Is Colombia rich or poor

Photo report
Being poor in Berlin and Bogotá

In two countries that are as different as Colombia and Germany, poverty and its social consequences, if you look closely, don't seem to be all that different.

According to the World Bank, people live in “absolute poverty” when they cannot afford to meet their basic needs: i.e. housing, food, health care and drinking water. In quantitative terms, one speaks of an income that is less than 1.25 dollars per day. Around the world, around 1.2 billion people live in absolute poverty. And in countries like Colombia, the numbers are reaching frightening proportions. In affluent societies like the German one, there is hardly any absolute poverty. Yet financial disadvantage can lead to social exclusion which is just as worrying as it is in the developing world. Some impressions from the very bottom.

  • Photo: Berlin: Jana Burbach / Bogotá: Sebastián Osorno
    Sleep on the street.

    According to information from the National Statistical Office (DANE), 368,200 Bogotans live in absolute poverty or homelessness. Across Colombia, the proportion of people living below the poverty line was 10.4% in 2012.

  • Photo: Berlin: Jana Burbach / Bogotá: Sebastián Osorno

    You don't have to sleep on the street in Germany. This is a common prejudice that is only partially true. Unemployed people can receive unemployment benefit, which also pays them a moderate rent. However, many are overwhelmed with self-sufficiency or looking for an apartment and cannot keep a home of their own. These people are still entitled to a place to sleep in a dormitory - but places are limited; the number of homeless people in Berlin, a city of 3.4 million people, is estimated at 11,000. In summer they sleep in urban areas, in winter there are around 20 emergency shelters for them. Anyone who wants to can spend the night here. In the meantime, however, the emergency facilities are overwhelmed by the increasing number of those seeking help. The Berlin City Mission near Berlin Central Station, for example, pursues the ideal of not sending anyone away. As a result, however, it is often used up to 300 percent.

  • Photo: Berlin: Jana Burbach / Bogotá: Sebastián Osorno
    Concrete and emptiness.

    In Germany, poverty begins with a monthly income of 869 euros for singles and 1,826 euros for a family with two children. This is called “relative poverty” because the limit is based on median income. In Berlin, one of the poorest cities in Germany, every fifth person is at risk of poverty, unemployment was 11.9 percent at the beginning of 2013. “Gentrification” is often mentioned in connection with poverty in Berlin: the process that low-income citizens from popular residential areas of the city be displaced due to rising prices. Since the fall of the Wall, 80% of the population in the Prenzlauer Berg district of Berlin, for example, has exchanged views. One of the cheaper peripheral areas in the east is Marzahn-Hellersdorf with its notorious prefabricated housing estates, which are often - often wrongly - associated with unemployment and social neglect.

  • Photo: Berlin: Jana Burbach / Bogotá: Sebastián Osorno
    Living on the garbage

    In a city without an official recycling system, waste is valuable. In Bogotá, the so-called “Recicladores” are part of the daily cityscape: whole families who collect recyclable material on the streets and thus - without the residents perceiving it, let alone appreciating it - making an important contribution to environmental protection. Edgar, 54 years old, began 20 years ago after the police had confiscated the goods he was selling as a hawker on the streets of Bogotá and thus deprived him of all livelihoods to earn a living from recycling. You can earn between 10,000 and 20,000 pesos (4-8 euros) by collecting plastic in Bogotá. Given the very high cost of living in the city, this amount is impossible to cover just basic needs. To live on garbage means to survive.

  • Photo: Berlin: Jana Burbach / Bogotá: Sebastián Osorno
    > 25 cents.

    In Germany too, people are fishing from the garbage. Since the introduction of the bottle deposit in 2003 - you get 8 cents for glass bottles, up to 25 cents for plastic bottles - informal bottle collecting has become very widespread in Germany. “In the beginning it was homeless, then Hartz IV recipients. Meanwhile, normal pensioners collect the bottles. They copied it from the homeless ”, recently declared a social worker in a Berlin newspaper. In Berlin there are more and more old-age poor for whom their pension is simply not enough.

  • Photo: Berlin: Jana Burbach / Bogotá: Sebastián Osorno
    Completely different.

    The social differences in Colombia are serious, wealth and extreme poverty coexist in parallel worlds in one and the same place. In order to measure income inequality in a country, the “Gini coefficient” was introduced: 0 marks the perfect equal distribution (all citizens have the same income), 1 corresponds to the absolute inequality (one person has everything, the other nothing). The Gini coefficient for Colombia was 0.54 in 2012; for Germany at 0.31.

  • Photo: Berlin: Jana Burbach / Bogotá: Sebastián Osorno
    "Felt poverty"

    the World Bank calls the kind of poverty that cannot be directly linked to income limits. The term refers to people who consider themselves “poor” because of social exclusion or discrimination or who live in fear of a worsening economic situation.

  • Photo: Berlin: Jana Burbach / Bogotá: Sebastián Osorno
    Eternal exploitation.

    Millions of people in developing and emerging countries have informal jobs: street vendors, workers in restaurants and hotels who work independently, but without secure contracts, outside the legal framework and usually without the right to health care and pension insurance. In Colombia, more than 50% of the working population live under these conditions, according to official figures (the unions say it is a much higher proportion). That says a lot about the difficulties on the labor market and the social contrasts in Colombia: half of the informal workers in Colombia have a school leaving certificate, 58% of them are women.

  • Photo: Berlin: Jana Burbach / Bogotá: Sebastián Osorno
    Ugly words, real challenges.

    Romanians and Bulgarians have been able to search for work in Germany without restriction since the beginning of 2014. The CSU warned of the consequences of so-called “poverty migration” and conjured up the end of the welfare state: these people would only come to receive state benefits. The reality is more complex. Every EU citizen has the right to work in Germany and there are limits to the receipt of social benefits for every EU citizen from abroad. The challenges are real - and considerable. It is estimated that 180,000 Romanians and Bulgarians will move to Germany in 2014 - and unfortunately live there under often extremely precarious conditions.

  • Photo: Berlin: Jana Burbach / Bogotá: Sebastián Osorno
    The body as currency.

    Prostitution is not always necessarily associated with poverty. But in districts of female and transgender prostitution, like the dreaded Santafé neighborhood in Bogotá, life is aggressive and difficult. The statistics are untrustworthy: prostitution is not considered socially acceptable work here. Their marginal character poses a health hazard and risks, as does violence. The current city government has done a lot to promote social inclusion better and to regulate prostitution appropriately. Still, there is still a lot to be done.

  • Photo: Berlin: Jana Burbach / Bogotá: Sebastián Osorno

    There are significantly fewer homeless women than men in Germany. However, the situation of women is generally much more precarious. According to the Federal Employment Agency, 40 percent of all single mothers in Germany live on unemployment benefit II. Their situation on the labor market is made more difficult by the fact that they can hardly combine family and work, but also by the fact that potential employers often have prejudices against single women In old age, women are more likely to be affected by poverty, as when they have worked less, they also receive fewer pensions. After 45 years in a “mini-job” (or 450 Euro job), a person would only be entitled to a pension of 140 Euro per month in old age - which is by no means enough to live on in Germany. Around 7 million people in Germany currently have a mini-job. Of these, just under 4.65 million were women in mid-2011.

  • Photo: Berlin: Jana Burbach / Bogotá: Sebastián Osorno
    Life quality.

    How far does the term “poverty” go? Even if the official unemployment rate in Bogotá was 7.8% at the end of 2013, a large part of the working population only earns the minimum wage (which is 616,000 pesos per month, which corresponds to about 225 euros). The unions describe the minimum wage as far too low and inadequate, considering not only the high cost of living in Bogotá, but also the country's economic growth. According to official figures, almost 12% of the people in Bogotá live in financial difficulties. Thousands of working people in Bogotá depend on public transport every day. The largest transport company with spacious buses and fixed stops, TransMilenio, carries 2.6 million passengers every day. However, as is confirmed by every journey in rush hour traffic, as well as by the repeated demonstrations by citizens on the routes and at the stops of this transport system - a system that was only inaugurated in 2000 - TransMilenio has major problems and no longer seems sufficient for them to be this city. According to the latest surveys, 60.5% of passengers are dissatisfied with the transport system.

  • Photo: Berlin: Jana Burbach / Bogotá: Sebastián Osorno
    The labyrinth of solitude.

    In Germany nobody needs to go hungry thanks to government support for the unemployed. But the personal drama that “being poor” entails is the same as everywhere else in the world: social marginalization. Many homeless people are in Berlin's subway stations. Here they have a roof over their heads and a shadow economy has developed in the train stations, which is based on the sale of homeless newspapers and tickets that have already been validated but are still valid. The subway stations are one of everything: spaces of constant human passage, where lonely poor - be it only fleetingly - can escape their loneliness.



Photos / Text: Jana Burbach is a dramaturge and writer of scripts for film and television. For the GoetheMagazin Colombia she ventured into life in the border area of ​​Berlin as a reporter.
Sebastian Osorno is a historian and is currently studying visual anthropology and media at the Free University of Berlin, which he combines with photography and video.

Translation: Kathrin Dehlan
Copyright: Goethe-Institut Colombia
February 2014

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