Decentralised co-operation on peace-building

IssueDecember 2002 - February 2003
Feature by Kristian Herbolzheimer

Cooperation for development has long ceased to be the prerogative of states. Apart from the big NGOs and church organisations, there are more direct ways in which citizens of countries in the North - be it through unions, small NGOs, or sup-port committees - have been playing an active part in building solidarity between peoples.

In step with the growth of civic consciousness and commitment, local and regional administrations have become more involved. The sum of these social initiatives and institutions form a “decentralised cooperation” distinct from the “centralised cooperation” between state or intergovernmental organisations.

Usually decentralised cooperation prioritises projects where popular participation is a central element, that works to promote the rights and meet the basic needs of populations through a partnership born from initiatives from the South.

This concept is still recent, and the different forms in which it might become concrete are open to debate. Nevertheless there is a clear interest in transcending classic models of development in order to deepen the shared responsibility of Northern countries for the destiny of those in the South, as in the creation of networks and horizontal links between peoples. The field is open to many possibilities for decentralised cooperation in peace-building along these lines.

Local and regional initiatives

In contrast to the blocked peace process at the national level, at the local and regional level social and institutional initiatives for democracy and peace are multiplying. In a context of war, the difficulty of this task brings a growing clamour for a stronger international presence - a presence capable of dissuading the armed actors from their permanent aggression against the civilian population, but that recognises and strengthens local and regional efforts building peace and democracy as forms of civil resistance.

Such initiatives go against the current of the conflict, yet it seems that the sharper the war the more they multiply: in recent years there has been a real blossoming. This is not to speak of a national movement with similar characteristics, but rather of a heterogeneous range of processes, born almost spontaneously according to local circumstances and usually out of the necessity to seek new forms of survival in a disputed military zone.

Broadly speaking, we can speak of:

  • Communitarian resistance to displacement: in which Afrocolombian communities and the indígenas in the Pacific fringe are particularly active, above all along the river Atrato (where the Bojayá massacre took place in April 2002).
  • Municipal processes: to create greater local and regional participation throughout the length and breadth of the country. The pioneers were the Constituent Municipal Assemblies of Mogotes (Santander) and Tarso (Antioquia). Now there are attempts to group various municipalities (East Antioquia, Alto Ariari), even at the departmental level (Tolima, Antioquia). It is worth highlighting the efforts of indígenas to establish their own local authorities and forms of government, for example in the north of Cauca and SierraNevada de Santa Marta.
  • Social initiatives for national coordination: women have taken the lead nationally with a clear stand against war. Peasant farmers and unions also are underlining their social demands with an insistence on a negotiated outcome to the conflict.

The ethical strength of these initiatives has become a symbol, bringing both positive and negative effects - positive in giving recognition to work that is often isolated and in need of national and international connections, negative because of distrust of these exercises in autonomy from the forces in conflict, even seeing them as a provocation in a context where all the armed groups seek polarisation.

Peace-building at local level

Despite the aggression of the forces in conflict, there is a convergence in opposition political sectors, that the local and regional level plays, and will play, a fundamental role in peace-building in Colombia. Effectively, these initiatives seek new forms of public and community institutions that could be a reference point in a post-conflict scenario for collective reconstruction and even reconciliation.

The lack of creativity in peace proposals at the national level contrasts with the wealth of humanitarian agreements, regional dialogues and territorial pacts locally and regionally. These are evolving from initial ideas that seem somewhat simple, such as creating “islands of peace” from the conflict, to more political and complete proposals that address the structural causes underlying the conflict. Hence they become peace-building proposals at the local level but with a national perspective. Their participatory character heightens their legitimacy.

Support from Europe

There are two hopeful signs for decentralised cooperation in peace-building in Colombia:

The actors in decentralised cooperation are more flexible than states, and so can organise activities complementary to states, above all at a time when the Colombian government seems to have little interest in the role of European countries.

The fact that the principal peace-building initiatives in Colombia are at the local and regional level facilitates internationals links with social and administrative counterparts.

International accompaniment

“International accompaniment” here means the support that different international spheres can give to civic processes in Colombia. Its main component is protection, but there are also complementary tasks.

International efforts have multiplied significantly in recent years but tend tobe concentrated within Colombia. The process of establishing more solid support in Europe is only incipient. Coordination among the social organisations and institutions active in decentralised cooperation is even rarer: one can spotlight initiatives in Voralberg, Austria; Emilia Romagna and Lombardia, Italy; and Catalonia, Spain, but there is still no coordination between these.

The call for greater international accompaniment requires an answer that meets the needs. This challenge demands greater resources (human and economic) managed more effectively. This logically leads to plans for stronger alliances between actors and, with that, greater diversification among them.

Challenges for civil initiatives

The organisational solidity of these initiatives is quite variable, from the indi'genas who have a historical perspective of more than 500 years, to the completely spontaneous--arising from immediate necessity and with more intuition than social base. Calls for greater accompaniment are usually superficial and imprecise, often because of not knowing the concrete possibilities for international action. Some of the challenges to facilitate international accompaniment that need to be under-stood by Colombian initiatives are:

  • Identity: define clearly the essence of the proposals.
  • Strengthen the process: to gain legitimacy, autonomy and security by including a wide spectrum of the population.
  • National coordination: approach other processes by identifying shared criteria in order to raise one's profile at a national and international level as one among many. Without “unity in diversity” a solid accompaniment and great political protection will be difficult.
  • Strategies of accompaniment: to identify which social and institutional actors, national and international, to approach for accompaniment.
  • Development strategy: The political proposal should go together with a process of organisation and investment that improves the quality of life and allows the population to gain confidence in the process.

Challenges for accompaniment


  • Design a peace-building policy from the point of view of decentralised cooperation.
  • Build alliances: to increase the impact of isolated efforts, more coordination is needed between social and institutional actors that work for Colombia.
  • Identify new actors: As well as those who currently work for Colombia, there are other social and institutional actors who could play an important role.
  • Protection from polarisation: To make a contribution to peace-building it is important to avoid polarisation between international actors. Identifying and making explicit criteria in common, such as respect for the work that each can carry out, are important for an alliance to be sustainable.
  • Generating public opinion: to accept Europe's share of social and political responsibility for the conflict in Colombia, it is essential to increase the level of information and mobilisation. It is urgent to spell out a message that goes further than denounce problems but offers a positive content that will encourage commitment.
  • Capacity for analysis and prioritisation: faced with the magnitude of the tragedy, it is important to establish some criteria about priorities and so to avoid becoming saturated with the huge demand for action.

Towards Colombia

  • Identify counterparts: it is important to acknowledge the limits of what can be developed and so avoid generating false expectations in Colombia. To be able to act on the principle “support without excluding” and to avoid duplication, it is important to coordinate with other international bodies in taking on areas of responsibility.
  • Respect for autonomy: the essence of each initiative is self-originated, hence the frequency tendency to “own” or over-identify with a project has to be limited.
  • Define a Plan of Action: spelling out clearly the responsibilities of each actor involved.
  • Strengthen the processes of participation: so that more Colombian initiatives will take an active role in democratic peace-building.
  • Protect the processes: so that they can develop their full potential.
  • Social investment: to tackle the deep causes of conflict.

It is difficult to compress into a short article the situation and the challenges for conflict transformation in Colombia through decentralised cooperation. However, I hope at least to have a stimulating effect on social and institutional agents in Europe towards greater involvement with peace-building in Colombia.