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Colombia again, with Neil Fraser
27 October 2008

One of the key decisions Medellin took in its revitalisation was to pour cash back into the city. Utilities are owned by the people through the Mayor's Office - and no profits leave the valley city.

Neil FraserWELL, here I am shivering in Rotterdam! This is the other half of the quite inspiring Medellin story from last week [Neil Fraser looks to Colombia]:

"The media are a vitally important part of this process: not as strategic accomplices but just through doing their journalism and media roles according to their highest standards and ethics. There is no media in any country that can be isolated from and unaffected by the overall social and political mood [witness the USA media post-9/11 and pre-Iraq involvement].

"Medellin is no different. A closed, fearful, threatening city with power firmly in the hands of elites has to affect media reporting and insight no matter how high the media-related laws rank on some international freedom of the press scale. So, the first immediate effect of these policy changes on media in Medellin was to 'free up' the press as a more open social atmosphere emerged.

"There were other specific and immediate effects. Everything outlined above - and much more for which there is no space at this time – is news! It is worthy of reporting. The kinds of social changes taking place produce numerous local stories and, perhaps more importantly, significant and real themes and issues for debate and dialogue – great stuff for all media. That media engagement really helps the overall change process - and it helps strengthen the media. It also provides an atmosphere in which the media can be creative: just one example.

New news
"There are a large number of TV channels in Medellin and a mix of ownership patterns - from completely private sector to the Mayor's Office. TeleMedellin is owned by the people of Medellin through the Office of the Mayor. TeleMedellin executives have complete editorial independence. They are about to launch a new way of doing the news.

"The nightly news programmes will be hosted by local families from their homes. Sitting somewhere in their home the normal news reader will read the normal news in the normal way. But after each of the lead items they will turn to family members for their comment, reaction and insight. This opens up the news, makes it real and connects the news item to people's lives. But the integrity of the news as news is maintained. And it will certainly make a refreshing change from so called 'expert opinion'!

"There is often a park somewhere in most cities. That park is often a social space that has been lost to the broader community. Medellin has a botanical garden very near Moravia. Few people ventured there - certainly never at night. City officials decided that creating a vibrant, open, safe, beautiful botanical garden would not only be important in its own right, but would send a very powerful signal and message to the rest of the city.

"So, they got the park itself into great shape with the best examples of local vegetation. Then they replaced the solid wall around the park with a transparent fence, opening it up so that people passing could see what was there and, of course, making it much safer for those in the park. A design competition was held for the public space created at the centre of the park. It was won by a group of local architectural students competing against some of the biggest architectural firms in Latin America.

"Festivals - music, literature, drama, poetry - were organised and hosted in that public space. Then they created the best restaurant in Medellin [believe me - it is good!] which brought the elites into the park and gave them a vested interest in its future. The vibrancy and symbolism of this open approach were huge.

Strategies
"Two important parts of the Medellin strategy they label 'nearness' and 'delivery'. At all levels of the city government, public officials were encouraged and supported to spend significant amounts of their work time in economically poorer communities engaging and listening - to get 'near' to the people experiencing the most difficult issues - to spend as little time as possible sitting behind desks.

"And all public officials were expected to 'deliver' on promises - they are accountable for and are judged on things happening. Underpinning both the 'nearness' and 'delivery' strategies is an attempt to 'build trust'. In our development rush to implement programmes and projects, perhaps, as a policy imperative, we too often overlook the vital importance of 'trust'.

"Let's face it, if people do not know the people saying that they will help them, if they are not 'near' to them, if they do not see the results of that help, then there is hardly a solid basis of the trust required for development action on often very sensitive issues. Medellin is trying to address this vital element for all positive progress.

"Leaving Medellin airport we were delayed by fog [a hazard of living in a high mountain valley]. One of my CI Latin America colleagues introduced me to a fellow stranded passenger, an acquaintance of hers who turned out to be a leading businesswoman in Medellin. She had little idea why we had been in Medellin. Before she could ask, I asked for her impressions and assessment of the change process in Medellin.

"She was unreservedly enthusiastic but from a very different perspective. Of course she cares about the development of people - as do those of us who come at this from a development perspective. But her primary interest is making money as a businesswoman, and, for her, the economic climate in Medellin had improved markedly.

"It's kind of hard to get economic development progress when communities are fearful, violence is high, people have difficulty getting to work and everyone's home situations are so precarious. Contrary to what we are often told about business people she did not even mind paying the taxes related to these developments because she had trust that the city would deliver - and, as it had delivered, she has a better environment to do business.

"She applauded and supported the public policy driving these changes. But this public policy approach around public spaces, dialogue, debate, et cetera is not something we see in many international agency macro-economic policies.

City-based approach
"Perhaps what is most striking about the Medellin process from a development perspective is how it has gone counter to the current of the predominant streams of development thinking and strategy. It is a city-based process when much development focus and action is negotiated with and for the country/nation. There was no detailed micro-plan of action.

"The Medellin process is more akin to dropping a few well-placed stones in a lake in order to change the dynamics than it is to mapping out a detailed plan for how and where we want those ripples to flow. Medellin did not seek to follow global policies. Instead, it sought out the places from which it felt it could learn relative to the situation and issues in Medellin.

"Those places included three cities/regions whose positive development progress provided both ideas and inspiration - Bogota, Catalonia and Curitiba. But in the end they are doing it the Medellin way. There is a collection of organisations driving this process. The Mayor's Office is vitally important for the overall policies. But there is a network of community groups, ComFama [the health care co-operative], the Mayor's Office, EPM [more below], businesses and local NGOs – the shared, collective, leadership and ownership is real strength.

"It is an integrated approach - there are no issue silos here - at the core of all of this work is the creation of public space; openness, debate and dialogue; a culture of citizenship; community budget control; and the importance of symbolism. For example, they did not set out to address violence specifically. They did set out to create more safe, open spaces, expecting that those would have a significant effect across a range of related issues, including the levels of violence.

Passion
"You can feel the passion - and that passion is infectious. There is even a local civic group called Passion for Medellin. Finally, there is a specific emphasis on the often overlooked policy element of culture. The city of Medellin spends four times more money each year through its culture budget than does the Federal Ministry of Culture for the whole of Colombia.

"What is happening in Medellin is a grand public policy process in the rich tradition of the New Deal in the USA to overcome the Depression, the Marshall Plan for resurrecting Germany post-World War II, the creation of the National Health Service in the UK in the late 1940s to improve health standards and other big public policy processes. The shape, style, scale, strategy and principles of the Medellin initiative are, of course, very different from those and other examples. But the public policy-driven process is not different. This is public policy in the driving seat, not market forces.

 "If I was to read your mind at this time, and if I was a betting person, I would lay a small wager that you have one question on your mind - 'How did they pay for all of this?' The answer to this question deserves its own article because part of that response also runs counter to predominant economic development thinking and action.

"There were two main processes that created the funds to support all of the above and more. First, through greater transparency and accountability related to the city budget, the extent of the city's ability to make the significant investments highlighted above became very apparent. There was more city money than anyone thought.

"Second, and this is the counter-thought element, Medellin has pursued a policy of public ownership of public services [water, electricity, sewerage and now digital telecommunications] and has demanded that those services be efficient and profitable. EPM - Empresas Públicas de Medellin - the Medellin public utility company, is among the most efficient and profitable companies [all companies] in Latin America. And it is owned by the residents of the city through the Office of the Mayor.

"There is no privatisation here. Consequently, there is no expatriation of profits beyond the valley walls. Instead, a substantial share of the profits, over $100 million [about R1,1-billion] per annum, are immediately returned as investments in the city.

Still challenges
"It would be a huge mistake to think that everything is fixed in Medellin or that these policies alone were 100 percent responsible for the change that is occurring. There are emerging challenges and other factors have contributed. For example, there have been recent violent episodes involving de-mobilised guerrilla and para-military personnel. It is still far too early to say what impact these overall public policy efforts will have long term on the wealth 'gap' that is the curse of so many cities and countries, including Medellin and Colombia.

"The death of the globally infamous cartel leader Pablo Escobar helped the situation, as has the overall performance of the Colombian economy, with record growth the past four years.

"But quite clearly, based on the data and the local critique, huge progress has been made and these public policies have been vital to that progress. The mountains that ring the valley in which Medellin exists are indeed very high, as are the social and economic challenges that the people living within that mountain wall face.

"But through a commitment to open public spaces, transparent public processes, the culture of citizenship, high quality for all and striking symbolism, big, positive changes are happening and the physical and social obstacles seem greatly diminished. It is well worth your in-depth policy analysis."

Enjoy the warmth, you don't know how lucky you are!

Best, Neil

 

Westcliff Historical Walk
Saturday, 1 November
The northeast corner of Westcliff has rocky outcrops which were used to create the lovely Baker homes.

The tour includes Glenshiel - inside tour - the home of Sir William and Lady Dalrymple, Pallinghurst - now Hope School - and the very charming home, The Stables, with its glorious gardens.

Meet Gill Sagar, Val Hammerton and Deanna Kirby at The Ridge School, Woolston Road, Westcliff. The cost is R30 per person and payment should be made at the starting point.

For more information, telephone Eira Bond on weekdays between 9am and 1pm on 011 482 3349.

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Last Updated on 10 November 2008