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Colombian Extreme Poverty on the Rise, but We Have the Tools to End It

By Camilo Garcia

New reporting from Colombia’s national statistics governance arm (Departamento Administrativo Naciional de Estadísticashows that we saw a rise in the number of Colombians experiencing extreme poverty last year – a trend most notably observed in Cartagena, where the extreme poverty rate surged from 10.1% to 12.7%.

13.8% of Colombians, approximately 6.9 million people, are living on less than 196,698 pesos per month ($2.15 a day). These individuals struggle every day to secure food and shelter, and face impossible decisions like choosing between feeding their child and sending them to school.

It’s an upswing in poverty not isolated to Colombia – or even the region. Last year's UN General Assembly highlighted the overall slowdown in our progress towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), with crises like war, climate, and hunger building cycles of poverty around the globe.

No doubt there is cause for concern – but those of us building new interventions in the fight against poverty still see hopeIt’s a practical hope, built out of the impacts we see through our persistent efforts to train, support, and increase access to services for the most vulnerable. At Opportunity International, programs like our Savings Groups, our extreme-poverty graduation models, and financing mechanisms for educational institutions have fostered cross-sector collaborative programs that bring together institutions from private, nonprofit, and government sectors to establish genuinely inclusive communities and economies.

Opportunity clients in Colombia
Opportunity clients in Colombia

And here in Colombia, economic inclusivity is a critical goal in the fight to end extreme poverty. You see, more than half of the country primarily works, consumes, and earns within what is called the Economía Popular – an economy that lives outside what we would consider the formal economy. The millions of people who live within the economia popular lack standardized social, business, and governmental supports. They do not have access to typical banking, education, insurance, or even a regular paycheck from the work they do.

Instead, they are on their own – and must find their way in a system devoid of support, regulation, or typical pathways to success. These gaps in our social fabric are pushing many into dire poverty, exacerbating Colombia's notorious reputation as having some of the highest income inequality in the world.

The partnerships that we construct at Opportunity International in Colombia are designed to build those pathways, and create a resilient social fabric to aid those living in extreme poverty. It is designed to create an ecosystem in which individuals can find their own way to thrive – individuals like Vanessa, who emigrated from Venezuela to the Colombian city of Barranquilla seeking healthcare for her ailing son. Upon arriving to Colombia, she faced a society that largely excluded her from formal support networks, creating barriers to work, stable housing and – most critically – the necessary medical care for her son.

But there are ways to establish a new social fabric – built in inclusivity and community. When Vanessa connected with an Opportunity savings group, she found the tools and support she needed to build a new life for herself and her family. She was connected to social supports, training, and livelihood promotion assistance. These programs introduced her to a community, new economic and financial knowledge, and provided a path toward a sustainable livelihood. Perhaps most importantly, Vanessa found renewed purpose among peers and neighbors – people she could work with and care for, and a place that she could call home.

But once more, these challenges must be brought to scale in a world where global crises represent increasing obstacles for the most vulnerable. Opportunity’s own commitment to developing effective partnerships that strengthen communities and economies are proven, but we must build new partnerships and actions that can instigate scaled impact.

That specifically requires buy-in from governments and local authorities, integrating them into our proven ecosystem — developed in tandem with private and nonprofit sectors — and amplifying interventions that pinpoint areas and populations with the most need.

Somos Progressso, Opportunity’s partnership with the City of Cartagena, stands as testimony to the impact that these private-public partnerships can develop. Over seven months, we reached 1,050 families living in extreme poverty and provided them with seed capital, financial literacy, and technical training to build their own businesses. It was Opportunity International's inaugural public-private partnership project in Colombia, and has allowed us to join the trusted vendors system of both national and local governments, broadening our impact on communities in dire need.

Today, Vanessa has built herself a new life in a home with her reunited family. She finds new hope and purpose through her thriving business, a supportive community, and the stability that comes with it.

The latest poverty statistics and unsatisfactory SDG progress reports tell us that we are losing ground in the fight to end poverty, but I find hope in our progress toward SDG 17: strengthening partnerships to uplift those suffering. If we double down and expand on those collaborative efforts with government, business, and NGO partners, we can expand the initiatives that help people like Vanessa find that stability – but it is up to each of us to see it through.


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