He is in charge of convincing 100,000 Bogota citizens that democracy is much more than voting every four years. Adriana Mejía Ramírez (Bogotá, 45), manager of the School for Citizen Participation in the Colombian capital, knows that the challenge is enormous: “Corruption has made the youngest not believe in institutions.” Bureaucracy, he says, doesn’t help. With an offer of more than 550 spaces that go from advice on the bicycle, to the construction of peace or the defense of the rights of members of different ethnic groups, the city – which allocates half of the local budget on local proposals – wants to start to decide “from the neighborhood.”
For this, the first Citizen Innovation Laboratory (LABIC) was held this week in Bogotá; to work as a team in the search for solutions to common problems: inequality, insecurity, lack of inclusion… The 11 projects presented will have until December 3 to give it shape and solidity and to be supported and implemented later. “Citizens are the ones who deal with this reality, they are the ones who have to change it in the way they think is most convenient,” the interviewee said during one of the presentations at the event.
Question. Why is it necessary to train citizens to practice as such?
Answer. We proposed that the greatest diversity of people who live and inhabit Bogotá can be integrated into processes of advocacy, empowerment, collective action … That their connection with the territory be different. This city has very interesting statistics of participation. Not only the formal one, which is measured by citizen encounters. If not, traditionally, citizens make their own contributions and organize themselves. But we have realized that the gap between those who enroll in the courses and the population in general is still very high. The spaces for participation have lost legitimacy because citizens have lost trust in the institutions. Especially young people. They are not part of these spaces precisely because of that.
P. What has caused them to lose confidence?
R. Each generation comes with its interest and its mark. Community action boards are, for example, an ancient and traditional expression of participation. It is true that at the time they made several of the country’s neighborhoods and managed to condense the interests and expectations of people who wanted to change their environment. But their forms do not convince the youth.
P. Are they outdated?
R. Well … It has its own ways of being that are understood by the context in which they started. But today they are branded as clientelism. Before, the vote was compromised in exchange for neighborhood improvements; brick or sidewalk repairs, for example. Things have been changing, of course. But young people continue to link neighborhood management with corruption. They also continue to see the official as indolent, distant … The problem that I locate is precisely that. That the pre-established excuse is always the same: “I am not participating because that has already been decided; the same ones always go there; is covered; they are innocuous discussions… ”. Our biggest dilemma is changing perception. Our spaces are not corrupt, they are full of people who occupy themselves and care about certain things.
Young people continue to link neighborhood management with corruption. In addition, they continue to see the official as indolent, distant …
P. Are the institutions the ones that have to look for the citizen or the other way around? What is the limit between infantilize and reach everyone?
R. As a public institution, we understand that there are two tasks that we have to guarantee. On the one hand, make sure that there are open and working spaces for those who want to integrate; that the elections are open and transparent … And another is that the information goes down to spaces where people have been excluded from decision-making. But participation is understood to be closely tied to the role of the State. However, the new citizens realized that there are ways to participate without going through the State or at least without this being the last place of arrival. State-centrism is one of the strongest dangers of participation. A WhatsApp group, links between neighbors, through the media … That is another way to find solutions. And that is the most difficult imaginary to break. Centering all expectations on the State to solve everything is wrong.
P. Unemployment and youth mobilization are seen as another way to participate …
R. Of course, and that is another of the ways that I commented before. It doesn’t have to be all through the institutions. People who come together and seek solutions are also influencing change. But there are also multiple scenarios in which they get involved and can approach and have contact with social organizations.
P. Is Colombia still anchored to the idea that voting is the only responsibility or option of the citizen?
R. We did an exercise in October, at the first Bogotá congress, a community for unlearning, and one of the questions was that; on how democracy was conceived. 80% responded that it was to vote, choose and be elected. We have a very strong imaginary to dismantle. We have to tell them: batteries (eye), that this also has to do with the guarantee of rights, on the openness and transparency of institutions, on the counterweight of other actors… But people still don’t see that.
There are ways to participate without going through the State or at least without this being the last place of arrival. State-centrism is one of the strongest dangers of participation
P. And what is the offer in Bogotá?
R. Uff… If my memory serves me right, I think there are 550 spaces for participation. They are given for each sector, for each population group, for victims … There are all that you can imagine. But it is precisely because there are so many that they have a lower level of incidence. It is something we are working on. An attempt was made to unify during the mandate of [Gustavo] Petro , but it wasn’t that easy. Legally, it was not possible to unite different budgets for joint participation issues.
P. Is the skeleton of the institutions still not designed so that the citizen becomes more involved?
R. At least so far, there are legal issues that do not allow it. It would be necessary to think of alternatives.
P. And is there a gender gap? Do they participate more?
R. Has been very chévere realize that the percentage of female participation is at 58%. There are many more women interested and they are the ones who are certified the most. In addition, they are more involved with organizations and network. And most of them have gone through university, educated women usually come. And we are increasingly challenged to seek the gender approach. It is quite interesting because their feedback goes to a much more neuralgic point of our role as trainers.
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