Berkley professor explains poverty self help strategies at Humanities luncheon

Mark Healey, assistant professor of history at the University of California, Berkley, presented on the large population shift from rural villages to urban centers in Colombia and how the country has modernized (Zhelun Lang/Daily Campus)

Mark Healey, an assistant professor of history at the University of California Berkley gave a presentation on post-World War II efforts to modernize Colombia on Tuesday, as part of the Humanities Institute faculty luncheon.

The presentation entitled “The Shelter of Expertise: Self Help, Social Science and State Building at Colombia’s International Housing Lab 1951-1961” discussed the efforts that came in lieu of a large population shift from rural villages to urban centers. 

This shift came from the 1948-58 civil war in Colombia between liberal and conservative parties, known as “La Violencia.” The conflict, which mostly took place in the countryside, displaced nearly a million people and killed many more.

Refugees began pouring into colonial-era urban centers such as Colombia’s capital Bogota.  However, much of downtown Bogota had been destroyed during riots following the 1948 assassination of the liberal presidential candidate Jorge Eliecer Gaitan. Colombia was in drastic need of modernization. Also, in 1948 the Organization of American States (OAS) was founded for the purposes of regional solidarity and cooperation among its member state.  

The OAS incorporated the Inter-American Housing Center of Colombia (CINVA).  CINVA’s goal was to modernize Colombia, beginning with housing; especially in the rural countryside hamlets, but eventually in peripheral urban areas as well. Other Latin American efforts to modernize during the Cold War, such as Brazil’s focus on the military, were characterized by government decrees, unrealistic expectations and unwilling populations.  

CINVA’s approach was unique in that the organization was comprised of a cadre of housing experts including anthropologists, sociologists, architects and engineers from around the world.  For example, Leonard Curry, CINVA’s first director and communist dissident, held past credentials such as New Deal veteran and U.S. Navy Seabee in the Pacific during World War II.  Many other members of CINVA were graduates from Colombia’s International University. 

“Colombia became a laboratory for ambitious programs of state-led modernization,” Healey explained.  

CINVA’s employed a strategy known as “aided self-help.”  This strategy ensured that although funds, resources and basic infrastructure which were required for the construction of new communities were provided by the state, the inhabitants of the community did the actual work. 

CINVA housing experts were sent into the field to study rural Colombian hamlets and use them as a model for a template for what modern housing should look like. 

Colombia was a country where 95 percent of rural homes had dirt floors, 98 percent were without latrines and virtually every home lacked running water.  These living spaces had to be economically realistic and serve many functions in order to accommodate the needs and dynamics of different households.  Field researchers also concluded that the only space available for communal meetings in most of these villages was the church, and the only figure of authority was the priest. 

It was speculated that the establishment of municipal buildings was essential to the modernization process.  Design contests yielded blueprints for generic but accommodating domiciles and municipal facilities that could be constructed using a manual brick-press called the CINVA-RAM.  The bricks were pressed out of a cheap but reliable material call suelo-crete, a mixture of concrete and fine dirt which was very similar, yet more reliable than traditional adobe.  

The modernization process in Colombia was thwarted, partially, by a coup d’état in 1953 and the deeply fractured state institutions. However, CINVA succeeded in rethinking Colombian society after La Violencia by teaching how to build in more sanitary ways and emphasizing strong core amenities like modern roofs, windows, latrines and running water. 

CINVA also succeeded in training a community of young Colombian professionals and academics in the field at a time when there were virtually no options for graduate studies in Colombia.  These men and women would become the “new technocrats of a democratic Colombia.”


Eric Mooney is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at eric.mooney@uconn.edu.