Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Day 4: Virtus, group meetings and U-M alumni

After a morning of separate meetings, all five groups met for lunch with representatives of the Bogota-based management consultant firm Virtus. The consultants presented an overview of conditions and opportunities for investment in Colombia, highlighting five "growth engines" identified by the government for spurring economic development: innovation, infrastructure, mining, housing and agribusiness. But Colombia's under-developed infrastructure, large informal sector, and limited access to financial services continue to pose challenges.

Dispatch from the security team

The security team began the day with its most informative meeting yet -- at the International Crisis Group. Following a short introduction from Colombia/Andes Project Director Silke Pfeiffer, we dove heads-first into a lively discussion with analyst Christian Voelkel about the Colombian government's response to BaCrim groups. Our first line of business: define the BaCrim -- a task that stumps even the government, Voelkel said, given that the six major BaCrim groups operate very differently from each other.

Christian Voelkel, second from right, with the security team.
The most powerful BaCrim, for example, (Rastrojos) was born from cartel links but today operates like a paramilitary. The group is armed, uniformed and known to regularly threaten and kill social leaders. One scenario Voelkel recounted is of Rastrojos calling forward community members, accusing some of supporting the FARC, and executing them. Their motivations appear to be largely economic, however. Even the name Rastrojos can be bought and used like a franchise.

Voelkel said calling these groups "BaCrim" over-simplifies who they are. A preferred term is "New Illegally Armed Groups," or NIAGs. Given the complexity of the problems the NIAGs cause, Voelkel said, the government needs more than law enforcement to defeat them. Keep an eye on this space in the next couple months for our recommendations -- some of which are sure to come from our conversation with Voelkel.

- Lindsay

Neal with General Serrano, drinking coffee in his hoffice.
The team also had the extreme pleasure of meeting with General Rosso Jose Serrano Cadena. Serrano is the former Chief General of the Colombian National Police and has recently served as ambassador to Austria as well as a government advisor on counternarcotics. He is one of the most respected figures in Colombia, and being picked up by him and his driver, meeting with him in his office, and drinking Colombian coffee from his monogrammed coffee set was truly special and an honor. Our team mates, Rocio and Veronica, took turns translating for the General as he discussed issues surrounding drug trafficking in Colombia, including the origins of the BaCrims and what policies need to be adopted or amended to engage them. He also showed us the many pictures hanging in his office, including a photo with U.S. Speaker Dennis Hastert and even Fidel Castro. Also joining us was one of our faculty advisers, Ambassador Melvyn Levitsky, who has met Gen. Serrano numerous times when he was still Captain Serrano, Colonel Serrano and then eventually Ambassador Serrano, his most recent title.

Before our dinner with U-M alumni, we enjoyed a comprehensive briefing on counternarcotics from the National Police intelligence analysis unit.

- Neal

Dispatch from the social policy team

Today we spent the afternoon at the Ministry of Education meeting with the Vice Minister of Higher Education and Deputy Director of Higher Education, the Vice Minister of Secondary Education, and working groups within the office of Early Childhood Education. The discussion on higher education built upon what we'd previously learned from the World Bank the day before. Tertiary education is reaching higher quality standards and graduating more students with professional degrees and PhDs than ever before, yet there is only the capacity (faculty, classrooms, etc.) to accommodate 50% of students who apply to higher education institutions. Moreover, for the half of the applicants who are actually able to matriculate the drop out rate is substantial.

The discussion with the secondary education experts revealed Colombia's efforts to reduce education disparities and provide culturally tailored curricula for internally displaced peoples (IDPs), indigenous populations, and Afro-Colombians while still maintaining uniform quality of education across the system. For early childhood education, the approach is more comprehensive, involving multiple other ministries such as the Ministry of Health. The goal is to provide children with a variety of social services at an early age to improve their possibilities for success in the future.

The Ministry of Education has shifted its focus from coverage to quality and has partnered with McKinsey to identify opportunities for improvement. All across Colombia there are brand new mayors and the Minister of Education views this as an opportune moment to shape education initiatives at a municipal level.

- Ine

Dispatch from the human rights team

The Human Rights group met with human rights NGOs working on various aspects of identification, victims' rights, and legal issues surrounding the peace and justice project in the morning to parse further the intertwined aspects of human rights imperatives surrounding Law 975 (Justice and Peace Law). The group sought explore the components of a successful process for transitional justice in Colombia, and the progress made in this regard, as well as with respect to international human rights standards. The group observed that the inclusion of victims in judicial proceedings - even on emblematic cases - remains an issue of utmost importance. The group further explored policy and reform options, such as the streamlining of pending cases and appointment of more magistrates to raise capacity of the justice system.

The team’s afternoon meeting was with an NGO mainly focused on psychosocial support for victims through identification of persons executed extrajudicially or considered missing or disappeared. The group's research suggests that identification and verification processes have been frustrated by the absence of information and databases of citizens.

- Emad

Dispatch from the environment team

In the environment team’s morning meeting, Dr. Jorge Bendeckof the Biocombustibles Association told us that, when it came to biofuel production, Colombia was different. While in mega-producing countries like Malaysia and Indonesia biofuel cultivation goes hand-in-hand with deforestation, in Colombia, converting rainforest for agriculture is prohibited, Bendeck said.

The palm frontier is not the Amazon but rather the eastern plains of the Andes where 1.5 million hectares of degraded land—many of them abandoned cattle pasture—have been identified as fit to plant. Bendeck urges international policymakers to avoid generalizations about the biofuel industry and consider cultivation practices country-by-country. He sees palm plantations as both driving rural development—one direct and two indirect jobs are created for every seven acres of palm planted—and also as a major player in climate change mitigation, since palm plantations can serve as “oxygen factories.”

Our afternoon meeting with Ana Maria Loboguerrero Rodriguez, an economist in the National Planning Department’s climate change division, widened our lens on climate change mitigation and adaptation in Colombia. Until the 2010 National Development Plan (NDP), which serves as a road map for the country until 2014, Colombia was mostly focused on climate change mitigation, or reduction of emissions, and in implementing its low-carbon growth strategy. Since Colombia’s energy sector is already extremely clean—70% of the country’s energy is hydro—the pressure points on emissions reduction were usually put on agriculture. However, the most recent NDP, which coincided with intense flooding in the country in December 2010, turned Colombia’s attention towards climate change adaptation. The NDP includes protocols for measuring climate risk and asks regional governments to come up with region-specific plans for adapting to climate variability.

At global climate conferences, Colombia, though certainly not a small island country, pushes to be recognized as similarly vulnerable to climate change due to their economic dependence on ecosystem services. In terms of long-term sustainable development in the country, Rodriguez sees quantifying these ecosystem services as key. “Water has no price” is no longer a satisfying answer to mining companies who come to the table with numbers, ready to hash out concessions. The priceless must be translated to pesos for effective low carbon development.

- Allie

Dispatch from the private industry team

Business and trade started our morning by visiting the United States Agency for International Development. USAID representatives gave a wonderful overview of microfinance from the 1980s until today. We learned that the barriers to microfinance in rural places include the high costs associated with banks moving to rural places and finding clients. The current usury cap is 40%, but banks would need to charge a higher rate to pay for the costs associated with microlending in rural places. In order to address this problem the Final Inclusion Bill Draft was proposed in March 2011 to increase the cap on the usury rate.

We then joined the group at Virtus, where the entire IEDP group got some insight into the fiscal challenges that our team has been closely researching. Our day ended with a delicious, marathon dinner at Andres Carne de Res with University of Michigan Alumni.

- Kyasha

For pictures from our alumni dinner, visit us on Facebook!

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