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Emergency employment for victims of La Niña in Colombia

Hurricane Sandy, aka Frankeinstorm, crossed the east coast of the United States this week,leading to schools and offices closing and public services stopping. The Obama administration is taking this matter seriously, because we know from experience that natural disasters are very costly and that the recuperation process is time-consuming and painstaking. As our friends in the US cautiously lock down at home, we hope the best for them and this a good opportunity to discuss a similar storm that instead tormented people for almost two years.

For more than fifteen months, from 2010, Colombia went through what President Juan Manuel Santos described as ‘a hurricane that never left the country’. This extended period of heavy rainfall and storms affected millions of people all across the nation, but especially those in areas where the average population was already living in poverty and affected by the internal conflicts between the FARC and the paramilitary.

This phenomenon, known as La Niña, or la ola invernal, had affected over 3.2 million people by the time the country declared a state of emergency, including deaths, displacements and the wounded. Moreover, it destroyed 2,049 houses and damaged other 275,569 houses in 654 municipalities.

Because this natural disaster lingered on for a historical amount of time, the damages were not one-off, but instead became rather more permanent for the victims. For example, entire roads were washed away and hectares of agricultural land were flooded and remained flooded, ruining the production process of the crops. In December 2010, when Colombia had just gone through the first half of this natural disaster, already 2,065, 617 hectares of land were ruined, over 30,380 animals dead and 1,301,892 people displaced.

In a situation like this, where it has been challenging to rebuild because of continuing floods, many people lost their homes and jobs and have been living in basic shelters. As a result, Colombia Humanitaria, was created as a unit of the national government that specifically focuses on humanitarian emergencies. This unit has been working for a year on many services for the victims of this natural disaster, but the main project is that of providing people Emergency Employment.

This idea derives from the fact that many remained jobless and the government needs additional manual labour, in order to restore the infrastructure back in the affected municipalities. As a result, the national government, together with the famously decentralised municipalities of Colombia and the support of UNDP, Oxfam and others, are offering emergency employment to the victims.

The original plan was to assist 50,000 people, however, over 167,000 people applied and for this, they have been working hard to serve 110,000 people up to now. The requirements for applying to this programme are: to be over eighteen and to be registered at the office of victims of emergencies. Because of high demand, the government made it clear that those who are already identified as victims of extreme poverty or the internal conflicts will be prioritised.

It has been contested that this emergency employment programme is not sufficiently catered to build upon skills and knowledge that these victims may already possess. However, the programme director’s view is that this is nonetheless a good start to putting people back into work and a great solution to finding a way to pay them minimum wage without making it completely aid money.

Also, it has been noted that this disaster has affected people not only physically, but psychologically and for this, this programme is used as an incentive to not let people fall into depression and to have the means to plan for the future. Together with the manual labour that has been allocated to the applicants, this programme also offers training and workshops arranged locally with the municipalities. The training is designed to help the victims acquire skills that can later be useful when trying to secure other jobs.

UNDP has advised the committee carefully, as it has a long standing experience with offering emergency employment in cases like Haiti and Japan. Mr Abdallah Shukri Al-Laham, who is the head of the Recuperation and Sustainable Development unit put emphasis on the following:

1. Clearly define the vulnerable population and not forget the handicapped, the elderly, the young (especially recently graduated ones) and female heads of households.
2. Implement programmes that focus on gender and take into consideration the need of day care centres in the workplace and equality of pay.
3. Do not exclude minorities.
4. Guarantee transparency when contracting NGOs that execute the projects.
5. Avoid at all costs the politicisation of the programme
Moreover, an interesting and important consideration, is that 60% of employment in Colombia is informal. As a result, this emergency employment is largely offered to people who have never been salaried before. For this, the programme functions, not only to help the victims, but to integrate new people into the formal labour market as well.

All in all, significant effort and innovation have been put into this emergency employment programme, and it is welcome news that the government confirmed the programme is approved to continue for one more year. Because this natural disaster has not hit as severely the main cities of Colombia, like Bogota and Medellin, we do not hear much about it outside the country.

That said, the number of victims that this extended natural disaster left behind is grave and support has to be provided as soon as possible in order to stop these people from going below the poverty line. Lastly, especially now that the peace talks with the FARC have resumed, it is critical to design nation-wide programmes that successfully integrate people into the labour market, since it could be the case that soon thousands of former rebels will be looking for ways to adapt back to life outside the jungle.

Ayako Iba

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