An unusual alliance that has brought together multinational business and international aid with the local public and private sectors is set to test the social impact of outsourcing with a bold new project in Colombia’s Afro-Colombian heartland.
Last week, Spanish-language outsourcing specialists Atento threw open the doors to a new 110-seat call center in the city of Quibdo, capital of the poverty-stricken department of Choco. The new call center will provide services for multi-national telecommunications giants Telefonica/Movistar.
The call center is the result of an agreement struck last year between the United States foreign aid agency USAID and the National Association of Colombian Businessmen (Andi) to develop new and innovative approaches to improve economic opportunities for one of Colombia’s most marginalized minorities – Afro-Colombians. “We wanted to do something unprecedented,” said Santiago Pinzon, the executive director of Andi’s BPO and IT Chamber.
The Afro-Colombian population not only endures high unemployment and poverty levels but also suffers disproportionately from the violence and displacement of Colombia’s internal armed conflict. As a result, the population has been the focus of USAID’s Afro-Colombian and Indigenous Program (ACIP), a 5-year scheme designed to address these issues, which began in 2011.
The program has focused on areas such as land rights, institution building, training and employment. Over $4.5 million of the budget has been directed toward Choco, and nearly $2 million of that is dedicated to strengthening access to economic opportunities.
Impact on Outsourcing
For Pinzon, whatever the underlying causes of the population’s problems, these economic opportunities are key to improving the situation. “It is something that is very close to impact sourcing – it is not social responsibility but it is competiveness instead,” he said.
The organizations settled on the BPO and ITO sectors as the best mechanism to drive the program and attracted their private sector partners with funding from USAID and promises of extensive public sector support – including a training program for candidates run by Colombia’s government run job creation and training body, SENA.
The program appealed to Atento as it allowed the company to deepen its strategic ties to Telefonica/Movistar while offering the opportunity to act on its stated social responsibility policies, according to the company’s Colombia Director Alberto Castaneda. “Inclusion and diversity are part of our policies and this was a good opportunity to make that policy reality,” he said.
Quibdo was selected as the site for the new call center as a city that epitomizes the issues that plague the Afro-Colombian population. The city has a population of approximately 100,000 people, around 90% of which are Afro-Colombian and over half of which came to the city in the last 20 years after being displaced by violence elsewhere in the region. Unemployment hovers around the 20% mark, while underemployment and poverty levels are much higher.
Quibdo & Afro-Colombians
Development in Quibdo and the surrounding region has also been stymied by endemic political corruption. For 20 years, politics in the region was a closed shop, run by the Sanchez de Oca family, members of which have faced various investigations for corruption and ties to paramilitary groups. However, this changed in 2011 with the election of current Mayor Zuila Muna, a long-time campaigner for Afro-Colombian rights who has worked closely with the other organizations in bringing the new call center to Quibdo.
The issue of security is also an ongoing concern in the city, where both the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia as well as drug trafficking paramilitary groups maintain a presence. However, those involved in setting up the project have been working with the Ministry of Defense on security issues and it is not something that has worried Atento. “It is very safe,” said Castaneda.
Although Quibdo’s social issues have created numerous challenges for implementing the new call center project, they also represent an opportunity, according to Castaneda. “For us it has been very convenient to set up in populations with high unemployment,” he said. “It favors us because there is not the possibility of attrition [and] they are more committed to the work, and, on the other side, we benefit the community because we represent a source of employment.”
The number of people eager to join a professional workforce in the region also leaves some room for growth, Castaneda said, although the comparatively shallow pool of workers educated to a degree level and with professional experience imposes limitations on how far the operation could be scaled up. “We can’t do a thousand seats, but we would like to be able to expand,” he said.
For the moment, Santiago Pinzon is satisfied with the 110 seats in Quibdo and the prospect of more jobs in similar schemes around the country. Pinzon believes these schemes will help demonstrate in measurable ways how Colombia’s outsourcing boom can have an impact on social development in the country. “We are basically incorporating a new way to promote economic development in the city,” he said. “But what we also want to do is develop clear tangible results on the impact of outsourcing on Colombia.”