Left to right: Milena Galvis, Daniela Gutiérrez, Mateo Gutiérrez, and Jonny Gutiérrez enjoy the day in Comfama Arví Park. (Photograph courtesy of Comfama) 

I met Sergio Restrepo in a Colonial-era building known as el Claustro (the Cloister). It was a very early morning in late August, but the day was already sunny and warm, as most days are in Medellín, “the city of eternal spring.” As the director of the building, Restrepo led me through the inner patios, the secret passages to an adjacent church, and the convoluted staircases within the guts of the building.

The Cloister was originally built as a Franciscan convent in 1803, just seven years before Colombia’s independence. It was later transformed into a school run by the Jesuits, and then into a technological institute run by the police. But in 2008, Comfama took it over. Restrepo was leading the organization’s repurposing of the building.

He pointed now and again at things that he envisioned putting in place: Here a bridge would be constructed to connect with a nearby building. There would go a terrace café. Over there would be larger classrooms, more exhibition spaces, and a performance area at the back of the spacious first floor, with an elevated stage overlooking the main entrance. He was still waiting on permits from the city and drafting a plan to help revitalize its crime-ridden downtown, one of the city’s sketchiest areas.

A 63-year-old nonprofit organization, Comfama has seen the many ups and downs of Medellín. Now the second-largest city in Colombia, Medellín was a small mining town until the dawn of the 20th century, after which its population and economy grew. The city became infamous in the late 1970s and early 1980s for the violence created by the Pablo Escobar-led Medellín Cartel, fueled by the illegal drug trade. Since the 1990s, Medellín has also been one of the main destinations for the millions of people violently displaced by the Colombian conflict among left-wing guerrillas, right-wing paramilitary groups, and the Colombian government. But in the last decade, Medellín has enjoyed a renaissance, winning awards as a model city and transforming its image into that of a place for business, innovation, and tourism.

For many Paisas—as people from Antioquia, Colombia’s second department or district, refer to themselves—Comfama has become almost synonymous with social welfare in the city. Comfama is, more precisely, a caja de compensación (literally, a “compensation box”), a peculiarly Colombian type (although Chile has a similar version) of nonprofit, private organization that is financed, at least in part, by a sort of payroll tax. Employers in Colombia give a fixed part of their payroll to the caja system in fees, and with this money, employees can become “affiliate members” of the caja of their choosing that is available in their region. As long as they remain formally employed, and their employers continue to pay the fees, the affiliates (and their families) can access all of the services that their caja offers, wherever they are being offered.

Employees who become caja affiliates can expect financial, educational, work, and recreational benefits in return. Cajas build infrastructure, such as medical centers, recreational parks, cultural centers, athletic facilities, amusement parks, gyms, physical therapy centers, libraries, and more. They also create socially beneficial programs and let the community use them, usually for a small fee (and in many instances for free, if you are an affiliate member).

Restrepo’s grand ambitions for el Claustro represent the mind-set of Comfama: a big, hopeful, and optimistic vision that will still have to deal with the thorny realities of a city and country emerging from years of civil strife. Comfama is making a huge bet: trying to grow its services, its affiliates, and its finances; to expand into places with little infrastructure and sometimes little rule of law; and to maintain the connections and cohesion that make the whole organization work.

Some in the government and social sector see the administration of public funds via private entities as an anachronism; others see it as an effective safeguard against the inefficiency and corruption of the public sector. But the people working at Comfama are confident that they can be relevant for years to come. While Colombians have largely accepted cajas as a part of life, Comfama has set up an ambitious 10-year plan to expand its services throughout the region that they hope will help address the grave social problems in Medellín and Antioquia while ensuring the organization’s continued value. However, the cajas’ existence depends on special legal provisions, and while they are not currently in danger, their continuity will depend on convincing future governments and citizens of their usefulness.

The Birth of the Cajas

Comfama was the first caja created in Colombia. The cajas de compensación system began in 1954, when Medellín businesspeople—mainly from companies that went on to form a powerful corporate group known as Sindicato Antioqueño, recently rebranded as the Grupo Empresarial Antioqueño, or GEA—got together with the then-newly created National Business Association (ANDI) and the Antioquia Railroads Union to create a fund to improve workers’ lives, as well as to help them become more productive.

Back then, Medellín had not fully completed its transition from the hard-to-reach mining town it was in the 19th century to the large urban center that it is now. Most of its population lacked access to basic education and health services beyond those offered by the Catholic Church. The fund was set up to address these needs, and Comfama was created as the Caja de Compensación Familiar de Antioquia to help deliver such services.

In the 1950s, partisan violence between sympathizers of the Liberal and Conservative parties ravaged the country. In 1953, Army General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla successfully organized a peaceful coup d’etat with the support of leaders from both main parties, in the hopes that military order would put an end to political killings. Rojas Pinilla’s military dictatorship tried to implement various social reforms and made the first attempts to create a national family subsidies system, inspired by France’s model of a successful system in the late 19th century. However, his government ended with his resignation, compelled by public unrest and the dissatisfaction of political elites. Rojas Pinilla was replaced by a military junta in May 1957.

The junta took over temporarily to reform the country in preparation for returning power in a year to the Liberals and Conservatives, who had agreed to alternate the presidency every four years. As part of the reforms, the junta created a law, still in effect, that expanded Rojas Pinilla’s family subsidies. It required businesses to give 4 percent of the amount they had to pay for each employee’s contribution to the national health and pension systems to fund the various cajas that had been created in the country. Now there are 43 such cajas in Colombia, though they mostly operate within certain regions. Comfama, for example, operates only inside Antioquia’s borders. These cajas have diversified and now offer education, athletic, health, entrepreneurship, recreation, and financial services, among many others.

The Colombian cajas model of public-private hybrid organization has withstood decades of instability in the country. However, as the country appears finally to be moving on from being defined by its civil conflict to possibly being a success story, it remains to be seen whether this particular model is the best way to help people out of poverty or to bring social well-being to its growing middle class.

The Opposite of The Simpsons

I meet Comfama’s director, David Escobar, at Comfama’s new central offices in Ciudad del Río, a recently built neighborhood in Medellín featuring high-rises, restaurants, malls, and the state-of-the-art new building of Medellín’s Museum of Modern Art. The area has become a hub for large Medellín companies, with the offices of Bancolombia, the largest bank in the country, looming nearby in a long series of buildings known to locals as “el barco” (“the boat”). Comfama’s new digs occupy a few floors in a high-rise, with access to green terraces, a gym, and a health center.

Escobar sports a young-professional look, wearing a dress shirt without a tie or a jacket, and though his hair has started to gray, he conveys a youthful energy. For Escobar, Comfama’s aim has not changed that much from its foundation, even if it has diversified its activities. He says that one of the first points mentioned in the organization’s statutes is that “Comfama’s purpose is to help with the progress of the working and the middle class through solidarity,” and that he now understands this progress not only as financial growth, but also as improving quality of life.

He adds that the organization’s mission is not just to maintain the welfare of the low-wage-earning working class, but also to help turn it into a healthy middle class with a steady income and successful life projects. To do this, he thinks it essential to change the local mind-set of social entrepreneurship. “We have to stop saying we are a poor country and start believing we can have a sustainable social development,” he tells me.

Comfama’s Mobile Unit for Employment and Entrepreneurship visits Don Matías, Colombia. (Photograph courtesy of Comfama) 

Escobar has a ready analogy to explain Comfama’s mission: “We want to help consolidate a middle class in Antioquia that is the exact opposite of The Simpsons. That is, we want families to be conscious, free, productive, and happy.” These last four words might sound like an empty slogan, but under Escobar, they have become bedrock. Almost every person associated with Comfama whom I spoke with repeated these four adjectives like a mantra that guided their work and served as a compass for the kinds of results they expected from it.

Francesco Orsini, subdirector of housing and habitat at Comfama, for example, told me that Comfama works to create housing that not only is affordable but also can create a sense of community that helps attack inequality and allows families to live happier and more fulfilled lives. Gustavo Escobar, subdirector of health services, says that “healthier people should be able to reach happiness.”

But no one that I met had interiorized this message better than an older affiliate whom I met in Comfama’s installations in Aranjuez, a working-class neighborhood. Despite her humble background, she and her husband applied for Comfama’s housing subsidies about three decades ago and were able to buy two properties. With these, they were able to put their three sons through college. She told me that Comfama had made her family’s life plan possible.

But it wasn’t easy. In the 1980s, Aranjuez was the main operations hub of a criminal group known as “Los Priscos,” who quickly became Pablo Escobar’s and the Medellín Cartel’s main hit men.

Escobar was killed in 1993, but poverty and social unrest remained in the area. In an attempt to mitigate this, Comfama bought a building that had housed a mental institution in the heart of Aranjuez and transformed it to service its affiliates in the area.

Following its philosophy of making all of its services available and accessible at all of its locations, Comfama set up a library, pools, a preschool, financial offices, a theater, classrooms, and various sports facilities there. When we visited, a few local kids had taken over the cement basketball court and were practicing their moves for an upcoming dance festival. The affiliate I met still comes regularly to read or to learn how to use the Internet. And so do many young parents who bring their children to the bilingual kindergarten in the building.

Membership Has Its Privileges

Employees who become caja affiliates can expect financial, educational, worker, and recreational benefits in return. Cajas not only build the infrastructure for social well-being (the aforementioned medical centers, recreational parks, cultural centers, and so on), but also create socially beneficial programs, such as cultural events, sports training, and entrepreneurial workshops, and let the community in general use them, usually for a small fee.

Affiliates have access to some of these services for free, while for most of the services they pay a heavily discounted fee that varies according to their income. Comfama has four different rates for most of its services: the lowest (called “A”) for those who make up to two times the national legal minimum monthly wages (1.4 million pesos, or $506), a slightly higher one (“B”) for those making up to four times the minimum monthly wages (2.9 million pesos, or $1,013), a higher one (“C”) for those making more than four times the minimum monthly wages, and finally the highest one (“D”) for those who are not affiliates.

For example, at Tutucán Rionegro, one of the six recreational parks that Comfama operates in Antioquia, the lowest entry price is 2,600 pesos ($0.89), and the highest is 22,800 pesos ($7.83). For that price, families can enjoy a nice day out in the scenic landscape, have a picnic (they are allowed to bring in food), ride the drop tower, and swim in the pools.

Julián and Juan Muñoz swim at the Pedregal Service Center. (Photographs by Federico Rios/Courtesy of Comfama) 

When I visited Tutucán, I got to walk through a reproduction of a traditional 19th-century Antioquia town, set on the top of a small hill, that was complete with actors playing local characters, such as the mayor, the priest, the joker, and so on. The “main square” was full of people waiting to be entertained—many famous Paisa comedians got their big break there—and others headed to other attractions. The park has gardens, lawns, a few tranquil lakes, and some amusement-park rides connected via cobbled paths. Some people come to escape the city and relax surrounded by nature, while others come so that they can entertain their children. Comfama set up a program there in which middle and high school kids can hear about the physics of the rides and other topics from scientists.

Comfama provides preschool education, which is free for its lower-income affiliates. It offers classes on everything from swimming to cooking. (Mauricio Mosquera, the organization’s director of communications, says that Comfama can be considered Antioquia’s largest yoga studio.) It organizes art exhibitions and workshops, and it has programs to help children from underprivileged schools improve their digital literacy.

It has set up a network of libraries that anyone can use for free, regardless of whether they are affiliates, and it partnered with the city’s subway on two programs to promote reading while commuting. One program installed library branches inside subway, tram, and cable car stations where people can check out books and use the Internet. Another installed boxes in the stations containing small paperback books specially printed for this project. The books are meant to be read while commuting and then be returned at one of the station boxes.

Comfama offers financial help, mainly in the form of job placement, housing subsidies, and unemployment insurance. For the subsidies, Comfama offers low-interest loans and works with construction companies to offer affordable real estate properties to their affiliates. The insurance is in place because every working adult in Colombia must contribute a percentage of his or her income to the national health and pension systems every month. Comfama offers recently unemployed people money to pay these contributions or to pay for their children’s education.

Children study robotics at the Ciudad del Río Service Center. (Photograph courtesy of Comfama) 

These are just a fraction of the vast network of services offered by Comfama to Colombia’s second-largest city.

Maintaining the Social Fabric

After decades of turmoil, Medellín is looking up. Many businesses have set up shop there, and the city is now a popular tourist destination. Comfama is trying to capitalize on this, and also to help with ongoing problems.

Throughout its years of service, Comfama has played a key role in maintaining the social fabric of Medellín. The city has had its fair share of people in need. The drug-related violence of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s created insecurity and poverty, and drastically diminished the quality of life. But Comfama and other cajas tried to help. Comfama, for example, became one of the main housing providers when the country faced a mortgage crisis in the 1990s. However, many problems remain.

The unemployment rate in Medellín hit 10 percent in June 2017, which is higher than the national average of 9 percent. Also, 14.1 percent of the city’s inhabitants live below the poverty line, according to a Medellín Cómo Vamos report published this year. (The poverty line is defined as earning less than 241,673 Colombian pesos, or $82.64, per month.) This is not an encouraging number, but it is still much lower than the national average, which by the end of 2016 was at 28 percent.

Otoniel Gómez (right) participates in the Activos Program in Medellín’s Aranjuez neighborhood (Photograph courtesy of Comfama) 

Like most of Colombia’s large urban centers, Medellín has been overwhelmed by the consequences of the largely rural Colombian conflict. Last year, Medellín’s city government calculated that 20 percent of its nearly 2.5 million residents had been violently displaced from somewhere else. This has created a large underclass of people in the city with very few prospects of getting an education or a formal job.

Internal displacement is an immense problem. Edward Jaramillo, head of regional services, says that Comfama is trying to expand into the areas of Antioquia hardest hit by the civil conflict as a way to foster social well-being. “Most people here only have access to informal jobs,” he says, and this makes it almost impossible to collect taxes and build needed infrastructure. But Comfama is trying to help businesses formalize there, so they can offer their employees the benefits of being a caja affiliate.

Ubiquitous, Yet Nebulous

Comfama’s vast network of projects, goods, and services makes its presence ubiquitous in the region. Yet, paradoxically, the public doesn’t have a good idea of what the organization does, exactly. If you ask around Medellín and the surrounding towns—known collectively as the “Metropolitan Area,” where Comfama mostly operates—it would be equally difficult to find someone who doesn’t know about Comfama as someone who knows what goods and services Comfama provides.

Most Paisas I talked to outside the organization seem to recognize it only for its parks (they had 2.3 million visitors in 2016, in a departamento of 6.3 million people), its subsidies, and its discounts. Comfama sold its 34 supermarkets in Antioquia to Carulla, a grocery chain from Bogotá that wanted to expand its operation. As part of the deal, Comfama managed to get discounts on products every Monday for its affiliates. For many, Comfama had become synonymous with grocery shopping but not much else.

Beatriz Mesa Mejía, an editor at El Colombiano, the region’s main newspaper, holds a similar opinion. “I know they have deep social commitment and an extensive cultural agenda, but it should be better publicized; it’s hard to know what’s going on with them,” she says. Mejía’s department at El Colombiano helped Comfama with the relaunch of their magazine, El Informador. But still, she thinks there might be a communication issue.

Escobar, who took over as Comfama’s director in January 2016, sees this problem somewhat differently. “Sometimes people take us for granted,” he says. But, with its ever-growing offerings, Escobar wants to get the word out, and he knows that he has to start from within. “Even our employees think that, since we have done so well for so long, there is no need to change what we do,” he says. “We have to change that mentality.”

Creating Entrepreneurs

Escobar’s predecessor, María Inés Restrepo, was in charge for 21 years. She focused on strengthening the family values that she saw as the core of the network of affiliates, providers, and services connected by Comfama. Escobar accepted this vision, but he enacted a more entrepreneurial approach, based on innovation and on being open to new market tendencies, such as finding a way to enable freelance workers who are not on any payroll to become affiliates.

Escobar had worked both in the city’s public sector and as the head of Interactuar, an organization working with small, family-owned entrepreneurship projects. So he brought with him both the knowledge of how the city operates and the mentality of entrepreneurship and innovation to his new role at Comfama.

Escobar thinks that Comfama should be considered “less of a welfare organization and more of an empowering platform” that connects not only people with services, but also workers with companies, talents with opportunities, ideas with markets, and families with the means to achieve better, more fulfilled lives. He sees the open market as an opportunity for middle-class families, and Comfama as a key partner that helps them understand and navigate it. This is why Comfama has launched various entrepreneurship programs. It is also about to open an accelerator space in Perpetuo Socorro, a neighborhood in Medellín recently rebranded as an innovation hub, and has set up similar innovation accelerators throughout the region.

Students of the Marceliana Saldarriaga Institution visit Explora Park as part of Comfama’s Inspiration Program (Photograph by Federico Rios/Courtesy of Comfama) 

I met a few of the beneficiaries of Comfama’s entrepreneurship programs for small-business owners in La Ceja, one of the towns near the city. One of them, Carlos Rendón, said his business idea of producing avocado oil was in the initial stages and that the idea of formalizing his business and having to pay taxes gave him a headache. Of course, if he passes these hurdles, he will add another source of 4 percent payments to Comfama and the caja system.

Comfama also partnered last year with Medellín’s Chamber of Commerce to create a business incubator program called Crecer es Posible (Growth Is Possible). According to Diana Montoya, one of the people in charge of entrepreneurial development at the Chamber, this program was set up so that small-business owners could reach the formal market little by little, and no one is forced to formalize before they are ready. Sabrina Bojanini, also from the Chamber, complemented Montoya, saying that in this joint project with Comfama, formalization is more than a mere bureaucratic checklist; it is a process in which small-business owners have access to courses that enhance their skills and eventually enable them to reach new markets, which in turn sustains the caja system.

In addition, Comfama has set up entrepreneurial programs, such as Emprendimiento Verde (Green Entrepreneurship), a project to help environmental enterprises grow their businesses, and another program that aims to help cultural entrepreneurs accelerate their startups. Comfama offers expert financial advising and education on the Colombian legal and fiscal systems to those with business ideas, or companies that a panel of experts deems viable.

Everyone can apply for these programs, even if they are not Comfama affiliates. (After all, entrepreneurs are most likely not on any payroll and therefore probably not on the cajas system.) The goal is for these entrepreneurs to eventually turn their ideas into established companies with payrolls that contribute to the country’s economy and to the cajas system. Currently, Comfama is helping nearly 600 entrepreneurs in Antioquia.

As for those who are unemployed and uninterested in starting their own business, there is Formando Talento (Talent Forming), a program that targets the “ni-nis,” a Spanish expression describing those who aren’t in college and are not working (“ni estudian, ni trabajan”). Comfama, which runs this project jointly with the city, offers free workshops to those who fall into this category so that they can practice and learn more about things that interest them, and that can lead them to land a job or an academic career. Comfama even offers a “work kit,” so ni-nis can buy job-interview clothes.

Correcting Market Failures

Colombians rate the cajas system positively, with a 2016 poll finding that the affiliates of 41 out of 43 cajas in the country found their services either “good” or “excellent,” according to a survey from the government entity tasked with controlling cajas. The cajas have filled gaps left by the state in many areas, such as quality education for working and middle-class families, public libraries, housing subsidizies, and business credits.

Yet not everyone is a fan. While the 4 percent that companies pay to fund the system is not technically considered a tax—it is called a “parafiscal contribution,” which is paid by companies only for the benefit of their workers—some see it as unnecessary spending. A few voices from the business sector have argued in newspaper op-eds that being legally required to pay this fee curbs job creation. Others from the social development sector have complained that the cajas have replaced state obligations, created costly private intermediaries with little oversight and accountability, and benefited the middle and upper classes at the expense of those most in need.

There is, in fact, government oversight: The Superintendence of Family Subsidy was set up in 1969 to regulate the cajas. But the office has been heavily criticized. For example, it was under fire last year after its director, Griselda Restrepo (now Colombia’s minister of work), was accused of favoring friends with jobs and political favors. But the Superintendence has certainly bared its teeth before. For example, in the early 1990s it found that cajas were focusing too much on recreation and athletic activities, and compelled them to return to a more comprehensive social focus.

For Luis Ignacio Pérez, Comfama’s subdirector of social services, the cajas system is a “good, proactive one” because its private, nonprofit model enables it “to identify, analyze, and correct market failures.” Pérez also echoes Escobar in saying that cajas should work to strengthen the middle class, since both men believe the cajas can contribute more to society with this approach.

A man flies a kite at the Bazaar of Colors in Comfama Arví Park. (Photograph courtesy of Comfama) 

As for the business sector, the dominant view of the cajas system is a positive one. Carlos Ignacio Gallego, CEO of Grupo Nutresa—one of the largest companies in the country, and a member of GEA—has only praise for Comfama. “Comfama was the first caja in the country, and as such it was instrumental in convincing businesspeople in Medellín that they should pay their workers fair wages and that they should invest to help them improve their lives,” he says.

Gallego also thinks that Comfama’s role is still essential in keeping alive the sense of the importance of social innovation in the city, and in helping companies to realize educational, cultural, and health-related projects. But, Gallego says, this is only a fraction of why Comfama is so important for the city and the region. It and its fellow cajas are also key drivers of formal job creation. This aspect is critical, because Comfama’s future may depend on it.

Financing the Future

Escobar’s biggest challenge is how to keep Comfama affiliates, employees, and programs open to change, while still maintaining the essence that has made the organization a staple of Antioquia for over six decades. He has to keep affiliates satisfied, while constantly creating new programs to lure more businesses and more affiliates, while convincing the business and public sectors in the city that their work is valuable and that their 4 percent payments to cajas are a good investment.

Escobar does not have total control over Comfama. He is accountable to a Directive Council made up of five representatives from the business sector and five from worker unions. This council, in turn, reports to Comfama’s General Assembly, which is constituted by its affiliates. These affiliates communicate to the Directive Council what they find valuable about Comfama, and the Directive Council designs and the director executes programs to fulfill the affiliate needs while keeping the organization’s finances afloat.

Indeed, a caja’s bottom line is not profit but rather the betterment of workers’ lives and welfare. This approach benefits businesses, Escobar says, as happier, better-educated workers, with happier, more hopeful, and healthier families, mean more productive workers.

Still, the money to operate has to come from somewhere. Currently, 75 percent of Comfama’s revenue comes from that 4 percent charged to businesses for their workers. This represents 694.6 billion pesos, or about $235.2 million per year. The rest of the money comes mainly from interest on loans and fees that Comfama charges for some of its services, particularly health services, which account for 11.2 percent of its annual revenue.

However, Comfama is currently working to change these numbers, both as a shift in philosophy and as a precaution for the future. Escobar says that the programs offered should be more financially self-sustainable. Comfama knows that in order to grow, it has to boost formal work (that is, where people are employed legally and employers pay taxes) so that more companies and workers contribute to the cajas system. In order to do so, the organization set itself the goal to grow from having 1.1 million affiliates, mostly in the Medellín area, to 2 million affiliates all over Antioquia by 2027 (currently, 84 percent of Comfama affiliates are in Medellín’s metropolitan area).

This won’t be an easy task. While the rate of formal work in the Aburrá Valley—where Medellín and some of its suburbs are located—is one of the highest in the country, at 60 percent, other regions in Antioquia have dismal numbers. In an area known as Bajo Cauca, in the northeastern part of the department, for example, only 3 percent of all jobs are formal and contribute taxes or pay fees to the cajas system. If Comfama grows to the desired size, Escobar calculates, its annual revenue will be about 4 trillion pesos, or about $1.3 billion, in 10 years.

Besides reaching a wider network of people, Comfama’s change in revenues planned for 2027 is seen as a protection in the event of possible legal shifts to the caja system, something they have recently suffered from. After a national health reform effort in 2015 that sought to overhaul the health-care infrastructure to provide universal health care, now considered a fundamental right, many cajas went into crisis, because they and other medical operators were barred from owning health facilities. Comfama had to sell its hospitals and medical equipment, and lost about 30 percent of its assets.

Comfama still offers basic health services, though it had to greatly reduce its offerings. For example, it had to stop offering surgical procedures and long-term care. Also, Comfama offers these more complex health services through an alliance with Sura, a for-profit medical operator. As a result of this crisis, which affected most cajas’ assets, Comfama started to look to collaborate with other cajas to offer more services and to fulfill its growth plan. The biggest example is Zungo, a park in the Urabá region of Antioquia, near the border with Panama, and one of the localities hardest hit by Colombia’s civil conflict. Comfama remodeled and now operates this park, which is the property of Comfamiliar Camacol, a caja that almost disappeared after the health reform.

According to Edward Jaramillo, head of regional services, this park, along with other services planned for the most underdeveloped regions in Antioquia, will help to bring formalization, prosperity, and well-being to the departamento, and it will also play a critical role in reaching the 2027 expansion goal.

Life After 60

It is hard to say where exactly Medellín and Antioquia would be without Comfama and other cajas, but it is safe to say that they would be worse off. Comfama built infrastructure and provided services even in the darkest times of the city and the region. It offered subsidies and financial aid at low interest even in the face of economic crisis. It delivered education and culture to those who previously had no access to it, and it created spaces for sports and exercise in places where there had previously been little concept of public space.

The cajas will not solve all of Colombia’s social problems, nor should they be expected to. Funded by businesses and created for employees, the cajas system should be seen as one of several government approaches to tackling poverty and inequality, and maintaining public welfare.

But even with this limited reach, the cajas won’t stop being controversial. In a country where about 18 percent of people live in poverty, the middle class is hardly the highest priority of concern. But its prosperity has been a bellwether for Colombia’s resurgence. In the last decade, the country’s poverty has been slashed in half and the middle class has doubled in size. The rising middle class, in turn, needs services to keep afloat and to continue on a prosperous path, and its prosperity has spillover effects for the country as a whole.

It is hard to believe that Comfama and cajas could last for 63 years without delivering substantial social value. And while many cajas have taken long to recover from the health reform crisis, Comfama seems to be in a very good place: financially solid and growing. With its planned expansion to rural Antioquia, Comfama is poised to become one of the main providers of employment opportunities, cultural activities, and social well-being in the region. Whether Comfama can pull off its ambitious goals remains to be seen.

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