Colombia's Government Slow to Address Housing Crisis Caused by Violence

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By Marcela Sanchez
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, February 29, 2008; 12:00 AM

CARTAGENA, Colombia -- The day care center in El Pozon, a barrio on the outskirts of this coastal tourist city, is not exactly what one might expect from a neighborhood made up of some of Colombia's most downtrodden -- the thousands driven from their land every year by violence. Filled with the joy of children -- happy, bright-eyed, well-cared-for children; some drawing, some singing, some misbehaving -- this refugio infantil could be almost anywhere in the world.

A half a mile away, over bumpy roads and across a rickety timber bridge, you quickly get a different perspective on the lives of the desplazados. Here, in a mosquito-infested marshland that floods during the rainy season, you find the cambuches, mere shacks of scrap wood, metal and whatever else can be cobbled into a dwelling that many of the children and their families call home.

The plight of Colombia's forcibly displaced, the worst humanitarian crisis in the Western Hemisphere and second largest case of displaced people in the world, is primarily a housing crisis. A decade since the Colombian Constitutional Court ordered the government to recognize and begin addressing the problem, the government has done well in providing health care and education. But in terms of the living conditions of the 2.3 million displaced (3.8 million, according to nongovernment organizations), progress in providing anything -- be it drinking water, sewage systems, or roofs over their heads -- has been very slow.

After years of debating how to assess the government's response to the displaced, government findings presented early this month revealed -- quite amazingly -- that more than 80 percent of displaced people in Colombia now have access to health care and education. Eighty-one percent of newborns to children 7 years old have received all their required vaccinations, and 86 percent between 5 and 17 regularly attend school.

Yet despite the fact that the government has spent 90 percent of the amount budgeted for housing subsidies, only 8 percent of the displaced have found "dignified" housing. According to Marco Romero, head of CODHES, a Bogota-based nongovernmental organization that studies human rights issues and the displaced, the average cost of a small house in Colombia is about 20 million pesos ($10,000) while the average housing subsidy for the displaced is between 7 million or 8 million pesos (about $3,500).

While meeting the standard of dignified housing within the current budget has proved difficult, critics also say the government's approach is too haphazard and does not adequately take into consideration the special circumstances of the displaced.

Early this month, El Tiempo, Colombia's largest daily newspaper, reported that the government was about to give private investors some land that President Alvaro Uribe had promised four years ago to the displaced. This incident suggested at least a weak commitment to its own resettlement policy.

What's more, the policy behind the housing subsidy may be based on wishful thinking -- that the displaced would somehow be able to supplement the government assistance with their own incomes. For the majority of displaced people who scratch out a meager existence and usually have no social or business connections, garnering additional funds to purchase a home has proved next to impossible.

The exception to the rule can be found 20 minutes from El Pozon, at the Ciudad de las Mujeres (The City of Women). There a group known as the League of Displaced Women has pooled their housing subsidies, supplemented them with international assistance, particularly from the U.S. Agency for International Development, and through their own work, including manufacturing their own cement blocks, managed to build homes for about 500 people. Residents of the six-block city, with brick houses painted in red, green and yellow, also receive vocational and civic training to help them re-enter Colombian society.

The city, many of whose residents used to live in El Pozon, now stands behind a new housing development. Ironically, the developer is the same landowner who kept the lot empty for years, unable to finance the project. "It was we, who gave him the opportunity to develop the infrastructure," said Patricia Guerrero, founder of the league.

It was precisely the opposite argument -- that private investors rather than the displaced were needed first -- which led government officials to consider reneging on Uribe's promise. In light of subsequent public outcry, the government named instead a commission to evaluate the best use of the land. The commission will do well to consider the success of Ciudad de las Mujeres, where the displaced, with adequate support, showed they could be much more motivated investors.

Marcela Sanchez's e-mail address is desdewash@washpost.com.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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