I was always going to be spending this summer in Bogota; for more than a year now, the universe has seemed to be conspiring to make that happen. But if anyone could have provided the inspiration to spend some time in Colombia, it would be Sergio Fajardo, the current mayor of Medellin, whose address made even myself consider joining politics. And if you know me, you’ll know that’s quite an admission.
Fajardo shared his scarcely credible success story of transforming Medellin from “fear to hope”, or from Colombia’s violent drug capital to a much safer and more pleasant city. A politician with a Ph.D in Mathematics, he conducted his political campaign by walking the streets handing out leaflets with his platform, and then just talking to people to find out what they really want.
Unlike most of the high and mighty suits that pass through our gates, Fajardo came dressed in jeans, a sweater and a sports coat. And rather than standing behind a lectern, he came out in front of it and addressed us with dramatic hand gestures and a tangibly strong presence.
Photo credit: KSG
There are two big problems in Medellin, he began. Inequality and violence (in 1995, Medellin witnessed the most homicides worldwide). If you are going to change a culture of violence, you need to be patient but you also need to act quickly and clearly, with no room for dithering about your policies. Fajardo began to do so by demobilizing the paramilitary soldiers – Medellin alone had over 4000 of them. But demobilization only works if you follow it with reintegration into society. Unlike other government programs, Medellin began to reintegrate its paramilitaries on an individual basis, with a strong emphasis on psychological healing and recovery.
To reduce inequality, Fajardo employed a strategy that originally came out of the social enterprise field – entrepreneurship training, particularly for the lower socioeconomic classes. Participants would take an entrepreneurship course (80 hours long) and then the best ideas for a new venture would receive seed capital ranging from $250 – $2000. Although not everyone would get financial support, all the students “get the education needed to change their minds and make them equipped to succeed.”
The twin drives to reduce inequality and violence have had mixed results, but certainly more successes than failures. And, says, Fajardo, “we get too obsessed with the failures. We also need to focus on and celebrate the successes.”
Another major problem in Colombia today is the objectification of women. This has apparently led to huge problems with eating disorders and extremely prevalent use of plastic surgery in Medellin. Under Fajardo’s tenure, no public money has been spent for beauty contests. “We are replacing beauty contests which are exploiting women to talent contests focusing on skills and minds”, Fajardo explained earnestly to the female student who asked him the question. “We need to change the focus from female bodies to female minds.”
Along the lines of Vaclav Havel, another intellectual-turned-politician, Fajardo spoke eloquently about the need for smart and educated people to enter politics and change its image back to a noble profession dedicated to serving one’s people. His bumper-sticker advice for all of us: “Study a lot, then go into politics. Its the only way!”
Perhaps it is. Perhaps not. In any case, the political profession is certainly richer with Fajardo’s presence. And I can’t wait to get to Medellin and see this for myself.