More than a decade ago, Ilona Szabo de Carvalho left a comfortable career in finance to try to make the world a safer place. She became a “civil society diplomat” working on gun control and drug policy reform. Along the way she has learned a number of lessons, four of which she shares in a TED Global talk.
Brazil has a terrifying record when it comes to violence. It features more homicides than any other country on earth: one in ten people killed around the world each year is a Brazilian. This translates into 56,000 people dying violently a year, most of them young black boys killed in a hail of gunfire.
Not coincidentally, Brazil is also one of the world´s major drug consumers. It is the second largest consumer of cocaine and crack. And the war on drugs has only exacerbated the problem. Roughly half of the homicides committed in Brazil together with a quarter of the incarcerated population is related to repressive drug policy.
Of course, Brazil is not the only country suffering from the twin challenges of gun violence and backwards approaches to fighting drugs. Virtually every country and city across Central and South America and the Caribbean is in trouble. Latin America has just 9 per cent of the world´s population and registers over 25 per cent of the global burden of homicide.
These problems are impossible to ignore.
In 2003, I left the world of banking to join a campaign to change Brazil´s gun legislation and retrieve firearms. In just a few years we not only transformed national gun laws, but we also collected more than 500,000 weapons making it one of the largest buy-back programs in history. We also suffered some set-backs, including losing a referendum to ban gun sales to civilians.
A few years later, in 2008, I also joined an international movement to reform drug policy, taking the fight from Brazil to other parts of the world. I soon became the coordinator of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, a high-level group of leaders committed to more humane and effective approaches to dealing with drug production, supply and consumption. We´ve had many successes along the way, not least breaking the taboo on talking about drug reform. Across the Americas – from the US and Mexico to Colombia and Uruguay – change is in the air.
There are at least four insights I have gained from these experiences that could apply to citizen security promotion more broadly.
First, change and control the narrative. This is something politicians understand intuitively but that civil society groups are slow to grasp. In the case of drug policy, our most significant success was changing the debate away from a focus on prosecuting a war on drugs to putting people´s health and safety first instead. As for gun control, we struggled with convincing Brazilians that collective public security was more important than their individual right to own firearms.
Second, never underestimate your opponents. If you are to advance progressive citizen security, it is critical to understand the diverse motivations and points of view of one´s opponents. When it came to gun control, our side under-estimated the conviction and savviness of the other side. We lost a referendum when the domestic gun lobby – with support from the National Rifle Association – successfully linked the right to own guns to notions of freedom and democracy. In a country with a recent experience of military dictatorship, this anti-government message resonated. We were much more successful in the case of global drug policy.
Third, use data to drive your argument. Obviously guns and drugs are emotive issues touching the lives of hundreds of millions of people. Sometimes it is impossible to cut through the emotions and get to the facts. But this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try. In Brazil, we mobilized soap opera stars and data scientists to show the successful impacts of changes in gun laws and firearms collection initiatives. In the year after the arms statute came into force, more than 5,000 lives were saved after 13 years of consecutive increases in homicide. In the case of drugs, we also managed to show how today’s drug policies are statistically resulting in more harm than drug use per se.
Fourth, don´t be afraid to bring together odd bed-fellows. If you want to make a meaningful dent on citizen security, it helps to have a good cross-section of society on your side. In both the case of guns and drugs, the coalitions I was involved with assembled an incredible mix: elite decision-makers, media groups, doctors, lawyers, survivor associations, human rights champions, faith-based actors and cultural icons. It is important to mobilize coalitions of the willing and of the unwilling to make change. This means gathering together the libertarians, anti-prohibitionists, legalizers and liberal politicians. They may not agree on everything – they may even disagree on almost everything – but the legitimacy of the campaign resides in their diverse points of view.
There are of course other ways to mobilize civil society to make our countries and cities safer. Yet taken together, these four lessons offer a preliminary blueprint to create positive momentum.
Photo credit: Flickr CC Movimentos Aquáticos
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