But Who Will Build the Roads? Bogotans Will

Vista panorámica de Bogotá
Bogotá, Colombia. Source: Wikimedia.

EspañolThe belief that the state is a elite organization, the most important part of any society, is so entrenched that it has become part of our language. For instance, when affirming that a representative has done a good job, we often say that “he has improved the economy” or “he created jobs.” We forget that one person alone can do neither.

Such expressions fly in the face of reality. The evolution of complex social phenomena shows that the state is just another social organization, even if it fulfills special functions, such as security, that require coercive power. But more importantly, facts show that citizens can take back many of the functions traditionally considered a state monopoly.

In Bogotá, the capital of Colombia, we have two interesting examples. The first one involves a group of entrepreneurs coming together to propose infrastructure projects that the city needs. The second one involves the Urban Development Institute (IDU), responsible for the construction of public spaces, creating a program called “Work for Your Neighborhood,” through which citizens directly decide and partially pay for infrastructure improvements, like parks or walking lanes, in their area.

These two examples reveal that, on the one hand, citizens have realized that the local government is not after the mysterious “common good,” and now they are seeking to be the ones to determine major projects and demand their construction. On the other, the state is acknowledging its shortcomings and the importance of direct action of individuals, united by voluntary cooperation.

Take note, this is happening in a city that after a decade of lousy administrations by populist interventionists is undergoing a deep crisis in every sense (mobility, security, infrastructure). The upside of Bogotá’s crisis is that it has become an opportunity for both citizens and public entities to recognize the appropriateness of giving private actors more leeway to solve their own problems and meet their own public space needs.

Furthermore, these initial experiences may have other positive effects in the medium and long term. People in Bogotá may eventually realize that cooperation among them results in more and better goods than waiting for the eventual action of a supposedly benevolent representative. Ultimately, this recognition may lead to undermining some of the state roles they take for granted.

This phenomenon could also lead to future local administrations having a clearer and limited scope of initiatives that they decide to undertake. In other words, this could reduce Bogotá’s city-hall functions and thus increase its performance in the rest of them.

As a result of the above, the initiatives may be the start of a trend whereby voters pick candidates less by their populist promises, and more by their ability to effectively represent citizens and their commitment to let those they represent decide upon local priorities.

It is true that aforementioned projects are brand new. It is also true that Mayor Gustavo Petro’s administration continues to embody the Latin-American populist progressives. In other words, he does not meet his duties, and he insists on creating media stunts while holding useless events or that have little real impact on the general public’s living conditions.

It’s also undeniable that each initiative will face serious challenges. One of those dangers can be a form of private encroachment on the public sphere, eventually becoming just another means for the consolidation of cronyism in the city. It is also true that programs such as the IDU’s would be better received if they emerged not from public officials but from determined and work-driven citizens.

Only time will tell, but we may just be witnessing the birth of a less dependent relationship between citizens and local government. Bogotá’s serious crisis does call for such an urgent renewal of the relationship.

Translation by Daniel Duarte.

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