Monday, November 24, 2008

Cents of Community in Colombia

About month since our last post to the blog, it is finally time to report that we are alive! After a two week stay in Europe visiting loved ones, friends and family we are back in adventure mode touring around Colombia, South America. During our first week we stayed in the capital, Bogota, with the wonderful family of a fellow Santa Clara student. We hadn’t expected it but our schedule soon became filled with meetings and visits in barrios all over the city of seven million people. While an initial impression of Bogota central may surprise you with its mild “Northwestern U.S.” climate and chic “Portland Oregon-ish” coffee shops and bookstores you need only to look to the hills that surround the city for scars from Colombia’s decade-long civil war: the hills that enclose Bogota from the realities of rural Colombian life are littered with millions of extremely modest, single story, double room, brick homes of desplazados (millions of farmers displaced from violent conflict in the far reaches of the country.) One result of the ongoing violence and consequent migration to safe, urban centers is that Colombia has at least economically become one of the most inequitable countries in all of Latin America. Though the issue of economic equity lies at the root of efforts to provide micro financing services to the “bottom billion” there are also other strategies emerging to encourage entrepreneurship at the family level.
First, I’ll mention concept that was introduced to us by Jacquie, an Ashoka Fellow who runs Laudes Infantis, a Bogota based organization that assists urban desplazados in building the community of their dreams. One barrio we visited, Bella Flora, which overlooks a valley of skyscrapers and stadiums has been developing in their own unique way: a community cafeteria, home-made playground, a community center complete with library and a radio station as well as local preschool. Each building constructed by the community with the help of Laudes is splattered with bright colors and a custom, colorful windows of all shapes and sizes. Bella Flor even features public trash bins constructed of recycled tires and (of course) painted in vibrant colors (public trash receptacles of any sight are a rarity in these parts!). Finally, the centerpiece of the community and indeed the organization on a whole is the concept of Banco de Trueque or a Bartering Bank. Here’s a scenario that was used to explain to me how a bank with no money works: A family goes to eat at the community cafeteria and if, despite being offered a subsidized, yummy, 13 cent lunch they cannot afford it the family simply agrees to a visit to the Banco de Trueque and then are served lunch. Later, during their visit to the bank the family explains that theory have no work and therefore cannot afford to eat for at least two weeks. In return for the food service the family is offered various outlets of community service to pay for the food they will eat over the following weeks. For example the father and mother are assigned shifts to empty the trash bins around the community and the children promise to visit the library to work on their homework and study for at least three hours every week. Upon completion of the assigned tasks, the father, mother and children are given special bartering bank currency (the wooden coins pictured left) that they take to the bank in order for their community “debts” to be cleared from the books.
The fourth type of bank we visited apart from commercial banks, micro financing banks, and bartering banks was a clothing bank run by the Arquidiocesana Foundation in Cali, Colombia about an hour’s flight south west of Bogota. Originally started by a psychologist Sofia Sarasti, Arquidiocesana Foundation’s banco de alimentos is surprisingly one of the first food banks opened in Colombia only eight years ago. Outside of distributing food donations to local families-in-need, the foundation has focused on targeting the causes of hunger, thereby lessening the need for donations in the first place. One of their programs designed especially for woman is called a “clothing bank” and it looks something like this: the foundation collects clothing donations (of completely new products) from local businesses and displays them in the clothing bank store in their headquarters complete with labels and price tags. Then, a group of about 100 women representing neighborhoods all over Cali are invited to take a one year class meeting once every two weeks on basic business skills such as accounting, product presentation as well as self-esteem and personal presentation. Once enrolled in the class, women are allowed to choose a daily quota of 50,000 pesos (~25 USD) in clothing from the clothing bank to take with them back to their local communities where they sell the clothing from their homes. Any resulting sales are split 50/50 between the bank and the entrepreneurs. Finally after one year of classes, when the women are cut-off from the free supply of clothing from the bank, the hope is that they will have the necessary personal and professional skills to buy products and start their own, sustainable businesses.


lo said...

Thanks for posting! I was missing your blog... Happy Thanksgiving!

Cara said...

When are you coming to Peru? You guys have a place to stay in Tacna if you find yourselves here. Un abrazo fuerte!