Interview with Ilich Ortíz
On policy advocacy – or how to break down the walls that divide our societies in incommunicable categories
The former coordinator of the Colombian Coalition for the Right to Education speaks about the Campaign for Free Education and how the Constitutional Court of his country acknowledged free education
July 30, 2010
|"When we were carrying out the Campaign, we realized that paying for public school was considered normal by many families", says Ilich Ortíz
Ilich Ortiz, former coordinator of the Colombian Campaign for the Right to Education, participated actively in the design and implementation of the Campaign for Free Education in Colombia and in the formulation of the advocacy strategies and actions that resulted in the acknowledgment of free primary education by the Constitutional Court of this country (to know more, click here). Ilich told the newsletter Primera Página about the advocacy process carried out in Colombia and the next steps from now on, in addition to reinforcing the importance of articulating several sectors and levels – from local to global – in the achievements of the Colombian civil society: “The walls between the academia and civil society, between the NGOs, the international cooperation and the trade unions must be broken down; the wall between the regions and the center of our countries must be torn down”, he affirmed. Following, read the full interview.
Please tell us about the experience of civil society advocacy along the process that resulted in the recognition of free primary education by the Constitutional Court.
Civil society organizations, led to a certain extent by the Colombian Coalition for the Right to Education, developed a collective process to read the legislation on education in Colombia. The existence of extremely retrogressive ground rules in the country around the right to education was identified, particularly in relation to the charging of school fees, allowed by the Education Law. Then, the Colombian Coalition conducted firstly a social analysis of this set of rules and particularly of the contravention of international agreements signed by the Colombian State on the prohibition of charging school fees. This contravention is seen very clearly, particularly at primary education level, where school fees are prohibited; in addition, at secondary level, the international regulation states that there must be a clear plan to eliminate them gradually. This was made explicit in the International Covenant on Economic and Social Rights and in two General Comments made by the UN Committee on Economic and Social Rights (General Comments 11 and 13). When we found that in the Colombian case the law contravened the international arrangement, we aimed to give rise to a proper process, technically supported from the juridical point of view, in order to file a complaint to the Constitutional Court. Now we have a ruling of the Constitutional Court that states that the Constitution must abide by the international agreements in relation to the principle of free education.
And after the ruling, how should the process develop to ensure the implementation of the law?
As from the ruling, the State hast to adopt the Court’s decision and start to develop an administrative and legislative process where the executive should promote a new regulation, amending those articles which have no constitutional foundations now. Then, specifically, what we have now is the abolition of the juridical basis for the charging of fees; therefore, fees are not legal now.
Why were school fees maintained for so long, despite the ratification by the country of several international treaties on human rights that determine free education?
The answer to that question, in case of Colombia, should be sought in very long-term processes. A first process is the Constituent Assembly of ’91, whose origin goes back to the new ruling pact resulting from a particular situation in the country: the reinsertion of certain insurgent movements into the civil and political life. The Constitution we had back then was from 1886; it still showed some pre-modern, patrimonial features. That Constitution had not even incorporated basic public liberties, already fully acknowledged in the international covenants on human rights.
But at the same time, on the other hand, neoliberal policies were introduced across all of Latin America in that period. The text of the Constitution is the result of many sectors represented there. Those sectors were struggling for the country to open to democracy in terms of civil and political rights; at the same time, they were also struggling for the State to withdraw from strategic sectors, for an opening of economy and the autonomy of the Central Bank – all of these were postulates of the neoliberal policies. These two trends overlapped in the Constituent Assembly of ’91. A sign of this overlapping is that in the Constitution of ‘91 education is declared as part of the fundamental rights, however, at the same time, in the series of articles it is stated that, first, it is possible for private education to coexist with public education and, second, that it is possible for people to participate in the financing of public education, not only through taxes, but directly through the payment of fees.
But at the core there is a third factor: traditionally, in the Colombian society, social services have not been fully envisaged, legitimated or appropriated by citizens as rights. Even health care, pensions and work are rather considered something a person can obtain through the individual effort in a market process and not as recognition of the collective needs that have to be addressed by the public service, which implies duties on the part of the State. After 20 years, this concept is still quite rooted in the Colombian society. Besides, the notion that when state services are free then they are nobody’s is part of the Colombian culture, and this fact is fundamental for understanding the absence of mass manifestations against school fees in Colombia. When we were carrying out the Campaign, we realized that paying for public school was considered normal by many families.
One justification was that by paying for education from their own pockets people would value the education public service much more. Then, behind it there is also a particular process of seizing the public with the specific cultural roots of the Colombian case, and I think this is the case of several Latin American countries. It is a type of State and society that need to be deconstructed.
Is it possible to attribute the fact that thousands of children have been excluded from school in Colombia to the lack of free education?
The Colombian case is noticeable because, despite being one of the countries with the largest revenues in the region, it still maintains quite mediocre rates in terms of school permanence and completion. Not so in terms of gross enrolment ratio, particularly in primary where it reaches the average for Latin America. The gross enrolment ratio, that is to say, enrolment in primary of people no matter their age, is higher than 100%. But in fact, 94% or 95% of the people with the corresponding age for primary attend school. The difference between the gross and the net rates shows that the people who are entering the education process are lagging behind in primary or being expelled. If one looks at the enrolment ratios in relation to secondary education, one will find that there is a difference of 20% when compared to primary; in the end, practically only six out of then children complete secondary education. Therefore it is evident that, after seeing the plainer statistics, there is a clear educational pyramid where people remain in primary for a long period of time, they do not complete it, drop-out, and in secondary they practically abandon the education process. When the causes of drop-out are analyzed by several surveys conducted periodically in Colombia, it is found that the first cause of drop-out lies in socio-economic factors, that is to say, families cannot afford the costs associated to enrolling and keeping their children at school.
What are fees like, what impact do they have on the life of students and their families?
In the case of Colombia, school fees are a part of all the associated costs. They constitute an important part because we are talking about US$ 30 to US$ 50 per year, per student. This amount is the equivalent of one month’s income for a low-income family with an average of three children. Lowest-income families would have to allocate one tenth of their annual income to pay for school fees and education services alone. If we add the costs associated to school transport, school meals, uniforms and school backpack, we find that the associated costs exceed two months of families’ salaries; therefore, clearly these costs cannot be afforded by the lowest-income families. So at first there is a link between costs, impossibility to afford them and school drop-out. Secondly, there are many schools where the charging of fees is important to finance the running of the school, and these schools are those attended by children of low-income families. These schools are located in specific regions of the country, in rural contexts or in urban contexts where public investment is not sufficient to ensure the adequate education conditions. It then turns out that the structural financing of education in the country, due to lack of sufficient resources, impacts on the citizens of areas of economic difficulty, which is utterly perverse and retrogressive in terms of the improvement of the conditions for the access to school of people with the lowest income. Actually, school fees per se show to be extremely retrogressive. Since they constitute a standing charge to be paid equally by all people, these represent a larger expenditure for the people with lowest income; it results in a retrogressive tax that ends up hitting the lowest-income families and makes much more inequitable the access to and the possibilities of succeeding in the education system.
What lessons resulting from the policy advocacy experience in Colombia can be shared with the civil society fighting for the right to education in other countries?
The first thing is precisely a change of mentality in the civic culture in relation to the role that each and every level of the State has to play in guaranteeing this right. The role of the State is that of fundamental guarantor of human rights, which implies that it has the responsibility of fulfilling distinct duties. These duties are not ethereal and are clearly stipulated in a quite broad international regulation, which is specific and repetitive. In the case of the signatory States of these agreements, there are juridical duties deriving from the instances of the International Courts on human rights. So, the first lesson for civil society and social mobilization is to understand that the State has duties and that those duties are as explicit as the fact that they cannot charge school fees. This first lesson is vital; if citizens do not understand this fact, there will be no effective advocacy. The development of a successful campaign is not achieved by juridical or technical arguments alone. In public policy quite the opposite happens; changes are possible because of the grassroots and the choice of a human rights culture on the part of the social grassroots. This is the first lesson and it involves a change in education, in pedagogy, in the civil society and in the culture.
The second lesson revolves about the importance of interlinking a large amount of knowledge to the advocacy process and to the social organization process - and that knowledge is scattered. The national coalitions have the huge task of linking this expertise in universities and research centers with the civil society’s demands for its rights, which means to give political use to the knowledge produced by society itself.
A third lesson revolves precisely around the fact that the international level is vital. The conflicts that happen around the realization of the economic and social rights – in terms of the distribution of wealth or the reorganization and regulation of the economic processes (for instance, up to what point would the private companies go and where does the public responsibility of ensuring and providing rights begin) – are not solved only in the national sphere. Quite the opposite, they can be solved in the national space only if the civil society joins the struggle and is empowered at international level as well. This involves mapping and knowing a large number of stakeholders with capabilities, expertise, connections, even capacity for political mobilization at international level and juridical instances such as the international courts on human rights that begin to play a decisive role in solving certain conflicts in favor of the primacy of human rights.
Every juridical decision, and above all at jurisprudence level, has also a strongly marked political character. Being within rights at the time of filing a petition or making a demand is not enough; there must be a clear political pressure demanding that laws and jurisprudence have coherence and be in harmony with the international law.
Then, it’s all about breaking down the wall standing between academy and civil society, between the NGOs, international cooperation and trade unions; it’s about tearing down the walls standing between the regions and the center of our countries, between the national reality and the international networks. It’s about breaking down walls and forging bonds and this is precisely the reason why it is not enough to just establish successful projects on strategic litigation. In addition, our actions must contribute to strengthen civil society because deep down the debate revolves not around the law but around public policy. And public policy involves precisely all the steps that have to be taken after these decisions have been made such as, in the case of Colombia, to purely promote citizens’ participation, organization and capacity to influence on the decision-making of government’s proposals and on acting governments.
What are the challenges faced by the right to education in Colombia from now on?
I believe that what we did is a pilot process in particular, in other words, a small laboratory. But it is an experiment that shows in a specific scale that a mobilization forges bonds among different kinds of expertise, among several levels, among several types of organization. This mobilization allows fostering changes in terms of the State’s responsibility towards the human, economic and social rights. In the specific case of free education, the decision of the Court must be made the most of it politically so to promote a big debate on the issue addressed in the beginning: what is the responsibility of the State in the financing of education? Up to what point do free public services and educations go? What is the role of the private sector, if any, in the provision of the service? This should be done within the framework of a great social pedagogy, and within the framework of human rights in the specific case of education. There is a big space right not to make the most of the Court’s decision and open debates of major importance that surpass even the specific measure on free education. Moreover, we should continue to reflect upon how this type of strategy is a feedback for the social organization. The social mobilization nurtures from certain early victories and that energy and process generate the possibility of influencing on the State: precisely this fact can show civil society that there is a way, that social organization is feasible and that bonds can be forged -from grassroots to governments’ regulations. This is major challenge, not only for the Colombian Coalition for the Right to Education but, in general, it can pave ways for the social mobilization on human rights in Colombia.