BWHers Examine Reparation Program in Colombia

Written by Patrick Vinck, PhD, of BWH Emergency Medicine, assistant professor, Harvard Medical School, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and associate faculty with the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative.

Phuong Pham, PhD, MPH, of BWH Emergency Medicine and collaborators present their findings to Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and more than 20 high-level officials.
Phuong Pham, PhD, MPH, of BWH Emergency Medicine and collaborators present their findings to Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and more than 20 high-level officials.

After conducting a systematic evaluation of Colombia’s reparation program from September 2014 through May 2015, Phuong Pham, PhD, MPH, of BWH Emergency Medicine, associate faculty member with the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative and a research scientist at the Harvard School of Public Health, recently presented findings from the evaluation to the country’s president Juan Manuel Santos.

The U.S. Agency for International Development and Management Systems International contacted the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School in Cambridge, as well as Phuong and I, about working in Colombia, based on our previous experience with assessing how victims of armed conflicts and communities rebuild their lives after violence, including the role of transitional justice.

Colombia has engaged in the most ambitious program to date to provide reparations for victims of conflicts — the making of amends for a wrongdoing by paying money to, or otherwise helping, those who have been wronged.

For the last three decades, millions of Colombians have been affected by violence, including forced displacement, disappearances and violations of human rights, as a result of the Colombian conflict— the world’s longest continuous war between the Colombian government and guerrilla groups, including the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or People’s Army. It has displaced more than 5 million people to date. Today, ongoing peace talks are taking place on neutral ground in Havana, which could bring an end to the feuds.

Reparation and healing for victims requires more than compensation. It requires a comprehensive set of measures that may include psycho-social support, health services, resettlement, truth telling and accountability.

In Colombia, we used a mixed method design combining both qualitative and quantitative approaches to examine perception and effects of the reparation program among the general population and victims registered for reparations, as well as victims who already received reparations.

Looking at the results of the survey, which was taken by more than 3,000 Colombians, we found high levels of exposure to violence and traumatic events among all groups, and documented important psychological needs that must be addressed. The survey also highlights the desire for truth and acknowledgement of the violence that occurred, and a need to hold those responsible accountable for their actions, which are integral components of the healing process.

The unprecedented scale of the reparation program in Colombia creates important logistical and organizational challenges: more than 5 million victims registered for reparations since the Victim Law came into effect in 2011. Our survey also shows some concerns about corruption and effectiveness of the reparation program. However, the formal recognition of victims and their experience is also seen as an important step towards reconstruction and peace building.

Being able to present our findings to the president and a group of more than 20 high-level officials during a one-hour meeting was a unique experience. President Santos was engaging and asked a lot of questions about the data and its comparison with other countries.

This work is now being shared across ministries and with the team negotiating a peace agreement between the government of Colombia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. The hope is that this information will help design reparation programs that are responsive to the needs of the population. We hope to continue monitoring this process and build a better understanding of the difficult recoveries that individuals and communities face after experiencing traumatic experiences.