February 20, 2009

Medellín Mayor Tells Tale of Change in Colombia

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“I never thought I would be here as a politician,” said Sergio Fajardo, former mayor of Medellín, Colombia and candidate for Colombia’s upcoming presidential election, as he addressed Johnson Graduate School of Management students in Sage Hall yesterday.
During his visit, the mayor’s first, to Cornell, he delivered two lectures: “Colombia, Challenges and Opportunities” in the Johnson School and “From Fear to Hope” at the Plant Sciences Building.
A mathematician turned politician, Fajardo taught at the National University in Bogota and Medellín before he assembled a team to run for mayor as an independent. Fajardo became mayor of Medellín in 2003 and was mayor until 2007, when he was named Best Mayor by the Colombia Leader Foundation.
Medellín is a city of over two million people — Colombia’s second biggest city — which is notorious for its 1991 title as the most dangerous city in the world, with a homicide rate of 381 per 100,000 inhabitants or 6,349 murders in total.
As mayor, Fajardo managed Medellín’s rampant violence and initiated projects to address the city’s inequality.
Fajardo decided to run for mayor because “[he was] tired of saying how things should be.”
Medellín needed to change from a politically corrupt system, he said.
“Of course, people told us we’re crazy … we had no money, no political connections … But here I am,” Fajardo said.
Last year, Medellín saw a dramatic decline in reported homicides, as the rate dropped to 26 per 100,000 inhabitants, or 653 murders in total.
“It is not that the mayors who went before him failed to understand the complex strands that contributed to Medellín’s malaise,” said Prof. Mary Roldan, history, in an introductory speech at “From Fear to Hope.”
What she said set Fajardo apart was his “participatory and inclusive approach” and “understanding that the key to transformation lies not only in establishing the foundations of public order and security, but following up and inclusive approach” and “understanding that the key to transformation lies not only in establishing the foundations of public order and security, but following up and committing over the long term to deep and broad social and economic investment, targeting the neediest and least developed inhabitants and parts of the city.”
Before Fajardo could resolve the city’s two biggest issues, violence and inequality, there was an unavoidable condition that had to be met.
“We had to change the way we did politics,” Fajardo said.
Fajardo had walked around Medellín personally to talk to the people and to determine the problems the city’s inhabitants faced and their possible solutions.
“The way you get into power will determine the way you handle public affairs,” he added.
After his election, Fajardo immediately tackled the issue of violence, increasing the city’s police force, reintegrating past criminals and promoting a peaceful citizen culture.
According to Fajardo, violence splits a city into small, hostile sections, destroying citizenship and solidarity among the city’s inhabitants.
The award-winning mayor then addressed the city’s inequality. He made extensive use of the Human Development Index to identify Medellín’s most impoverished areas. Instead of targeting the city’s affluent areas to garner election votes, he targeted the poorest ones and pushed for projects to develop infrastructure, Fajardo said.
One of the 10 projects involved building “mega-schools” in the poorer areas. Although he was criticized by those who doubted the effectiveness of new schools, Fajardo commented that by building these new schools, he was able to elevate the self-esteem of the children, thereby facilitating their academic learning.
“There are some things we have done here that have universal applications,” said Fajardo.
After his lecture, “From Fear to Hope,” Fajardo received an applause from a nearly 150-person audience.
Shandana Malik grad asked how the financing of the numerous development projects was possible.
Fajardo responded that by building trust between the government and the city’s people, he was able to raise taxes and be transparent about where the money went.
Eliana Nossa grad, a member of the Colombian Students Association, said that it was important to invite Fajardo to show how Colombia had changed — to uproot Colombia’s image as a violent nation plagued by narcotics trafficking.
The lecture was part of the Cornell Institute for Public Affairs Spring 2009 Colloquium Series. It was co-sponsored by the Latin American Studies Program, the Johnson Graduate School of Management, the Colombian Student Association, the Cornell Law School and the International Programs of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.