It has been said that signing a peace agreement may be the easiest task after a conflict, building stable and durable peace being the hardest one.
Colombia has recently made a historic step towards peace when it signed a peace agreement between the state and guerrilla groups known as FARC. The agreement aims to put to an end to Latin America’s longest conflict, which lasted for more than five decades. Mixed feelings pervade the country today: excitement and anticipation for the times ahead, as well as caution and uncertainty on how to tackle complex issues like rural development, transitional justice, and guerrilla demobilisation.
As part of a rich academic programme about post-conflict, peace building, and social justice, Integrity Action was recently invited by LaSalle University to visit Colombia and share its approach and learning with academics, students, NGOs, and the private sector. As Head of Operations I (Annalisa Renna) had the opportunity of representing Integrity Action here.
I believe that there is a trait d’union linking peace-building to anti-corruption: both require trust to prosper.
Trust strengthens relationships among individuals and groups, and creates social cohesion – a fundamental element to build peace. Trust is also one of the ingredients for creating accountable relationships between citizens, local authorities, and duty bearers, which in turn decreases the chance of corrupt behaviours.
We know that trust-building underpins Community Integrity Building and our online tool DevelopmentCheck. We also know that while peace agreements – like anti-corruption laws – happen at the macro level, it is citizens who have a key role in ensuring that both instruments translate into practical action.
LaSalle University is the right place to translate words into practice. Established in 1965 by the Lasallian brothers, its university grounds ooze social ethos. The university’s motto, ¡Sé real, piensa social! (Be real, think social!) encloses in a few words what I have seen with my own eyes when strolling around the university’s wonderful campuses. For example dozens of students volunteer in social projects as part of their curriculum, such as within the enormous Food Bank Programme in Bogotà.
But the most remarkable feature – one that I wish I had seen more often around the world – was the University’s Utopia project. This is a visionary enterprise, located in a remote area, with lush vegetation and thousands of different bird species. Here, students personally recruited by the University staff in the poorest and most marginalised rural places in Colombia study to become agricultural engineers. The vision behind this campus is to give young Colombians who experienced the conflict directly or indirectly the opportunity to make the most of one of the country’s richest features: land. Students who make it to the campus are often the only ones within their village or town to receive higher education. When they go back as graduates, they bring knowledge and the latest expertise on crops cultivation to the benefit of the whole community. But this is not all; along with subjects like chemistry, engineering, and biology, they learn philosophy, English, and peace. This makes them well rounded human beings – active citizens with the potential to rebuild the country with their own hands, literarily.
I spent an entire day in Utopia, training around 20 students on how to be Community Integrity Leaders. It was a fun, intense and emotional experience which I will always cherish – and I hope the students will remember too! They told me that they loved our Integrity Formula as well as our practical exercise on inclusion and diversity. They felt that they could really be leaders in their community one day, and make a difference.
It seemed to me that Utopia, LaSalle University, and many other realities in Colombia could implement Community Integrity Building and use DevelopmentCheck to ensure that the implementation of the peace agreement, and in particular its provisions on providing services and infrastructure to areas neglected by the state in the past, is carried out in a transparent, inclusive and accountable way. We know for a fact that community monitoring is needed and urgent if we want to avoid waste, mismanagement, frustration, and violence. Who better than students and young integrity leaders, like the ones that I met at LaSalle University, to ensure all of the above during the reconstruction process? And this will in turn contribute to building a stable, prosperous and peaceful Colombia.