Leadership Notes #23
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Interview: Ilona Szabó de Carvalho
Ilona Szabó de Carvalho is the cofounder and executive director of the Igarapé Institute, a think and do tank based in Brazil and a cofounder of Agora, an initiative to promote and implement more effective public policy. She is a drug policy and citizen security specialist and coordinated the Global Commission on Drug Policy from 2011 to 2016. Ilona is a columnist at Folha de Sao Paulo and a regular contributor to global and national media outlets. She gave a TED talk on citizen diplomacy. She is the author of two books Drugs: the Untold Stories, and Public Security to Change the Game, published by Zahar in 2017 and 2018 and the co-script writer and researcher for the award-winning documentary Breaking the Taboo. She is a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum and a Responsible Leader of the BMW Foundation. She earned a Master’s Degree in International Studies from the Peace and Conflict Studies Department from the University of Uppsala in Sweden, a specialist degree in International Development, from the Oslo University and a Bachelor’s Degree in International Relations.
Potolicchio: What are you doing at Igarapé?
Ilona: We are undertaking data-driven policy and action on some of the most urgent global challenges. At the Institute, we are focused on smart solutions to strengthen safety, security, justice, migration and climate resilience. It's a big agenda, but we are convinced that the only way to tackle issues like urban violence, digital threats, population displacement and illegal resource extraction is by thinking across silos. We undertake research, forge strategic partnerships, engage in media outreach and design, test and scale new technologies.
While based in Brazil, the Institute has broad geographic reach. We are genuinely international, with activities spanning the Americas, Africa and Asia. We are also committed to hyper-local action, with a large program working with public, private and civic groups in the state and city of Rio de Janeiro. We believe in "glocal" action, supporting and nurturing local grassroots partners, but also engaging with some of the world's most important international organizations, companies and leaders.
Our Institute is committed to the highest standards of excellence and ethics. All of our outputs are based on high quality research, with a view of delivering practical solutions and communicating results. We are impartial and independent, which means we don't always pull out punches. Because of our insistence on objectivity and quality, we have generated a considerable stock of credibility and legitimacy with government, private, and civil society groups. The Institute is widely regarded as an “honest broker,” acting both publicly and behind the scenes to deliver on its mandate.
Potolicchio: Jair Bolsonaro was just sworn into office as Brazil’s new president. How will his administration and policies affect your work in Brazil?
Ilona: It's important to stress that Latin America, and not just Brazil, is facing a real crime challenge. The region is home to just 14% of the global population yet registers over 42% of all homicides. And the situation in the region, and nationally, is worsening. It is not just persistent inequality or unemployment that is to blame. A big part of the problem is the stubborn reliance of governments (and large segments of societies) on focusing only on punitive and repressive approaches to public security. Making matters worse, the rise of populism and authoritarianism is driving polarization and making it harder to develop balanced strategies to address truly complex challenges. In this sense, Bolsonaro is a symptom of a wider geopolitical and national transformation, and not the cause.
There is a real risk that Bolsonaro and his new administration could make a bad situation worse. Part of the problem is that his proposed cure - the crack-down on crime, toughening of sentences, loosening of gun laws and mass incarceration - may be worse than the disease. It is true that Brazil has a problem with violent crime - more than 63,800 people were killed in 2017, the last year for which we have solid data. What is really needed is not more bombastic rhetoric, but a clear adoption of evidence-informed public policies. The science is increasingly clear on what works (and what does not), and the new technologies available to improve crime prevention are also abundantly available. Bolsonaro would do well to double down on these, with due respect for privacy and civic liberties.
At the Institute, we are committed to making Brazil and countries across Latin America safer. While we may differ in the means, we share this goal with decent politicians and business leaders whether they are on the left or right of the spectrum. That said, there are serious risks of reversals in Brazil since the election of Bolsonaro: there is already evidence of a return to hardline 'mano dura' style policing. More than ever citizens need to be aware, empowered and active. I am convinced that by mobilizing the best evidence, forging strong partnerships and bridging divides through dialogue, we can change the game.
Potolicchio: Given your career, what advice would you want to give yourself when you were in college?
Ilona: My "career" trajectory has, for the most part, been fully aligned with a sense of purpose and justice. There were times early on where I felt a jarring dissonance between my professional and personal aspirations, but I have been fortunate in achieving a greater harmony over the past decade. My advice, then, would be to "follow your purpose, your heart" in all that you do. One's professional success, in the most authentic sense, is virtually always a consequence of one's commitment, diligence, and value set. I always ask myself if I am adding value and how I could add value. I don't sit still and wait for others to tell me what to do. I just get on with it, and I find that in this kind of leadership, others will join in.
Potolicchio: What is a common mistake or misconception you see many governments making when it comes to drug control policies? Gun control?
Ilona: Many government officials are earnest in their commitment to deliver public security and reduce the harms associated with drugs. I have met with presidents, governors, mayors and business leaders in democratic and authoritarian settings alike who all say their goal is to make societies safer. Where many politicians and bureaucrats differ, however, is in "how" to deliver on this mission. There are still too many leaders and civil servants who are ideologically wedded to a particular way of working. In some cases they mobilize moral arguments to arm citizens and crack-down on drug users, even if the weight of scientific opinion recommends alternative approaches.
There is still a resistance to fact-based and evidence-informed public policy. And politicians are still seduced by repressive tough on crime approaches, since they know this gets them votes, especially in socially conservative societies. The fact is that to make a real positive difference in public security, the issues of drugs and firearms require responsible regulation. Neither outright prohibition or liberalization is recommended - in fact, these extremes can be fatal.
With respect to drug policy, most governments are still reluctant to even openly discuss alternatives to the status quo. In many cases, they continue to recommend policies that are demonstrably failing, in some cases harming people more than drug consumption itself. Informed scientific opinion recommends that drug policies are forged with population and public health in mind. Of course, criminal justice measures should address the violent criminals that is an unfortunate aspect of the drug chain. But the only way to really address the drug challenge is by putting the wellbeing and safety of people at their center of the picture. At a minimum, governments need to decriminalize drug use, test different drug regulation models, weaken the power of organized crime by focusing on money laundering, and focus data-driven repression on the most violent criminal actors.
As for responsible gun regulation, governments need to stop approaching the issue through an ideological lens. Too often, the pro-gun rhetoric from the US shapes discussions in other parts of the world. Overwhelming scientific research demonstrates that looser gun laws are associated with higher levels of gun homicide, suicide and accidents. The issue is not to ban firearms, but rather to deploy sensible regulations to minimize their harms. For example, basic checks and balances on gun selling, ownership and storage, strategies to reliably mark and trace firearms and ammunition, measures to educate population on the risks and responsibilities associated with gun ownership and other measures can protect citizens. These can also strengthen the ability of democratic states to preserve their monopoly on the use of force and safeguarding rights to life and freedom.
Potolicchio: What's an untold story about Brazil that needs telling?
Ilona: Brazil is going through monumental and painful political transformation. The country has suffered massive reputational damage due to some of the largest corruption scandals in history. Dozens of former presidents, governors and congressmen are behind bars. As a result, Brazilians are deeply disillusioned with their political class, rejecting the status quo to elect a determined populist in 2018. Bu this is only part of the story. Indeed, there are signs of the emergence of new political movements, more so than at any time since the end of the dictatorship in 1985. These movements, while emergent, have the potential to generate fundamental transformations in Brazil.
As in the case of the US, the emergence of an outsider candidate has triggered a dramatic increase in political activism across the political spectrum. Today there are thousands of young capable Brazilian activists that are committed to re-thinking democratic action. I'm the cofounder of one of these groups, the Agora! movement. We set up Agora in 2016 precisely to provide a platform for new leaders committed to developing a positive future-looking vision for Brazil. Just as important, we've helped identify diverse technical experts from across the country who are prepared to help implementing the vision, assume civil servant or elected positions, and take on leadership roles in different sectors of society.
Potolicchio: What's a book you would gift someone who wants to understand Brazil?
Ilona: One of the best has to be Brazil: A Biography, by Heloisa Murgel Starling and Lilia Schwarcz. It is published with Companhia das Letras in Brazil and Allen Lane in the US.
Potolicchio: Your work on drug policy brought together leaders from a number of different disciplines, including politics, business, and international law. How has this experience shaped your view of what effective leadership looks like in the 21st century?
Ilona: Throughout my early career I took on strong activist positions to drive change. I led one of the world´s largest gun buy-back campaigns. We collected over 500,000 firearms, but lost a national referendum to ban gun sales to civilians (a position that we don't advocate at Igarapé). I learned that rather than adopting strictly oppositional postures, I needed to build bridges with my adversaries (while holding true to my core values). Later, as coordinator of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, I very intentionally worked across political divides. It was then that I learned four basic lessons: change and control the narrative, never underestimate your opponents, use data to drive your arguments, and assemble odd bedfellows.
In an era of widening disparities and deepening polarization, I believe that civil society needs to rethink its modus operandi to affect change. During the latter half of the twentieth century, many non-governmental organizations adopted strongly oppositional approaches in relation to public authorities. In the process, they generated important victories, in many cases reversing an unequal status quo. I believe we also need to more consciously adopt principled but complementary strategies to deal with today's challenges.
Taken together, my work with the Global Commission, Igarapé Institute and in various civic networks is grounded by core principles of social justice, but it is collaborative, as opposed to competitive. It is fact-based and evidence-informed. It is systemic in orientation. It is an approach that seeks impact through constructivist engagement, agreement on minimum agendas, strategic alliances and incremental change.