Jacqueline Moreno Mendoza is shifting the paradigm of traditional development aid through a barter system that encourages communities to draw on their own resources for development. Her barter mechanisms transform marginalized communities, in both their living conditions and their capacity to create change.
The New Idea
Jacqueline is building self-reliant communities from settlements of displaced persons surrounding the city of Bogotá. Jacqueline uses barter mechanisms designed not only to improve economic, social, and educational conditions in these impoverished settlements, but also to build community unity, leadership, and autonomy. Her comprehensive social and economic barter system is based on trust and an exchange of skills: Everyone has needs, and everyone can offer something to their community. For example, a mother can leave her children in the daycare center in exchange for teaching dance lessons on the weekends, or an elderly man can eat in the community cafeteria in exchange for working in the community garden.
Since outside organizations do not freely provide for the community, Jacqueline is destroying a crippling dependency on aid that has been created and fostered by conventional paternalistic development programs. Community members create, manage, and support others with their own resources. This internal transformation—building a strong community working together to better their situation from a fragmented settlement of isolated families—leads to remarkable changes. Jacqueline’s communities have better housing, new infrastructure, such as sewage and electricity, drastically reduced domestic and community violence, and the majority of children attend school.
Members of Jacqueline’s pilot community currently operate approximately 85 percent of the system and lead the efforts to replicate her idea in other settlements. While Jacqueline is working on strategies to meet the growing demand from other communities and citizen organizations (COs) from around the world to learn and apply her methodology.
The city of Bogotá, like other major cities in Colombia, is surrounded by a belt of destitute shantytowns inhabited by displaced families from all over the country. Bogotá has 9 million inhabitants, and approximately 3 million live in the city belt with approximately 4,500 new people settling into Bogotá each month. In total, of a population of 43 million, Colombia has more than 3 million displaced people living in major cities. These people migrate from rural areas for many different reasons, including pervasive armed violence, poverty, and lack of access to education. The Bogotá belt, however, is also impoverished and without schools. Lacking alternatives for earning money, many turn to begging, stealing, prostitution, and drug trafficking—plaguing the shantytowns with violence, illegal gangs, and a high murder rate. Additionally, the majority of street children in the center of Bogotá have fled from these violent settlements surrounding the city.
The problem is exacerbated by the fact that families in the Bogotá belt are all from different places and cultural backgrounds, preventing them from feeling a sense of unity. People do not trust their neighbors and have little faith in their communities.
Existing social programs in the Bogotá belt run by the government or COs are generally paternalistic. Community members play little or no part in building or supporting these programs. In addition, programs are often narrow in scope, not integrated into a larger perspective of community-wide development. As a result, people see themselves as recipients, clients of service providers. Not surprisingly, these “solutions” do not often improve their quality of life. Nor do they help build communities or develop the skills needed by community members: Job and business training, family building, and negotiating as citizens with the outside world. Instead, outside “help” has had negative side effects, such as dependency on aid, passivity, and contributed to the fragmentation of families and communities.
Jacqueline launched her barter system methodology in a settlement called Bella Flor, where no governmental or nongovernmental organizations were working. She started small, developing her strategy as she went. A group of 13 community women formed the core of her first efforts. Because the large majority of the settlement’s children did not go to school and were left alone when their mothers went to work in the city, Jacqueline started teaching basic literacy to children and training a few women to do the same. The women created a daycare center where growing numbers of women took turns caring for the others’ children. The women channeled adolescents, at-risk of becoming gang members, into concrete roles for the community, such as turning the dump into a community park. Within a couple years, Jacqueline had created the fundamentals of her barter system.
A manager elected by the community administers a Barter Bank, setting exchange rates and constantly ensuring people follow through on their commitments. The bank manager is assisted by a community steering committee and chosen representatives from various parts of the community, such as business owners, adolescents, and children. Newly arrived families may enter the barter system by offering a service to the community. Often, this consists of agreeing to give up violence within their family. The bank manager works closely with new families during this early time.
In Bella Flor today, a Support Group of 90 community members is responsible for managing a daycare center for 400 children, a school and cafeteria for 500 children, an art program for youth, community farms, educational training, job-skills workshops for adults, small enterprises, and many community groups. Members of the Support Group do not have salaries, but they have free access to all community services. Members of the larger Bella Flor community barter for access to these services and goods. As with a regular bank, if someone does not meet a certain commitment, to work in the daycare center, for example, they can repay that commitment the following month with interest—working two days for the one they missed. The system fosters mutual dependence among community members, building unity and trust in the community.
Jacqueline recognizes that people cannot live solely within a barter system; they must be part of the outside world and its economy as well. Her barter system, therefore, also empowers community members to deal with institutions outside the community. Support Group members responsible for external affairs are given trainings on negotiations, local government laws, and other relevant skills. This has allowed them to succeed in such initiatives as getting electricity installed by the municipal government or seeing greater police presence in their neighborhoods.
Jacqueline has also developed incentives and opportunities for community members to develop business skills and businesses. After members of the Support Group serve their two-year terms, they are eligible for business education and training funded by Laudes Infantis, the Foundation created by Jacqueline to support her efforts. Additionally, all community members who meet a set of strict guidelines, including participation in a course on entrepreneurship, are eligible for micro-credit loans to start small businesses from a revolving fund. As a result, the community of Bella Flor now has a supermarket, bakery, and beauty salon, among other small businesses, all owned and operated by members of the community. Furthermore, Community enterprises are currently producing three products that are sold on the international market, with more to come. Jacqueline sees growing numbers of community-owned businesses as a key component of the financial sustainability of her work. The more community members are helped in starting businesses, the more their contributions will support the continuation of the system for others. Additionally, several youth are currently being funded in university studies; as part of the exchange, they agree to become spokespeople for the community in the city.
But as Jacqueline’s idea has grown to include sponsoring professional training and access to microcredit, among other things, she has built partnerships with external organizations to provide support to the communities. For example, universities might cover tuition costs if the community covers remaining expenses, or the Bogotá municipal government finances a few projects in exchange for consulting services. All these agreements correspond with community guidelines and respect the barter system. In addition, Jacqueline receives financial investments from partnerships she has formed with two organizations in Spain and Switzerland.
One way Jacqueline measures her impact is by measuring social indicators in the community. Crime, violence, and gangs in Bella Flor have been reduced by 90 percent, domestic violence by 70 percent, and malnutrition among the elderly by 40 percent. Three-quarters of the children that did not attend school now do. Only 10 percent of community members still live in shacks rather than houses. There are 30 community-run enterprises, more than 50 community and personal gardens, and community-wide sewage systems and electricity.
Jacqueline has received requests from over 150 communities interested in replicating her idea. Before agreeing to assist communities with replicating her methodology, her first requirement is that the communities themselves, not the requesting or organizing organizations, must take ownership of the process. The process of replication is intense. CO representatives come to Bella Flor for a three-day immersion and conversation with local people. Then Jacqueline and two others from Bella Flor visit the community, and meet again with the organizing CO for a detailed consultation and planning session. The last phase involves a group from the new community, including a senior citizen, a parent, an adolescent, and a child, who come to live in Bella Flor for a month to observe and learn. This group returns to their community to lead the development of the barter system, with the organizing CO participating merely as a witness— without intervention. Though the replication process is slow, Jacqueline feels that it is essential to have community members so committed that they take ownership of the entire process. Through this replication mechanism, two other communities have adopted the barter system.
Jacqueline is compiling the details of her barter model in a manual to further disseminate her methodology. She also spreads knowledge about her idea through lectures at conferences, universities, and events, and is a member of a network of 35 COs that work in the Bogotá belt. Throughout her efforts to spread the barter system, she places Bella Flor community members at the center of the dialogue because she insists that they were equal partners in the creation of her model.
Jacqueline was born in Colombia and raised by her grandmother after her parents passed away. From childhood, Jacqueline was interested in societal issues, writing articles for her school magazine about Colombia’s political situation. At age 12, she became quite certain that she did not agree with the rebellion in her country, and she began speaking out about this to individuals and groups.
Before entering university, Jacqueline began work with an Italian man starting a program to help street children in Bogotá. He became a mentor, pushing her to start coordinating housing and educational programs for the children, and together they created the program, Contacto Amistad. The two used an unconventional methodology: Instead of obliging children to participate in their programs, they made their programs appealing to children, attracting them through their personal interests.
Before long, Jacqueline realized that just giving services to children was not a solution to their being on the street in the first place. Fifty organizations in Bogota were working with the “problem” of street children, and not achieving results. Jacqueline began doing research to figure out why street people were there. She learned that, contrary to what the Colombian authorities had reported, it was a lack of belonging to a group or community, rather than financial desperation that led to people living on the streets. Jacqueline started spending time on the streets, creating bonds with people and really learning about their lives. She did this mostly on the weekends; at the time she was in university, had two jobs and a small child.
Several years later, Jacqueline knew that she could not hold down two jobs and adequately address the problems that were becoming increasingly clear to her. She believed so deeply in the possibility of creating change where no one else was that she risked everything, quit her jobs and began working full-time, using her personal savings. Jacqueline picked a community to concentrate on in the mountains at the outskirts of the city, the Bogotá belt, because this area was the source of the street children. Jacqueline wanted to prevent people from leaving by building healthy communities with their own resources for development.