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Together at Last: Community Action Boards in Colombia

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Varsha Srinivasan
August 5, 2021

A Colombian village established Community Action Boards to directly participate in developing new schools. Through voluntary participation, citizens formed the Juntas de Acción Comunal (JAC) to counteract the ineffective policies implemented by the politically divisive government. Because the state allowed for JACs to be decentralized from the government, individual regions had direct involvement in implementing autonomous processes, while also maintaining certain legal norms. The JAC originated in a village community, but now has a greater presence nationwide. Through governmental and nongovernmental funding, including nonprofits, JACs are able to get financial support from a variety of sources. However, some communities hesitate to ask for governmental support due to concerns they may have to make biased decisions, which may not accurately represent the voice of the community itself.

Electing a leader for a JAC involves a voluntary voting process, which is determined by the community. An elected representative from the Interior Ministry serves as a silent spectator in the proceedings, while JAC members determine logistical norms like meeting agendas. To provide greater opportunity for youth civic engagement, participants may be as young as 14 years old. Additionally, JACs can delegate participants to focus on regional, communal or national issues, allowing members to gain a more holistic understanding of a policy-specific context. JACs have a formal election day but they decide how many members can participate. The size of JACs usually depends on the size of the region; larger communities will have larger boards, though each participant can hold only one JAC membership at a time. While JACs are independent from the Colombian government in the decisionmaking process, they must uphold governmental values to promote democracy, freedom, equality, respect, solidarity and the common interests of the community they serve. JACs also have specific guidelines that must be met to hold meetings, including a quorum. Additionally, decisions are made based on the approval of the members at large, not elected leaders, emphasizing the value of member-specific participation. The elected leaders’ primary responsibility is to moderate meetings, which are conducted in real time.

While JACs provide a representative platform for community members to effectively engage in the decisionmaking process, they have been criticized for promoting left-wing agendas. Given the history of political tensions with the FARC, this could heighten the Colombian government’s need to intervene in the participatory process if it sees fit. Though communities have experienced scrutiny due to their ideological similarities to left-wing groups, establishing JACs has contributed positively, overall, to developing and implementing change in communities. The JACs have provided a platform for more representative democracy by collectively implementing action steps and promoting free speech among citizens in different cities, directly impacting policies.

Given JACs’ success in Colombia, it would be interesting to see its effectiveness in other nations like the United States. However, given community leaders’ elections, there may be skepticism as to whether it would be another politically divisive governance structure, contributing to communal factions. Additionally, immigration history in the United States poses another challenge in forming representative Community Action Boards in more homogeneous areas. JACs have not undergone specific evaluative processes, which may benefit in concretely assessing their effectiveness. Through a combined quantitative and qualitative approach, the Colombian government could disseminate their findings to other nations, providing more legitimacy to the JAC process as a whole.

Overall, JACs allow citizens to engage in a streamlined participatory process in which different communities engage in separate autonomous processes from city to city, allowing each group to elect their own leaders, propose their own policies and advocate for their specific needs.

To learn more about this case, visit https://participedia.net/case/5729. To read about other innovative applications of public participation, visit www.participedia.net.

Author: Varsha Srinivasan is a foreign language area studies fellow pursuing a dual Master of Public Administration and International Relations at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University. She is passionate about diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives as they relate to multicultural education and cultural sensitivity, specifically in relation to immigrant diasporas in the United States. Her previous experiences include serving as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Colombia from 2019-2020 and teaching 7th grade science through Teach for America in the Las Vegas Valley from 2017-2019. She received a BS and BA from Emory University in May 2017 and a Master in Education from the University of Nevada – Las Vegas in May 2019. She can be reached at [email protected].

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