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Protective Environments and Increased Urban Resilience in Post-Conflict Colombia

Reinforce the socioeconomic resilience of internally displaced Colombians living in urban areas by establishing protective environments.

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Traditionally, humanitarian and development actors have responded to environmental disasters and displacement using an emergency response model, establishing camps, distributing aid, and building schools and clinics. However, according to the UN Refugee Agency, the billions spent on relief in the last decades have not led to the sustainable strengthening of national and local capacities. And with growing numbers of people forced to leave their homes and to relocate to expanding cities and urban areas―where it doesn’t make sense to accommodate them in camps―we need to rethink this approach. A more holistic and sustainable development-oriented approach is necessary to ensure that internally displaced people (IDP) can enjoy the human security and human rights to which they are entitled.

In Colombia, IDPs―or ‘victims’―have fled from rural areas and smaller cities and towns as a result of a decades-long internal armed conflict between the FARC, the ELN and other guerilla groups, paramilitary groups and the government’s armed forces. Nearly 8.5 million Colombians have sought refuge in medium and large-sized cities, and in neighbouring countries (RUV 2017). They have been forced to migrate in ways that increase their vulnerability―the vast majority live in poverty or extreme poverty, and fragile security conditions.

Explain your idea

A disproportionate number of Colombia’s IDPs are women, children, adolescents, Afro-Colombians and Indigenous people, and the majority were forced to relocate from a rural to an urban area. Economically, displacement results in the loss of capital, assets and labour. Although work-able, IDPs have a significantly high inactivity rate. At the individual, family and community level, displacement cuts people off from the practices and the social matrix from which they derive their cultural identity. It contributes to the destruction of social networks and capital, both of which are vital to social integration and development. Most IDPs struggle to find employment and, when they do, too many feel apprehensive about leaving their children and adolescents unaccompanied―IDPs normally live in cities’ poorest districts, where they are exposed to crime, gangs, sexual exploitation and other problems, such as substance abuse. This leads to high rates of job abandonment and continued poverty. To address this problem, and to reinforce the social and economic resilience of displaced Colombians living in urban areas, our idea aims to support the creation of protective environments in targeted districts of the cities of Medellin, Cali and Buenaventura. We will focus on the social and economic subsystems―namely, economic development and employment, and gender equality and community cohesion―by supporting the creation and revitalization of community and social networks, positive peer relationships, after school programs, as well as sports, artistic and cultural opportunities. We will work closely with governments, and create linkages between the business community and schools, which contribute to building a local culture of peace and equality. Community members will be encouraged to participate actively in child and adolescent protection and monitoring (e.g. by helping them walk to and from school areas safely), in the belief that change can be affected when citizens feel empowered and included. A protective environment is one where everyone―from children and teachers to governments and the private sector―contributes to the fulfillment of children and adolescents’ rights to protection. According to Unicef (2015), such an environment “is a web of interconnected elements which individually and collectively work to protect children [and adolescents] from violence, exploitation and abuse.” In Colombia, this approach―agilely adapted from a program designed to assist young combatants returning to civilian life in Mozambique―successfully shielded rural children and adolescents from forced recruitment into armed groups. It also provided them with psychosocial support, encouraging families and community members to actively participate in the recovery process. We aim to take a rights-based approach to building safe spaces, taking it a step further by including a built-in income-generating and employment strategy that was developed and designed for and by IDPs.

Who Benefits?

Our idea will benefit 600 internally displaced women and men living in poverty and their 2,400 children and adolescents in targeted districts of Medellin, Cali and Buenaventura. After Bogota, these cities have the largest displaced populations in Colombia―IDPs come from all of the country’s 32 departments. These women and men will be trained on the technical and soft skills they need to succeed in the workplace, as well as offered internship and mentoring opportunities. They will also benefit from psychosocial support to cope with the legacy of living in conflict-affected areas and displacement. Protective environments will keep children and adolescents safe from violence, exploitation and abuse―and put their parents at ease. As IDPs succeed in finding―and maintaining―suitable employment, the benefits will extend into their families and communities. This model of inclusion has the power to make a real contribution to peace, prosperity and reconciliation in Colombia.

How is your idea unique?

The uniqueness of our idea is threefold. First, we will address a barrier to employment that consistently is overlooked―too many IDPs leave the jobs they urgently need because they fear for the safety and well-being of their children and adolescents. Second, we will adapt and flexibly apply a tried-and-true solution―establishing protective environments―to urban areas and the challenges that Colombia’s post-conflict context entails. Local innovations, such as the protective environment model, are more likely to prove highly effective, culturally appropriate and they tend to be easily replicable. Third, we see a unique opportunity to amplify our current work in Medellin, Cali and Buenaventura, where we work closely with governments, civil society and private sector organizations and other stakeholders like multilateral agencies and training centers. Building on existing success and solid networks will allow us to quickly move beyond the piloting to full scale roll-out.

Idea Proposal Stage

  • Piloting: I have started to implement my solution as a whole with a first set of real users.

Tell us more about you

Cuso International is an international not-for-profit organization based in Canada working to improve the lives of people living with poverty and inequality around the world. For more than 55 years, the organization has worked with local partners, including government, community groups and the private sector, to affect lasting change, primarily through the placement of volunteers. The organization has sent more than 12,000 volunteers on 16,000 placements in more than 80 countries. Our vision is a world where all people are able to realize their potential, develop their skills and participate fully in society. We work in in developing countries throughout Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean to help the world’s most vulnerable people, including women and children living in poverty, individuals facing discrimination due to gender or class, and entire communities whose livelihoods have been impacted by climate change. Cuso International works in several fragile and conflict-affected states, such as Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Ethiopia, and is well equipped to create lasting change in areas affected by conflict, unemployment and inequality. We have worked in Colombia from 1960 to 1998, and then returned in 2013. In addition to gender equality, governance and livelihood programming, we are currently implementing a program designed to help poor and vulnerable Colombians—particularly IDPs—in eight cities find meaningful and sustainable employment. As Colombia makes the transition from conflict to peace, this work is crucial for ensuring stability, reintegration, prosperity, and sustainable peace. The program is funded by the Government of Canada and supported by the Government of Colombia, which has committed to fulfilling protection rights. Volunteering is at the heart of Cuso International’s development efforts; we believe that people helping people is the best and most sustainable way to address the local, national, and global development needs of our time. Volunteering contributes to sustainable development by extending the reach of public services to the poorest and most marginalized, creating new forms of collaboration that lead to social innovation, strengthening local ownership of development processes, and creating a pathway to people’s participation and active citizenship. Our volunteers are professionals who have the skills, knowledge and experience needed to improve lives and empower communities.

Expertise in sector

  • 7+ years

Organization Filing Status

  • Yes, we are a registered non-profit.


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Photo of Jim

As a former volunteer I think this is a excellent project. No not always successful I applaud the work Cuso International does and the effort put out by its volunteers.

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