The ripple effect: UNDP Bolivia’s journey into urban work in La Paz

UNDP Strategic Innovation
7 min readSep 22, 2021

By Diego Suárez Head of Experimentation Accelerator Lab UNDP Bolivia, Gricel Ávila Senior Coordinator UNDP Bolivia, and Jaime Fajardo (UNDP Strategic Innovation Unit)

UNDP Bolivia is one of nine UNDP offices who were a part of the first cohort of Deep Demonstrations. Deep Demos seek to build capabilities for UNDP and its partners to engage with complex policy issues holistically, gain better understanding of dynamics that drive the way systems work and design portfolios of interventions that are a better fit with those challenges.

Young people looking for a job. Photo: PNUD Bolivia Galery

La Paz is the seat of the National Government in Bolivia. With an altitude of 3.650 meters, it is one of the highest located cities in the world. The altitude variation, underground rivers, and mountain range all illustrate the city’s complex geography. According to the Instituto Nacional de Estadística del Estado Plurinacional de Bolivia (National Statistics institute of the Plurinational State of Bolivia), La Paz has an estimated population of 940.000 inhabitants — of which almost 60% are between 14 and 45 years old. The relationship between rurality and the city resulted in an accelerated process of population growth linked to the Aymara culture, which is reflected in its traditions, clothing, gastronomy, cultural performances, and others. Informality is an important characteristic of economic and social life in the city. In fact, Bolivia’s rate of informality ranges from 65% to 85%, depending on how one measures it. The multiplicity of choices for value creation and jobs as well as social protection for different groups of the population varies and with it the society’s ability to withstand (and thrive) shocks like the pandemic.

In the Deep Demo, our intention was to dig deeper and understand complex relationships and dynamics of the La Paz population and work opportunities with a view to craft a portfolio of interventions that would seek to expand those options especially focusing on women and youth.

Our dive into the underlying dynamics of life in La Paz kicked off with over 40 interviews with people from all walks of life. We learned a lot of these interviews. For instance, a recurrent message was that “there is a diversity of actors working within the city, developing individual actions to improve city conditions” and “cultural heritage is an important asset that defines the structure of the context, which is perceptible at the moment urban dynamics are analyzed”. Through these conversations we began to better appreciate the underpinning elements of the city and the dynamics that happen within it. Based on these insights we developed what we call a problem space, which allowed us to actually visually grasp La Paz along some fundamental dimensions and social structures. This was a useful way for us to navigate what can otherwise seem like a complex messy context.

Looking into the problem space and the dynamics between the different axes, we were able to begin to identify the important role played by young people and women in the urban economy. We could also appreciate how La Paz is a setting where diverse cultures interact and how some of this cultural heritage is applied in citizens’ daily activities. In this system, informality appeared not as the exception but as the main feature. Under this informality scope, we noticed a wealth of resources: dynamic women and young people, cultural heritage, resource flows, businesses, and networks.

However, we were still looking for some of the entry points that may help bring the different elements in the system together in a more productive way. These entry points were not a matter of shifting the current socio-economic system from an informal to a formal model (which is where most current policies focus). Rather, they were about seeing opportunities for improving the welfare of the populations that live in the city. To help us move this forward, we used a tool called the City Stencil. The stencil is a useful aid that helped us to recognize the main areas of the city, identify where key interactions happen, and see what the drivers of change might be. From this process we learned how to position different elements within the system and see their interactions. This was useful for us because it allowed us to see where there is more energy within the system, and to use this intel to decide entry points for enabling change. Most critically, it allowed us to craft the north start of our efforts, a strategic intent that provides a direction of our efforts in the city to rethink the meeting and structure of work in the city of La Paz (see below).

Our intent statement includes the UNDP country office capabilities and resources as an international organization that is able to identify and connect a variety of stakeholders in the city and infuse local collaboration with new knowledge and perspectives from the outside. The co-creative process of articulating and refining an intent, pushed us to discuss and better appreciate the resources and capabilities that UNDP’s Country Office can offer — understanding that UNDP Bolivia is not exclusively rooted in this specific country but is connected to a global policy network.

City of La Paz, Bolivia. Photo: Diego Suárez

The hot spots within our policy space (aka areas of interest)

Within this space, we observe areas that feature a lot of energy and interaction, spaces that attract people and groups, investment and resources that generate new dynamics, opportunities and risks. It is here, within these spaces, that we want to position ourselves and engage with the system to learn how we might be able to open more opportunities for value creation and jobs for citizens of La Paz. Five areas came up as very clear hot spots:

  • Work Narratives:, We would like to make local heroes visible so that their success stories are accessible and tangible for other young people. These local heroes will help bring an attractive perspective of entrepreneurship for young people and encourage them to be agents of change, for the empowerment of young people.
  • Entrepreneurship by Default: Entrepreneurship is relevant for the city as long as it allows the economy to grow, diversify and generate better work opportunities for young and women. For this to happen, it is important to facilitate the conditions and environment for entrepreneurship to surface naturally.
  • Culture as an asset: This is relevant for La Paz because this city is characterized by much employment being related to the public sector and services. Looking at culture as an option allows people to diversify their employment options by the acknowledging the cultural, creative and gastronomically related activities that offer growth opportunities.
  • Transformative Partnerships: Renewed work opportunities need resilient business models to be sustainable over time. Alliances that incentivize the emergence of adaptive business models coming from the ecosystem convened by the creative economy booster will play an important role in how the city expands its scope of influence nationally, regionally and globally.
  • Next Generation Policy Making: Renewed work opportunities need anticipatory governance models to prevent potential scaling risks. We look to explore a consensus building collaboratory that enables the creation of spaces where youth and women participate in collective decision-making and action and provides the continuous engagement needed to be prepared for the dynamic future of work.

These areas of interest have given us a sense of the general “zones” in the system where there is interest from us and energy in the system. It is here that we will design and ‘place’ a series of interconnected interventions that in combination seek to open up more opportunities. These interventions are structured elements that will enable change within the system. Importantly, these options are not separate from each other, instead they approach the system as a coherent set of engagements and will help us to have a comprehensive portfolio that is able to engage with the system more holistically and adapt over time.

Though we have in this process focused on developing an offer for La Paz, this way of working has already permeated other developments of the Country Office. For instance, we are using some of the thinking and processes from the process above in engagement with other cities and projects in collaboration with the national government. It appears that our partners find the way we have structured the problem space as a valuable tool to generate (pump out) a series of responses and engagements across different cities in Bolivia, while keeping them coherent to the strategic intent — our water pump metaphor that Luca Gatti of Chora Foundation devised.

This is generating a ripple effect in the office and beyond that we expect will improve the way we approach and work on development issues. We will talk more about this in our next blog where we will also present our positions and options (interventions) for the La Paz portfolio.

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