From 2014 to 2017 Lisa Picott served in the Civil Peace Service with AGIAMONDO in Colombia. Her work involved the planning, monitoring, evaluation, and coordination of projects. She then stayed on in Columbia until 2019 – working in “ProPaz”, a GIZ programme, which focuses on conflict transformation and peacekeeping. Her task was to support local communities in implementing the peace agreement. Lisa Picott now lives in Cologne and works for forumZFD.
Ms Picott, what led you to take an interest in Latin America? And what inspired you to undertake civil peace service there?
When I was young, I already worked with youth groups and in my local church. I was particularly interested in social issues, which is why I decided to go and do social work in a hospital in Ecuador. I went abroad several times after that and saw how privileged a lot of people are. You can see evidence of colonial history, for example, and the impact that it still has on people’s lives today. I’m keen to work on raising people’s awareness of these issues.
I already had a special affinity towards Latin America even before I went to work in Colombia. In the first place, this was a consequence of my social service in Ecuador. And then I also studied Latin American Studies and spent an overseas semester in Colombia. This gave me first-hand experience of how conflict and its effects can polarise a society. I was very moved by this experience and asked myself how such divisions might be overcome. That’s why I decided to study peace and conflict research in Spain, and then to pursue the path of a professional peace worker, first with AGIAMONDO and then with the GIZ.
How did people react when you decided to go and work in Colombia?
My family was very supportive. They asked questions and took an interest in my work and the situation in Colombia.
But I’ve encountered a lot of prejudice as well – even in my own circle of acquaintances. People exclaim, “Good grief! You're going to Colombia?” A lot of people just think of the civil war and drug cartels. They often overlook the fact that it’s a country that a lot of people love and that many people like to live there. And it is one of the countries on our planet which supply Germany with a lot of raw materials.
When you go to work there, you get to see a lot of things from a completely different angle. And the question arises, for example, as to what development really means. When I look at Colombia, there was often better Internet access “in the middle of nowhere” than there is in some parts of Germany. How do we define development? Which countries are more developed? Is it just about technology and economics? Or should we also take account of how creative people are? And how much energy they put into things?
What was your experience of returning to Germany – as regards your private life as well as your working life?
In my life outside of work, I soon experienced a bit of culture shock. I found myself confronted by the incredible variety of goods and services on offer in this consumer society, for example. This already hit me when I was looking for an apartment and buying furniture. In Colombia I lived very simply in the countryside. And then in Germany – to give a somewhat mundane example – you can’t just simply go and buy a mattress. You have to choose between 20 different types and designs. I just wasn’t used to that anymore. On the other hand, I can now spend more time with my nephews and with the family. And I can explore new avenues where there might be opportunities for me to contribute something of my experiences and thoughts from my time in Colombia.
As regards my work situation, I was very fortunate when I returned to Germany, because each contract was followed straight away by another one. During my period of service, I subscribed to various newsletters and kept myself informed about the job market in Germany. I came across an advert for a job at forumZFD which seemed to fit me very well – both the job and the location, ... I applied and got the job. I’m now responsible for planning, monitoring, and evaluation (PM&E). That was one of my main areas of work, when I was with AGIAMONDO in Colombia.
I also know from colleagues, though, that it can take rather longer to find a job and that it’s difficult for some people to find a job in Germany after working abroad, despite having broad-ranging professional experience.
You lived and worked in Colombia for a number of years. Have you felt any kind of homesickness for the country that you were deployed in? And how do you look back on your service today?
Yes, I am sometimes homesick for Colombia. It’s a beautiful country. And sometimes I feel a bit torn. I don’t feel purely German anymore, but I’ve never felt that I’m Colombian, though. I keep in touch with my old project, mostly through social media. And I try to visit Colombia when I can. I’m also now a member of Aktion Pro Colombia, a support organisation here in Germany, and I’m involved in that on a voluntary basis.
When I look back at my period of service, I rate it very highly. I now have a huge network of all sorts of different people not only in Colombia but all around the world. That’s worth a lot! And I was very lucky to have a whole load of valuable experiences. I learned a lot. And I guess I brought rather more back with me from Colombia than I was able to take there.
The interview was conducted as part of the AGdD Tracer Study 2022 for the publication "Die Welt im Gepäck. Returned professionals from the development service in the years 2011-2022". The interview was conducted by Dieter Kroppenberg.