Private Sector Engagement in the Bajo Cauca Region of Colombia
By Erin Magee, Regional Advisor, Latin America & the Caribbean, USAID/Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance
For Diana Arismendy Schroeder, establishing a community-centered approach is critical when working in fragile and conflict-affected settings.
As the chief of party of the Let’s Go Bajo Cauca global development alliance between a large microfinance non-governmental organization, several local partners, and USAID, Arismendy has seen first-hand the importance of early community involvement, mutual trust, and a strong understanding of the context. She’s also learned how incorporating these into a program can require new ways of thinking, for implementers, private sector partners, and donors alike. Below, Arismendy shares lessons and advice for private sector engagement in fragile and conflict-affected contexts and how she keeps communities and emerging micro entrepreneurs at the center of Let’s Go Bajo Cauca’s work.
Building an Alliance in a Conflict-Affected Region
Situated in northern Colombia, the Bajo Cauca Antioqueño region has a long history of violence, drug trafficking, illegal mining, and criminal activity. With significant natural resources, armed groups have also competed for territorial control to conduct illegal gold mining in Bajo Cauca. In the first six months of 2021, approximately 1,130 people were forcibly displaced due to threats from non-state actors in the region. Non-state armed groups also exercise control over population movements through threats and intimidation, restricting people’s access to goods and services.
In April 2019, the Interactuar Corporation, the Family Compensation Fund of Antioquia (Comfama), Miners S.A., Miners Foundation S.A., and USAID launched an alliance to contribute to the Bajo Cauca region’s inclusive and sustainable rural economic growth. Let’s Go Bajo Cauca or in Spanish “Avancemos Bajo Cauca”:
- Develops and strengthens agricultural value chains, specifically in the beekeeping and fish farming sectors;
- Creates and supports non-agricultural businesses (comercial, services, logistics, and other non-agricultural sectors) through one-on-one business services technical assistance, commercial connections, financial, administrative, and e-commerce training and support
- Provides training and financial services for people and businesses and prepares them to enter, or re-enter, the formal sector and workforce.
Building an alliance in a conflict-affected setting takes patience, good communication, and honesty. “It’s important to talk not only about positive things and about what can be accomplished, but the hard work, responsibilities, and processes that have to be established,” Arismendy notes.
For some alliance members, this was their first time being involved in a program of this nature. They had to learn from each other and ensure that they were talking regularly. For this to work, commitment is critical. “It starts with the Presidents and CEOs. They need to understand that this is not just a project, it needs to be incorporated as an important objective within the companies, in their core business strategy. At the beginning, this can be a huge challenge.”
Establishing Trust and Mutual Understanding with Communities
Similarly, building mutual trust with communities can be a challenge in conflict-affected settings. “People in the Bajo Cauca region have been living with violence for 50 years, you have to start by gaining people’s trust,” Arismendy notes. Yet, this can require significant upfront engagement, transparency, and rethinking implementation timeframes.
“In areas affected by violence, you need to have the opportunity to understand the territory very well, to stay with the community, listen to them, and understand their real needs,” Arismendy underscores. In Bajo Cauca, “people won’t pick up the phone if they don’t know who is calling.” The alliance started by placing a strong emphasis on understanding the community and building this trust little by little. “Let’s Go Bajo Cauca took six months upfront to analyze and get to know people and their needs in-depth…many projects don’t give you this space. They expect you to start activities on Day 1,” Arismendy notes.
For Let’s Go Bajo Cauca, building trust with the community meant hiring people from the region, buying local goods and services, implementing a strong and transparent communication strategy—including social media and local radio—tailored to the regional culture, and building person-to-person connections into the program design. For example, the partnership takes a personalized approach to entrepreneurship training, providing one-on-one support to establish lasting connections.
Accepting the Need to Adjust Approaches
This process, however, also meant that the alliance had to make adjustments and approach activities differently. “After investing time to understand the reality of the communities, we had to change some strategies to support the people and territory with the things that they really need,” Arismendy notes.
“We need to be able to say ‘this is not working’ and we need to start again; we need to develop different strategies and adaptations. We must have the courage to dare to innovate along the way, even if we are not sure it will work. This is the best advice I can give to other programs,” Arismendy highlights.
One such pivot involved moving the provision of credit services towards the end of the program. “We don’t want them to see us like we are selling something, but that we are working with them to help them as entrepreneurs,” Arismendy states. Being open to adjustments can be difficult for both donors and implementers, though, particularly when focused on achieving results. “There is often pressure to show numbers, results, spending…you can forget the community amidst such pressures,” Arismendy notes.
Let’s Go Bajo Cauca’s strong commitment to communication within the alliance and a recognition that members had to adapt helped to keep the program focused on the people it is supporting. From the beginning, alliance members—including USAID—understood that they had to change to work together. Through committees and meetings, the alliance has the space to learn together and to discuss needed changes.
Identifying Local Agents of Change
Equally as important to a program in conflict-affected areas is identifying people within the community who can become change leaders. For Let’s Go Bajo Cauca, this was critical when working with agricultural entrepreneurs.
“When we entered the territory, we didn’t donate or give eagerly supplies or equipment [...] Instead, we focused on knowledge, abilities, and tools to enable people to work on their own [...] At the beginning, agricultural entrepreneurs said, ‘you gave us nothing, what are we going to do if you don’t give us the supplies?’,” Arismendy notes.
In the end, some organizations were not interested and dropped out of the program. But, for the ones who remained and saw the value of the business services, Let’s Go Bajo Cauca’s strong emphasis on community engagement meant that participants saw the value in the new approach. “Now they understand the way we are trying to guarantee long-term sustainability, individual capacities and believe in themselves…They understand that they can be actors of change for their territories.”
Similarly, when working with entrepreneurs on starting new businesses and providing employment services, the alliance looked for leaders within the community. This includes viewing women and young people as leaders in their community. “We are identifying young people that want to make something different in their community,” notes Arismendy, citing that 60 percent of participants are female and 40 percent are young people.
About the Program
Let’s Go Bajo Cauca alliance members have contributed $7.13 million for the 4.5 year-long global development alliance, including $2.49 million from USAID and $4.64 million from the private sector.