Democratic arenas need mutual learning

Sociological jurisprudence expert, Ana Maria Vargas, aged 34, came to Sweden from Colombia eight years ago to complete a Master’s degree in developmental studies.
“My studies and my curiosity about Sweden as a state and its welfare system were what drew me here,” says Ana Maria.

What motivates you now?
“I know that ICLD and other aid organisations are driven by the overall goal of making a difference in the world. As a researcher, I can, perhaps, bring a fresh approach and inspire the organisation in a way that progresses their work.”

What is needed to ensure the success of ICLD’s work?
“I’d focus on two groups – women and young people in local democratic arenas. When I think of the future, I see young people and women as the bearers of our important messages. That’s where the hope lies.”

In her homeland of Colombia, she worked on ways of including the individual in the shared inclusive urban development plan by means of, amongst other things, a comprehensive study of street vendors and rickshaw drivers in Bogotá.
“The law is a blunt tool when it comes to “black” work and begging. The legal system needs to be more flexible and to focus on the worst infringements,” says Ana Maria.

Approximately 60% of the world’s population of working age work outside the formal economy: they pay no tax and have no access to social insurance. Attempts to shrink the informal sector often founder, even where efforts in this respect are a prioritised issue.
“I wanted to find out why this was the case – why so many people elect to continue working in the “black economy”, even when they’re given the opportunity to work in the official one.

Many of those interviewed cited freedom as an important reason for continuing to work as street vendors or rickshaw drivers. Other jobs, the majority of them in the service sector, were perceived as having many disadvantages.
Not only do these jobs mean answering to a boss, they often also entail working “black” anyway.
“But that whole ‘freedom’ thing actually tallies pretty badly with their actual circumstances,” says Ana Maria Vargas. “Some of the street vendors and virtually all of the rickshaw drivers are exploited by organisations that take a cut of their earnings.”
Ana Maria also worked in Colombia with an anti-corruption programme to try and reduce corruption levels.

You can read a summary of Ana Maria’s book “An ethnographic study of street vendors in Bogotá” here:

What do you feel you can do in ICLD?
“I’m hoping to bring a southern perspective. We need to look at the situation with different eyes if we are to identify the best solution.”
Ana Maria Vargas sees injustices, inequalities, and unfair methods, and she reacts. It doesn’t matter whether it affects her personally, or people in general. Everyone has rights.

Her involvement in ICLD began during the political debate week in Almedalen a few years ago, which she attended as a representative of the Swedish National Union of Students (SFS), where she argued that doctoral candidates’ working hours should be registered like everyone else’s.
Nowadays, she works as a Research Director at ICLD’s Knowledge Centre.
“ICLD offers a perfect environment for a researcher. We translate research into practical work, so for a researcher interested in social change and the ability to influence how things really work, ICLD is ideal.”

What goals do you have for your work at ICLD?
“We’re working with issues and challenges in municipalities, both in Sweden and elsewhere in the world. As a Research Director, I want to be involved in the majority of issues relating to local democracy.”
“The solution might not be found in-house at ICLD, but in the outside world, so maintaining discussions and involvement by the people who know and have experience of these issues is vital to our development.”

Is this, in a sense, a way of converting western help into self-help?
“Yes, we’re working to improve local democracy. It’s not like building a house: it’s about building changes in attitudes, rules, and systems. Everyone has equal rights, but even something that seemingly self-evident is not at all self-evident in every country.”

Motivating individuals, getting them to fight their corner, isn’t exactly straightforward. ICLD has a Swedish model: how does it work in other countries?
“I don’t think it’s about the goal: it’s about the path to that goal. About processes. Processes can be good or bad, whether they’re in Sweden or in Zimbabwe. Look at gender differences or disabilities, for example: the cultural attitudes to these things in other countries are completely different from ours, and we have to tread carefully,” says Ana Maria.

What are the biggest challenges you face?
“Interpreting the researchers: there are challenges in that, but also in the way we present our proposed solutions. We don’t have readymade answers: we want to discuss options until we find the solutions that work best for them.