Failure, Politics, and Regional Development: What Developmentalism and Infrastructure Reveal about Present “Post-Conflict” Programs

By Isabel Peñaranda Currie

This essay is part of Bureaucracy, Justice, and The State in a Post-Accord Colombia, PoLAR Online Emergent Conversation 10, published on the fourth anniversary of the accord.

Figure 1 A UNODC official registers coca-growers for the PNIS Coca Substitution Program. Photo taken by Isabel Peñaranda, April 2017.

It is March of 2017, and the Territorial Renovation Agency (ART) is in the rural hinterlands of the state of Caquetá, Colombia. The Agency has spent hundreds of millions of pesos bringing the inhabitants of the remotest parts of the Caguán river basin to the village of Remolino del Caguán, where they are expected to spend two days participating in the construction of “Development Plans with a Territorial Focus” (PDET). “How many roads can we put down?” asks one campesino of the “Infrastructure and Land Adaptation” table. An excitable worker from the ART almost leaps from her chair to exclaim, “Put them all down, all the ones you think you need!”.  An hour later, a hand-drawn map and list written—somewhat sheepishly—in colored markers shows 25 bridges and two parallel roads running down either side of the river.

The scene contrasts with the conditions of construction of the first public road that connected the municipal head of Cartagena de Chairá to the main road in the 1960s. Then, the National Institute of Colonization and Agrarian Reform (INCORA)—created at the peak of developmentalism in Colombia—was following up on the state-directed colonization plans drawn up on the desks of bureaucrats of the Agrarian Bank (Caja Agraria). Most of the people drafting said plans had never set foot on the remote frontier Intendencia, and yet had ambitious plans for what it would become.[1]

The differences between these two experiences, in the same territory and separated only by time, sheds historical perspective on the evolution of the state’s attempts to articulate peacebuilding and economic development, particularly in the peripheries of the nation. Two of my research interests concern changes in the logics of the developmentalist state in Caquetá and the process of state-formation as seen from the angle of infrastructure in this same territory (Peñaranda Currie 2020; Peñaranda Currie, Otero-Bahamon, and Uribe 2019).[2] In this text, I place these research interests in dialogue—along with my experiences working with some of the NGOs, programs and institutions charged with implementing the peace agreements—to identify  three thematic lines of inquiry: the question of persistent failure, the political subjectivities formed in these “post-conflict” programs, and finally, the programs’ impact—intended or not—on modes of production in the periphery.

A brief history of developmentalism and roads in Caquetá

Map 1: Caja Agraria directed colonization plan in Valparaiso, Caquetá. Source: Brücher 1974.

The assassination of presidential candidate Jorge Eliecer Gaitán in 1948 sparked a period of deadly internal unrest known as La Violencia, as well as one of the Colombian state’s first attempts to explicitly respond to violence by intervening in some of the material underlying causes with the “Institute for Parceling, Colonization and Forest Defense” (Sánchez 1988). This same strategy was followed in 1953 in the framework of General Rojas Pinilla’s amnesty to those involved in La Violencia, with the “Institute for Colonization and Immigration” (ICI), then again in 1958 with President Alberto Lleras Camargo “rehabilitation” program (Karl 2017). These were antecedents for the developmentalist state-directed colonization programs in Caquetá. The first was the Agrarian Bank (Caja Agraria) directed-state colonization program of 1959 which promoted three colonization “fronts” in the Caquetá Piedmont (Hormaza 2016). Then followed the National Institute for Colonization and Agrarian reform in 1961, born out of a heady mix of foreign economic missions with increasingly ambitious Development Plans, Cold War fears led by Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress, as well as local preoccupations of the return of internal unrest like La Violencia (Florián Guzmán 2013; Villamizar 2012).

The study of infrastructure is an illuminating entry-point for understanding this history. The aforementioned ICI built some of the first internal roads in Caquetá, followed by the Caja Agraria, which opened what would become the central road of the Piedmont and which both followed existing mule-paths and the trajectories traced by bureaucrats in Bogotá (Hormaza 2016). Soon after, in 1960 the National Fund of Rural Roads (Caminos Vecinales) (FNCV) was created with the aim of coordinating the construction, conservation and improvement of the regional and feeder roads. Along with the INCORA, they constructed the basis of the Caquetá road network (Map 2). As such, the roads also reveal the decline of these programs, and with them, the crisis of developmentalist planning. The intensification of the present armed conflict with the “War of Caquetá” in 1978 led to a deterioration in the colonization initiative, and it was then replaced by a program born of the 1982 peace negotiations, which gave rise to the National Rehabilitation Program (PNR), an effort to integrate both participation and the logics of humanitarianism into the notion of peacebuilding (Vera 2017). The PNR would create a military engineered battalion for road construction and design new mechanisms for state intervention in peripheral territories, while auguring part of a massive decentralizing government overhaul which would include the elimination of the centralized Caminos Vecinales program in 1993.

Map 2: Intendencia of Caquetá during the INCORA Caquetá Project – Phase II. 1975. Source: Hormaza (2016, 114).

This history, as illuminated in greater detail in the texts cited here, simultaneously furthers and challenges some of the arguments set out in the anthropological canon on developmentalism (Escobar 2012; Ferguson 1994; Scott 1998). To the extent that infrastructure can be understood as an accretion of diverse political rationalities, both as products and mediums for their realization (Anand 2015), as well as testaments to their contradictions and limitations (Harvey 2005; Uribe 2018), they are ideal sites for understanding the complexities of this genealogy. It is for this reason that they have been a privileged site in tracing the continuities of militarized pacification strategies in peacebuilding (Bachmann and Schouten 2018), the new tensions and political subjectivities in “post-conflict” scenarios (von Schnitzler 2016), and even the forms of preparation for future conflicts (Bou Akar 2018). Seen from our present “moment of emergency” (Benjamin 2005), we can chart both changes and continuities in the developmentalist logic as it is substantiated in the material world, not in order to romanticize it (Chibber 2015), but at least to denaturalize the way certain concepts are presently considered, three of which—failure, state and regional development—I will briefly address ahead.


Construction of the road that connects Cartagena de Chairá to the major road artery of Caquetá began in the 1960s under the auspices of the INCORA colonization program. Unfinished, it then became one of the roads that was intervened under the PNR by the newly created “Liborio Mejía Engineer Batallion” in 1982 (Carroll 2015), and was intervened again by the national government under the counterinsurgent civil-military strategy of the “Plan for Territorial Consolidation and Rehabilitation” (“En Florencia” 2012). Most recently, this road was the target of the 50/51 plan, a program to improve 50 kilometers in the 51 municipalities worst affected by the armed conflict. Despite a propagandistic celebration of the program, in Cartagena the program roughly translated into 6 sewers and 115 meters of a reinforced concrete “pavement” on the road, lasting well into 2019 after suffering 6 contract modifications, 8 contract extensions, numerous threats and colorful insults between public officials[3]. As it stands, the road represents an uncomfortable and long 3-hour journey skirting dirt craters in the best of cases and is often impossible to transit during the rainy season.

In other words, the road is the material substantiation of numerous failed peace processes and military territorial control strategies in Caquetá. As such, it is an opportunity to ask about the quotidian mechanisms and effects of the failures of state projects both on the small scale—the construction of a road—and on the broadest one—the attempt to secure a stable and lasting peace, or at least, a monopoly on the use of force. In his text on the failure of developmentalist programs in Lesotho, Ferguson charts “how the outcomes of [failed] planned social interventions can end up coming together into a powerful constellation of control that were never intended and in some cases never even recognized, but are all the more effective for being ‘subjectless’ ” (1994, 19). The nature of the social reality which emerges out of these systematic but unintended failures is itself historically and territorially specific, and deserves a closer look.

For example, to return to the ART exercise in the Remolino del Caguán communal hall in light of the 50/51 program fiasco, it appears that independent of the sympathies of the ART officials, the praxis of communal participation was itself set up to be impossible to implement. Rather than engage in an informed discussion which was in touch with the question of budgeting, legal norms, land-use zoning or even the efficacy of certain interventions, communities were encouraged to participate in an asking free-for-all. The result was the inevitable complaint within state agencies that the document was a “grocery list” of desires—to use a common descriptor for these exercises—which never engaged with how the methodology of participation made this kind of list inevitable.

The failure to implement the myriad components of the agreements—from the coca substitution to the FARC’s inventory of its wealth—is usually cast as a lack of will, without questioning the nature of the instruments themselves (Azuero-Quijano 2020). Taken as a starting point, it bears remembering Gupta’s (2012) argument that structural violence is effected by bureaucratic action systematically producing arbitrary outcomes. In this sense, there seems to be a politics of the “unviability” of many of these participation exercises, and through understanding the long-durée and systematicity of failure, the logics of the simultaneous experiences of state abandonment and presence (McFee 2020) may be approached in new ways.

The political relationship

Early developmentalist programs had little to no engagement with the people who were its intervention-objects, a reality painfully obvious when one looks at the geometric shapes of the Valparaíso colonization nucleus (Map 1). This would change in time, first with the “Development Plan for the Middle and Lower Caguán and Sunciyas”—an unprecedented participatory planning exercise which actively involved the FARC, the state and the local communities, and would become a model for the PNR’s participation strategy (Cubides, Jaramillo, and Mora 1986). The PNR model in turn would serve as a referent for the current peace processes’  construction of the PDETS led by the ART, which spent a considerable amount of its budget on ensuring that a member of every last village of the prioritized municipalities was present at their meetings.

At the same time, the way in which the state manifested itself also changed. The developmentalist state appeared, if nothing else, coherent: the ambitious, rationalized plans were the face of a highly centralized state which in Caquetá had a bigger budget than the Intendencia government. Not coincidentally, the INCORA became the target of some of the biggest protests in Caquetá history in 1972 and 1977.[4] The National Association of Campesino Beneficiaries (ANUC) of the INCORA program called for the implementation of INCORA’s policies including access to credit and technical assistance, protesting its excessive bureaucracy and demanding an improvement in the road infrastructure (Delgado 1987). While in some ways developmentalism did operate as an “antipolitics machine,” it also united thousands of campesinos in a shared experience and expectation of the state, agglutinating their political demands and helping forge what could be understood as a colono political subjectivity (Ferguson 1994).

The present panorama looks very different. The image of the cohesive central state has given way to a multitude of state agencies, international, multilateral organizations, NGOs, and more. A haphazard compilation of fragmented excel documents assembled between my contacts in these institutions yielded an estimate of over 80 entities implementing these agreements in Caquetá alone. Attempts at finding out how much money has entered the department and how it has been spent has proven to be impossible; even at the national level, there are 5 different “funds” which manage different “post-conflict” budgets—only one of which is managed by the Colombian state—and no single report accounts for the movements of said budgets (Aguirre and Riaño 2019). The Attorney General’s critiques centered on the FARC’s incapacity to create an inventory of its wealth registered by Azuero-Quijano (2020) is at the very least contradictory, given the state’s naturalization of its incapacity to do the same.

A photograph I took during my time accompanying the cocalero communities who participated in the pilot program for the “Comprehensive National Plan for Substitution” (PNIS) in Briceño, Antioquia, captures the complexities of this governance scheme: a group of cocaleros crowd around a uniformed man on a computer to give their personal information to enter into this state-program. The man was not employed by the state, but belonged to the UN agency on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) although in my 6 months there, he assumed more authority than the government workers themselves. The ubiquitous circulation of attendance sheets and other technologies of government (Krystalli 2020) by non-state agencies signals that the question of who or what the state is becomes increasingly impossible to avoid, as the sites in which state processes, practices, and effects take place multiply outside the formal governmental sphere (Trouillot 2003).

Following McAdam, Tarrow and Tilly (2004), an essential part of the construction of the identity of social movements is based on identifying a common enemy or interlocutor—in this case the state—necessitating understanding of the impact of political logics and subjectivities produced in the relationship between state and the communities. Often in such “post-conflict participation” spaces, there are no state workers at all, only multilateral institutions or NGOs, who ultimately cannot be figures to be opposed, being only “the operators” of government programs. This fragmentation and privatization of public policy in turn makes the identification of a common struggle, and thus, a common identity, that much more difficult to mobilize (Howe-Haralambous n.d.). In the PDET construction described at the beginning, communities are encouraged to “ask for it all” in an ungrounded and depoliticized space of participation. As such, this “post-conflict” governance model—which has different iterations in the neoliberal state—implies a participation without opposition, in which conflict is excluded as a repertoire of engagement. On the other side, the forms of political praxis and subjectivity engaged in the daily forms of struggle, particularly that of the lower-rank ex-combatants in cities, are further delegitimized in contrast with these idealized meetings with rural communities (Shaw Crane 2020). These are only symptoms of a deeper apparatus and model of governance which deserves to be denaturalized and explored more systematically.

Figure 1 A UNODC official registers coca-growers for the PNIS Coca Substitution Program. Photo taken by Isabel Peñaranda, April 2017.

Local and regional development

The most obvious and broadest contribution that studying developmentalist programs, and specifically discussions around infrastructure, can make to an analysis of the present moment is by bringing to the foreground the impact these interventions have on the economic sphere. Rather than characterize the Caja Agraria or INCORA programs as successes or failures, it is more important to chart the changes in the modes of production that the shift from one to the other entailed in terms of the kind of production (agricultural vs. cattle ranching), the occupation of space (relative density vs. dispersed), and the producing subject (small or landless campesinos vs. medium landowning farmers) (Peñaranda Currie 2020). The history of “rehabilitation” programs starting with the PNR reveal that, that to the extent that these programs represented the primary expression of the nation-state in these peripheral regions, they came to stand in or be inseparable from the concept of regional development in Colombia (Vera 2017).

Similarly, evaluation of historic and contemporary programs needs to go beyond the critique that the national development model was never questioned on the peace negotiating table. The proposals, implementation, and failures of the present programs have profound impacts on the modes of production in the regions where they are being carried out. Again, infrastructure provides a lens to analyze these changes. In many of the remote rural regions of the country, coca sustained a mode of production which was relatively distributive, permitted a degree of on-site processing and adding of value, and secured regular access to liquidity. While coca cultivation did not rely on the existence of a road network, in certain regions like in Cartagena de Chairá, a tax was imposed on coca-paste sales that financed the construction of feeder road infrastructure, which continues to be the only road system existing today.

The PNIS in theory promised to substitute not just the coca crop, but this entire complex territorial ecosystem woven around coca production. However, this did not happen. The crops were eradicated, 6 bimonthly subsidies given out to substitute a year’s earnings, a few crop substitutes like cocoa, coffee, and cattle put in place, and the program neglected with the change of government. The promise of roads which would make any alternative crop economically viable has been slow in the best of cases, and completely absent in the rest. The result has been a massive displacement which the government has no interest in measuring, only approximated anecdotally by conversations with dozens of coca harvesters, former cooks, single mothers and former coca growers in Briceño who have left their homes to search for work.

Due to the decline of the coca economy in Caquetá, the roads have become nearly impossible to transit as the productive and social tissue that sustained them disintegrates. The result has been land concentration and the expansion of cattle-ranching, which is connected to massive deforestation on the agrarian frontier. Although the distribution of cash transfers to coca growers as part of the coca substitution program was one of the demands won by the FARC at the peace negotiating table, it is also important to understand how this portion of the policy was in the moment of implementation favored above the other agenda items centered around public goods like roads, and thus, became one more stage in the history of expansion of cash-transfers in social programs, anti-narcotic strategies, reparations, and humanitarian aid (see, for example, programs like Familias en Acción, Familais Guardabosques, the Victims Law, etc).[5]

In her study of urbanism in Beirut, Hiba Bou Akar (2018) charts a genealogy of planning in Lebanon from developmentalist planning centered on the rural development, towards the spatial ordering of urban peripheries—in which planning came to be equated with development—and finally at the present phase of “planning without development.” This latest phase is defined in a form of spatial ordering which does not have the objective of improving socioeconomic conditions, but rather creating subtle sectarian frontiers created in the anticipation of a war “yet to come.” By way of conclusion, I introduce Bou Akar’s genealogy of the forms of articulation between development and planning as an example of how this developmentalist past can allow us to denaturalize and better understand the present. In charting the changes and continuities in these forms of governance and spatial ordering, we will be able to understand how they structure territory and temporality, and our very understanding of the blurry lines between peace and war.

Isabel Peñaranda Currie is an anthropology major from Columbia University, holds a masters in History from La Universidad Nacional de Colombia and is a masters student in Urban and Regional Planning in the Centro Interdisciplinarios de Estudios sobre Desarrollo – CIDER in the Universidad de los Andes. Her current research interests are the history and praxis of planning in the peripheries, particularly in the context of the cities of the Colombian Amazon.


[1]  Intendencias were an administrative unit applied in territories that were not yet formally recognized as states (Departamentos), with autonomous state governments, but were part of what were known as “National Territories” and as such were under the central state rule.

[2] My interest in infrastructure stems from the “Rebel Roads” project with Simón Uribe and Silvia Otero of La Universidad del Rosario.

[3] Andrés Castro, former Secretary of Planning of Cartagena de Chairá. Personal communication, April 27th, 2020.

[4] The other one being the 1996 Cocalero Marches, where the aerial fumigation of coca crops by the state made very clear who the “enemy” was in a dynamic much more difficult during peacetime

[5] I thank Margarita Chaves for this observation.

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About Jennifer Curtis

Jennifer Curtis is an Honorary Fellow in Social Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh:

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