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Culture affecting development: more ideas for social innovation

Maria Rodriguez's picture

In my last post I mentioned a consulting project, and the second trip I took for this project was to Pasto, Colombia. This city is located in Nariño, a region blessed by nature and its people’s vocation for the arts. On the other hand, it also faces a complex social situation that is deepened by its society’s cultural traits.
Pasto is a medium size city (close to 400,000 inhabitants) located at 2,527 meters above the sea level. Its cold weather contrasts with the warmth and kindness of its people. It is located at the foot of Galeras, the most active volcano in Colombia, which reigns in Pasto landscape. People say the city is going to disappear one day because it’s not a  matter of whether the volcano is going to have a big eruption or not, but when. In fact, the volcano has been erupting a lot lately. Nonetheless, the city has been there for over 470 years, and even though it has been affected by a lot of eruptions and earthquakes, they have never made the city disappear.

I think this feeling of not knowing if they’re going to be there the next morning is part of what gives “pastusos” (that’s how we commonly refer to people from this city) reasons to enjoy every day through different expressions of art. As one of the directors of the university told us, in Pasto there is a musician in almost every family. Also their handcrafts are known to be some of the most beautiful in the country, and they have stunning expressions of religious art and architecture, most of which can be found at catholic temples.

Pasto recently suffered one of the worst economic crises the region has seen in the last years. Originated by the need to launder an excess of money in the economy generated by drug trafficking, a lot of Ponzi-scheme businesses or pyramids were formed in the region. Thanks to these pyramids a lot of people received returns on their investments of about 100% or more over an average of 6-month periods. This access to “easy money” created bad habits in the region’s people, like receiving a very high income without having to work at all.

At the end of 2008 and beginning of 2009 some of the pyramid owners started to suddenly close the doors of their businesses, leaving people without their investments and returns. This deeply affected a lot of people who had their life savings invested there (yes, people were so used to investing there that they even compromised the money for their children’s education!). The Colombian government identified these illegal schemes and started to put the people behind them in jail and, interestingly enough, people in Nariño and the neighboring region of Putumayo were protesting because of this! They were convinced that the pyramid owners were “heroes” who had facilitated access to good investment options for people with low incomes and had turned them into wealthy people. This, of course is not true, since people who had received millions from these pyramids are now again in a very bad economic situation. It was all a superficial access to money that was bad for the society in Pasto and Nariño in general because people are now without any money and they are used to not having to work to get it.

This is why I think that part of the complex social situation in Pasto and Nariño are deeply rooted in the cultural effects of this crisis. So why not use the cultural strengths of this region to turn the situation around for good? A lot of social innovation can be done using arts as a means to heal society and economy. Even religion can play a key role in these kinds of initiatives. To sum up, we really need social entrepreneurs who are able to see the opportunities in this crisis, and can start working for the improvement of this region’s situation.