PDIA Course Journey: Stop, Look, and Listen! Preventing Recruitment of Youth into Illicit Activities in Southern Colombia

Guest blog written by Cameron Berkuti, Christina Schultz, Diana Acuña, Juan Pablo Castaño, Kelly Brooks, Susan Kemp

This team successfully completed the 15-week Practice of PDIA online course that ended in December 2018. This is their story.

As development practitioners, we tend to rush in with solutions to deal with complex problems. We impose so-called best practices without digging deep to uncover the roots of a problem due to donor demands and other pressures to show short-term gains. However, acknowledging that a problem is “complex” means that we first need to step back and give ourselves room to figure out how to achieve sustainable impact. We found this to be the case when confronting the problem of youth recruitment in Vaparaiso, Colombia, where we applied problem driven iterative adaptation (PDIA).

In post-conflict Colombia, following half a century of civil strife, youth in municipalities previously controlled by the former Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) are experiencing an emerging threat to their well-being. Violent groups that benefit from illicit activities, such as drug trafficking and illegal mining, are taking advantage of the power vacuum, left by the demobilization of the FARC, by coercing youth to join their ranks. The small, isolated municipality of Valparaiso, with a population of nearly 12,000, is no exception. Lack of trust in the judicial system and local authorities to bring perpetrators to justice and prevent retaliation has led to a severe underreporting of this phenomena. The mayor’s office and family services are responsible for preventing youth recruitment. The municipality is further hampered by limited budget resources, administrative capacity, and information to comply with its obligations regarding prevention and response to recruitment.

This is clearly a “wicked hard” problem that we had been contemplating from six different chairs in Colombia and remotely from the US. The first task we took on was that we stopped and conducted an initial problem analysis to agree on what exactly we were trying to solve. This consisted of constructing the problem – the municipal government of Valparaiso did not have the capacity and resources to deal with this emerging critical concern of youth recruitment. We subsequently deconstructed this seeming intractable issue by reaching out to stakeholders, looking at available (although scarce) data, and continually asking “why”. We discovered a range of root causes, from law enforcement still being conducted from a military perspective to a deteriorating social fabric. Mapping out the sub-causes only further confirmed that the problem could not be solved in one go. Rather than being overwhelmed by this complexity, we realized that there was ample space in authority, acceptance, and ability that provided us an entry point in one root cause – local government, schools, parents and others did not see the value in engaging youth in solving their own problems. Continue reading PDIA Course Journey: Stop, Look, and Listen! Preventing Recruitment of Youth into Illicit Activities in Southern Colombia