Sustainable Development in Colombia

By Davi Briggs       

Over the past several months I have been working in Colombia with a local non-profit organization called Fundacion Escuela Taller de Bogota (FETB) in Bogota, Colombia.   The mission of FETB is to decrease issues of instability and conflict by working with Colombian youth, ages 18-25, from vulnerable communities.  FETB seeks to accomplish this goal by using a livelihood approach to development; they providing their students with job training in traditional trades such as carpentry, culinary arts, and construction, with the hope of decreasing youth involvement in illegal activities like drug trafficking. Within this organization, my role has been to help FETB incorporate sustainability and happiness into its methodology from creating new schools and business.

​          In order to understand how the theory of sustainability and happiness is changing the processes within FETB, let me explain how the organization has traditionally created new schools.

Traditional Process of School Creation:

1.The Colombian Ministry of Culture selects a school location
2. FETB visits location (primarily to select school location and speak to local construction companies)
3. FETB constructs new school and starts to teach pre-formatted curriculum for culinary arts, carpentry and construction

Now you might be asking: “So, that sounds okay, what is the problem?”
To which I’d respond: “well, a couple of things…”

When creating new schools, FETB generally does not talk to local community members (ie. the people that they are building the school for).  This is not because FETB does not care what local communities want or think; this happens because they feel pressured by time and financial restrictions and because they do not have any preexisting structures or processes that would facilitate stakeholder engagement. Unfortunately, by not having a means of communicating and working with local residents, they have started to encounter challenges like:

1.lack of community or youth interest in school programs


2.providing educational programs that do not answer community needs or demands (for example, teaching culinary arts in an area where there are only 10 restaurants)

Okay, so now you’re probably wondering: “How does incorporating sustainability and happiness change the development process?”
Well, my dear friend, when we bring sustainability and happiness into the development equation, people, communities and their values become the drivers of change.  Instead of an external group imposing ideas on a community, that group starts to work with the community to understand its unique strengths, challenges, desires, capacities and expectations. The work that I’m currently doing in Ambelama, Colombia is a good example of this change.

First, let me describe Ambalema:

1.    It is rural community, that, despite being located only 50 miles from Bogota, takes about six hours to access by car.
2.    In addition to being extremely isolated, this town is characterized by a large divide in population demographics; approximately 35 percent of residents are 45 years of age or older and 40 percent of residents are 19 years of age or younger.
3.    This demographic divide is largely due to limited economic opportunities within the town and many young, working-age individuals have left Ambalema in search of employment.

For our purposes, Ambalema is also unique because it is the first location where the Ministry of Culture and FETB worked together with residents to create development strategies.
In an effort to engage stakeholders in Ambalema, I worked with FETB and the Ministry of Culture to develop two, three-day workshops in the community. The first workshop was in July of 2015 and the second workshop was in November of 2015.  Although the themes of these workshops differed, the first had a focus on cultural heritage and the second on entrepreneurship, both were based on gathering information from the community about local development opportunities and interests.

The purpose of these workshops was to:

1.    Identify areas of cultural and historical importance in Ambalema
2.    Locate sources of traditional knowledge, crafts and occupations
3.    Establish what infrastructure and services exist for community members and tourists
4.    Encourage the interaction between local residents and the community development process.

Community youth were especially encouraged to participate as they are highly vulnerable population within Ambalema in terms of long-term employment prospects, propensity toward substance abuse and risk of involvement in illegal activities.

We held our second workshop in Ambalema in November, and focused this workshop on understanding local businesses, entrepreneurs and talent in the community.  This workshop included community members and it resulted in a census of existing town businesses. Not only did this workshop help us to identify further avenues for development in the community, including next steps in the research process in the town, but it allowed us to start a discussion with residents regarding how to educate and involve other community members in development efforts.

​         Finally, in January, we had a roundtable discussion with community representatives from Ambalema. The purpose of this was to further align community and organizational visions and establish a timeline for development.