipalities most affected by conflict and border-related issues can help to inform a more targeted, and therefore responsive, US assistance and Peace Accords support strategy. Particularly in rural departments positioned along the border—the regions most vulnerable to cycles of armed conflict—taking a closer look at the context is critical for informing local development programs, as the unique experience of each locale sheds light on subnational stabilization needs.

While standard PDET priorities such as road plans and infrastructure are inarguably important issue areas, the PDETs’ indiscriminate approach to assistance is not always the most contextually responsive. Particularly in border communities battling an influx of migrants and the encroaching activity of rebel groups, a more dynamic bottom-up approach is needed. Other critical systemic deficiencies, such as local governance and rule of law, must be addressed in tandem with the issue areas currently outlined in the PDETs, in order for comprehensive departmental and municipal reform to take place.

In fact, in rural Colombian sub-regions currently receiving PDET assistance, citizens are reportedly dissatisfied with the ongoing implementation of Peace Accords programs on the subnational level. A closer look at the Colombian department of Arauca reveals why.

Zooming In: Arauca, Colombia 

Arauca—a resource-rich, largely rural department situated in northeastern Colombia—sits at the forefront of all border-related stability threats. Due to its position as a critical entry and exit point for Venezuelan migrants and transnational rebel groups, Arauca’s local governance institutions, rule of law, and overall political stability exist in a perpetually heightened state of vulnerability.

During the height of Venezuelan migration this past summer, when asked to identify the “most serious problem facing [their] municipality, Arauca constituents most frequently cited unemployment and crime—both ranking decisively higher than road planning and immigration combined.

Fast-forward to this past January, when Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a report which situated these survey responses into a larger instability context. The report reveals the severity of the transnational threat to Arauca’s governance, detailing the ongoing usurpation of political authority by armed rebel groups—the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the “Martín Villa Tenth Front,” a dissidence outgrowth of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). 

In the total absence of state authority and effective rule of law, the rebels have leveraged control over citizens in Arauca through forced taxation, unlawful killings, and the restriction of free movement. At the core, the ultimate success of this de facto political stronghold can be causally linked to the pre-existing governance vacuum in Arauca.

A rural Colombian department like Arauca—with weak governance and lack of state institutions to enforce the rule of law—has historically emboldened armed rebel groups and will continue to do so in the absence of bottom-up governance reform, threatening national stability long after Venezuelan migration flows subside. 

Recommendations for PDET Improvements—

In order to break the cycle of instability in rural communities, problems must be tackled at their core. To their credit, the PDETs have been designed with the end-goal of incorporating citizen feedback. Since PDETs have the latent power to properly serve as truly bottom-up development plans, the framework for these plans is a natural platform from which to build. In fact, HRW reports that Arauca residents have been engaged in identifying developmental priorities through the PDETs, but to date, resultant project implementation has not yet taken hold.

The PDET mechanism should be expanded writ large to explicitly include subnational governance and rule of law as standard priority issues. In the case of Arauca and rural departments facing the same age-old issue of subnational governance gaps, local-level programs should focus on equipping department and municipal-level government with the skills needed to fill the void and effectively address citizen priorities. 

Specifically, department-level governors should be trained on subnational revenue management, in order to reshape budgetary priorities based on the most pressing citizen-identified needs. In the case of Arauca, unemployment and crime. Additionally, department-level power holders should be equipped with the planning and coordination skills needed to engage municipal-level administrators on matters related to job growth and municipal policing, in order to most efficiently operate within the realm of decentralization

Empowering local governance structures to address the societal voids that have historically been exploited by armed groups will further halt the momentum of the rebel groups’ illicit activity, and thus progress the stabilization process beyond the realm of subnational governance. By more responsively tackling these localized problems at their root, the PDETs could more effectively disempower and delegitimize illicit rebel authority—and thus, achieve the 2016 Peace Accords’ ultimate goal of restoring national stability in Colombia.

Sarah Waggoner is an M.A. candidate at The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs with a concentration in Political Development in Post-Conflict Contexts. She holds a B.A. in Political Science and International Studies from the University of Michigan. Her professional experience includes three years as an international development practitioner at a democracy and governance organization.