Humanitarian assistance for sustainability in Colombia

One of the long-standing criticisms of humanitarian assistance initiatives is that they often respond to an immediate crisis, but do not leave beneficiaries in any position to re-integrate or resume lives once the assistance has ended. As a result, relief projects face an ongoing challenge as to how to allow beneficiaries to later re-integrate into society. Organizations ranging from non-governmental organizations all the way to United Nations institutions are confronted by the question of how to build sustainable development mechanisms into their humanitarian initiatives while at the same time addressing the underlying drivers of conflicts.

In Colombia, the ongoing armed conflict and the actions of illegal armed groups have led to millions of rural families being forcibly displaced to urban centers where they settle in the most marginalized slums on the outskirts of these receptor cities. The forcible displacement not only deprives these families of access to their livelihoods (land for farming), but also disrupts the social networks they rely on for support and often leaves them with few skills that translate to employment in urban contexts.

Within this context, MCC’s partner organization, Mencoldes (the social services organization of Colombian Mennonite and Mennonite Brethren churches), has been accompanying displaced families who have settled in the slums of Bogota and Ibague. Mencoldes has been implementing an MCC-supported project which seeks to combine both humanitarian responses to immediate displacement and the reintegration of these
internally displaced families into society. This integrated response unfolds in four phases:

1) Immediate stabilization: Recently displaced families in crisis receive food vouchers that will last for six months and household supplies to allow them to set up residence in the city slums with some degree of dignity. Mencoldes has made the shift from providing in-kind food baskets and household items to vouchers. This allows families to purchase culturally appropriate and diverse food supplies. Empowering families to select their own food increases household autonomy and decision-making power.

2) Pyscho-social support and human rights: Displaced families often suffer some form of trauma which impedes their ability to take actions for self-improvement, while also lacking an understanding of what rights they have under the state. Mencoldes carries out a series of seminars and workshops to help participants develop healthy responses to their trauma and understand what resources are available from the state for displaced families.

3) Economic strengthening: Mencoldes has developed an urban gardens component to help families with rural agricultural skills to apply these skills in their new urban contexts. This initiative has two intentions: first, to build the self-esteem of the participating families by allowing them to practice their crafts; and second, to encourage displaced families to develop a source of potential income or food consumption to increase their autonomy.

4) Mobilization and networking: Mencoldes seeks to strengthen social networks among displaced families in order to strengthen their social capital. Strengthened social networks could in turn form the basis of coalitions to advocate for the rights of displaced people to municipalities and other local authorities.

Within this integrated multi-component project, the humanitarian assistance component serves as the foundation to allow displaced families to begin rebuilding their lives. However, the distribution of food and other humanitarian assistance is the first in a series of development and organizing activities that seeks to allow the families to better reintegrate into Colombian society in their new urban contexts. This four-stage structure is Mencoldes’ response to the challenge of stabilizing and re-integrating families sustainably.

Terrence Jantzi is co-representative for MCC Colombia in Bogota, Colombia and associate professor at Eastern Mennonite University

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