Where I’ll be visiting.

I’m off Sunday for an extended trip to Colombia, which I’ll mostly spend in three regions far from Bogotá. I’ll be on a team evaluating a big USAID “helping get government presence into post-conflict territories” program.

I’ve been interested for a long time in this question of “how you start governing ungoverned areas.” (My “2018 priorities” post in December discusses this.) In 2008-12, when Plan Colombia started to become less overwhelmingly military in focus, I took a long look, with lots of field work, at U.S.-supported efforts to do this under what was called the “National Territorial Consolidation Plan.”

My research, and my critiques of those programs, put me in frequent touch with the people in the U.S. and Colombian governments who were carrying them out. Today, many of them are working with USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives on a $43 million-plus program to help Colombia capitalize on the peace accord by bringing government services into three regions of the country. Those regions are Putumayo in the south, and Arauca and Catatumbo in the northeast.

The USAID-supported program has another year and a half to go. Late last year, the people in charge asked me to help carry out an interim evaluation of how it is going. I didn’t hesitate to say yes. It’s an unusual and fascinating opportunity:

  • I get to learn more intimately about what’s involved with getting state presence into a zone that’s never had it. I’ve never worked in government, so it’s a vantage point I’ve missed. Where are the bottlenecks? Why do some things that seem easy from the outside turn out to be so hard when you’re inside? And as a result, when we “outsiders” make recommendations to well-meaning people on the inside, which ones are helpful in pushing things forward and which ones don’t even pass the laugh test?
  • It’s already been fascinating getting a firsthand look at the program’s documents, database, and notes, especially their own internal evaluations of what is going well and what has been frustrating. (I had to sign a non-disclosure agreement, though, so I won’t share any intimate details.)
  • Though I’ve been to Colombia about 70 times, I’ve never stayed for an entire month at a time. And this moment—an upcoming election, a struggle to implement the peace accord—is an important time to be embedded.
  • I get to return to three places I haven’t been in a while: Arauca (last visit 2002), Catatumbo (2016), and Putumayo (2016).
  • I get to meet with a lot of officials and agencies running Colombia’s post-conflict implementation effort, many of whom are hard to pin down.
  • I get to catch up with friends and colleagues, once I have a better sense of when our schedule will allow it.

It will be hard to be away from my family for a whole month. But being on my own also means a lot more time in mornings and evenings to keep up with the work back here in Washington. (Not to mention hours in airports and on endless drives through rural areas.) So I plan to cover my regular WOLA duties, and post things to this site, for a few hours each day.

I’ll still have written output at this site and at WOLA’s site. I still plan to keep up with news coverage around the region. Of course, this output will be lighter during February. And while I’d like to post chatty updates and photos about my impressions from the field, for security reasons I won’t do that until I return to Bogotá or Washington. But I’ll still be around and mostly connected. So let’s see how this goes. Hasta pronto.