Transforming Colombia

I gave a keynote lecture on “Enterprise Transformation” at the Logistics International Congress last Wednesday in Bogota, Colombia.  I also listened to several other talks from government officials in various ministries, as well as a few academics.  I spent quite a bit of time talking with a wide range of people.  Overall, I learned much more about Colombia than I did about supply chains and logistics.

I should put my report in context.  Bogota is a city of 8-9 million people living at an elevation of 8,612 feet on a high plane, surrounded by the Andes Mountains.  Although not far from the equator, the altitude results in moderate temperatures year round.  Colombia has a small upper class (5%), a growing middle class (30%) and an enormous lower class (65%).  Income disparities in Colombia, as assessed using the Gini Coefficient, were the highest in Latin America in 2009.

Colombia’s main exports are agricultural products (e.g., coffee), and commodity natural resources (e.g., coal, gas, minerals).  (Brazil, in contrast, exports airplanes, as well as agricultural products and natural resources.)  Agriculture and mining employ much manual labor, but much of this employment is low-wage “informal jobs.”

Colombia is one of the CIVETS countries, which includes Colombia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Egypt, Turkey, and South Africa.  These countries are in similar stages of economic development.  Ahead of them are the BRIC countries – Brazil, Russia, India, and China.

National goals, according to several ministries’ spokespersons, are represented by a triangle linking three interrelated objectives: more employment, less poverty, and more security.  They recognize that achieving these goals depends on education.  This poses a couple of challenges.

The high school dropout rate is 20-25% in Colombia, compared to 31% in the United States.  However, because school is only required through the 5th grade, the poor are disproportionately affected.  Many 10 year olds must leave school to go to work to help their families, which tends to perpetuate poverty.  Colombians who are able to attend universities and obtain advanced degrees find a different problem – under-employment and unemployment.

Given the nature of the Congress, there was much discussion of transforming infrastructure related to transportation, innovation, and sustainability.  One presentation indicated nine “technoparques” focused on biotech, nanotech, and other engineering endeavors.

The Ministry of Transportation reported that Colombia ranks lowest among CIVETS countries in terms of “mobility infrastructure” – roads, bridges, railroads, airports, etc.  Colombia is also behind Brazil and Chile, with the costs of mobility quite high in Colombia.  This makes Colombia’s oil, gas, minerals, and agricultural products less competitive.  They are working to get investments, regulations, etc. better aligned with decreasing mobility costs.  They are also working to be more responsive to the damage and destruction of their transportation infrastructure due to major rains and flooding in the area.

Colombia is trying to revive its railroad system, which accounts for nearly zero percent of exports, despite having exports ideally suited to railway transport rather than trucks, for example.  In side conversations, it was noted that the trucking industry has done its best to hinder revival of the railroads.  I also learned that the railroads are deficient across Latin America.  Paul Theroux’s superb travelogue, “The Old Patagonia Express,” wonderfully depicts the state of these railroads.  This book was my companion during this trip.

The Deputy Minister of Transportation also discussed the need to enhance urban mobility.  She indicated that strikes have impeded modernization of the urban transportation system.  Colombia’s average commute time in its urban transportation systems is worst among CIVETS countries.  Road safety, especially traffic-related deaths, is a also major issue.  I was glad to have a driver for my jaunts around Bogota as the traffic was very chaotic and required a seasoned person at the wheel.

The Ministry of Trade reported that Colombia is ranked seventh in Latin America in terms of transportation and logistics infrastructure – Chile is first.  He outlined a variety of initiatives aimed at improving Colombia’s standing.  Despite these many initiatives, one participant told me that the government is not “high velocity.”  Another participant mentioned that the government is strong on planning but weak on execution.

Overall, Colombia’s transformation intentions seem quite well articulated, but progress is very slow.  Many major stakeholders appear to feel entitled to the status quo – as my recent posts indicate, this is common in the United States as well.  This includes politicians, business owners, and the broad, poorly educated working class.  Stability, only recently achieved, is coveted much more greatly than the uncertainties and likely displacements of any leaps in economic development.

One person suggested that Colombians do not like change.  I said it seemed to me that over the past decades Colombia has seen much change, and most of it has had negative consequences.   Thus, despite enthusiasm for new leaders at the federal and city level, Colombians may be justifiably hesitant to embrace the changes being discussed.  From extensive discussions with many people, my guess is that the optimists will prevail.

The city of Bogota is vibrant and exciting.  There are many wonderful things to see, often in the midst of the chaos of road traffic and, in some older neighborhoods, a little grime.  The original old city in La Candelaria contrasts with the upscale Business District (a bit west of the airport) and the exciting nightlife of Zona Rosa.  Monserrate at 10, 342 feet provides a wonderful view of the city from the Andes, as well as a quiet church and two good restaurants.  The Gold Museum and the Botero Museum provide glimpses into historical and contemporary Colombian culture.

Andres DC in Zona Rosa, and the original Andres in Chia, provide amazing restaurant experiences of food and music, with hundred to thousands of fun-loving Bogotanians all in the same restaurant, and décor drawn from the magical realism of Gabriel García Márquez.  The Salt Cathedral in Zipaquirá, a bit north of Chia, provides an amazing experience, especially for Catholics, of a cathedral and numerous chapels, all carved in an enormous salt mine dating from the fifth century BC.  The creation of the cathedral and chapels began in the 1930s to provide places of worship for the miners.

A highlight of this visit to Bogota was a FIFA World Cup soccer game between Colombia and South Korea, in which Colombia prevailed 1-0.  The view of the Andes from the stadium was awe-inspiring.  The logistics of entering and exiting the stadium left nothing to chance.  The security forces were numerous and quite helpful.  Everything was well kept and maintained.  Alcoholic beverages, that might encourage acting out, were not available.  I chatted with the Bogotanian sitting next to me about how well things were done.  He said that the government was determined to overcome Colombia’s image as an unsafe place and, thereby, attract tourists and business investment.  All in all, it was a great event – and we won!

Regarding safety, Colombia had become infamous for its drug wars and the associated violence.  This spring, however, the BBC reported that the International Narcotics Control Board dropped Colombia from its list of countries requiring special observation. Colombia was praised for strengthening its state institutions and its justice system, allowing it to control the supply and demand of drugs more effectively.  More recently, the Los Angeles Times reported, “Colombia’s Cali cocaine cartel, once the richest and most powerful crime syndicate in the world, fell as a direct result of U.S.-led law enforcement and diplomatic pressure about a decade ago. Its toppling remains one of the most significant blows inflicted on modern organized crime.”  The people with whom I discussed these developments were proud of these changes and look forward to many more visitors to Bogota as a result.

Economic development in Colombia may be slower than many would like, but transformation seems nascent.  The friendliness and good will of the many Colombians that I met surely will be the “secret sauce” in this quest for fundamental change. Their eagerness to advance in South America and the world, combined with their enthusiasm, as demonstrated by their passion for food, music, dance and, of course, soccer, will surely enable them to transform their country.


  1. Rufina Lauze says:

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  2. Akshay says:

    To give interia to fundamental change and to sustain its transformational force, Columbia has to empower its masses. It has break down the nature of social barriers of class and creed that are clearly visible in Columbia. The government has to reinvent its image to create trust among the masses.
    At present, I understand from the news reports that the government is feared by masses due to their aggressive policy of infrastructure development thru public private partnerships without respecting the “traditional” rights of the people. I have seen this happen in Indian and now the Indian government is battling the naxals (to quote our government “The greatest security threat to India”).
    Thus, this by itself is a mammoth task and I would love to see how Columbia does it.

  3. Andrew Pelts says:

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  4. alicia says:

    I hope columbia will be in the best shape for transformation.
    Such a nice country.

  5. Omar Yasseen says:

    Colombia is such a beautiful place i miss it. It gets so much bad press but when it comes down to it, it’s purely hype. there are a lot of Columbia in Florida.

  6. Jasmine says:

    I think tourism is going to grow exponentially in the next five years as more and more people find out what an amazing country Colombia is and how safe it is nowadays. Those who see an opportunity and run with it will be able to capitalize on the growth, so we may see some changes in that sector soon.

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