Top British and Colombian officials on Monday celebrated a new partnership that promises to strengthen ties in higher education, science and business.
Colombia’s recent economic transformation, coupled with better security and a prospect for peace has ushered in a wave of trade interest from other countries. A British mission led by Minister of Universities and Science David Willetts brought optimism for Colombia’s future, as well as prospects for increased trade between the two nations.
“We have been looking on with great respect and admiration at the transformation of Colombia in the past years as Colombia becomes a modern, liberal democracy,” Willets told a packed roomful of Colombian business leaders, policy makers and officials.
“It’s the kind of thing that makes one optimistic about the future to see what’s been happening here,” said the minister.
Willetts stressed the will to share Great Britain’s wealth of knowledge in the areas of science and innovation for Colombia’s development. But he also acknowledged the benefits and risks associated with developing Colombia’s natural resources.
“You have the extraordinary biodiversity in Colombia that we want to study and understand, but as we advance … we don’t want to lose biodiversity.”
The advances in development that the U.K. and Colombia look forward to will come through what Colombia calls public-private partnerships, a development initiative where private contractors take on public works projects, like road and railway infrastructure.
“Colombia is in a rare and interesting time where it has the financial capital, the political capital and the technical commitment to improve infrastructure,” Deputy Head of the U.K. Mission to Colombia, Tony Regan, told Colombia Reports.
“There’s the social infrastructure of hospitals, schools, public buildings, prisons, all of which need improvement, and much of the intention of the Colombian government is to do this through public-private partnerships … and the U.K. might have more experience than any other country in the world in doing public-private partnerships,” said Regan.
The official pointed out that one of Colombia’s biggest challenges is to catch up on 50 years worth of infrastructure in a short period of time.
Infrastructure, especially transportation, has held back Colombia’s competitiveness. A report issued by Colombian social and economic policy think tank Fedesarrollo declared that $11 billion in infrastructure investment would be needed in order to bring Colombia’s transportation and infrastructure up to date and keep it competitive.
But as Colombia gets ambitious with development, it also faces the challenge of how to allocate the royalties derived from its newfound oil and mineral wealth.
“Colombia has huge wealth in its natural resources, and that can be good for the economy, but you have to think about the environment, the people … the next five to ten generations,” said Regan.
“I think you have to think about what’s going to happen with the profits that come from this huge energy boom, and who will benefit,” added the official.
For a Colombia with grinding poverty and inequality, the question of who benefits is one of the the biggest questions that Colombia wrestles with.
Though Colombia profits from royalties that come from its energy boom, it is the state’s local, department governors that manage it. Many, like Regan, believe that that money should be reinvested in its human resources.
Carlos Hildebranda Fonseca, Director of Colombia’s Office of Science, Technology and Innovation, told Colombia Reports that to a great extent he feels that royalties are being allocated well. But he sees the need for allocating monies to develop more graduate-level knowledge in the areas of biotechnology, and eco-technology, a science that looks at innovations in agricultural management. Social sciences, he says, are going to be important as well.
“I think because we are entering the post-conflict, we will require a good amount of social scientists, because post-conflicts are very complicated. And it’s going to require a lot of analysis, social innovation and institutional innovation,” said the director.
Alba Avila, a Professor of Engineering at University of the Andes, expressed optimism in response to the U.K. mission and the prospects of stronger ties between the two countries. When asked what the relationship means to her she said excitedly, “opportunities.”
- Interview with Deputy Head of UK Mission Tony Regan
- Interview with Director of Colsciencias Carlos Hildebrando Fonseca
- UK-Colombia Trade Launch Press Conference