Every September in New York, global leaders gather at the United Nations to wrestle with the world’s biggest problems, ranging from terrorism to climate change to extreme poverty. They make grand pronouncements and ambitious pledges, most of which won’t mean a thing to people living in their home countries.
My advice to leaders: Skip the pronouncements and dig into the data.
I speak from experience. In 1992, I was elected mayor of Cali, a city of 2.3 million people in Colombia. It was not an obvious job for me. I am an epidemiologist by training but I am drawn to help people, and Cali needed help. The homicide rate was shocking – more than 100 per 100,000 (FBI statistics for the same year put New York City’s rate at 27.1 per 100,000) – and murder was the city’s number-one killer.
Most people assumed that nothing could be done. They thought that powerful and ruthless drug cartels were behind the violence, and therefore, efforts to reduce the number of homicides would be futile. But as I looked more closely, I realized that we had no reliable information. The police said one thing and the courts said another. Data varied so widely that they were unusable.
We changed that by developing a better process of gathering and tracking data, and the observations were surprising: there were patterns in the violence, and clear factors that could drive down the homicide rate. Most murders occurred on weekends, holidays, and Fridays that coincided with payday. In addition, more than one-quarter of victims were intoxicated, and the majority were killed by firearms. Those data pinpointed which levers we could push and pull to create positive change.
My administration implemented a series of reforms we thought would change outcomes – limiting certain holidays and days of the week when firearms could be carried and alcohol sold. The reforms were not initially popular, but homicide rates ultimately dropped by 33 percent.
I was re-elected mayor of Cali in 2011 and have come back to reinvigorate a data-driven approach to health. Rates of violence in Cali are still far too high. My administration continues to rigorously collect information and examine research to discern which factors will further drive down violence. We saw that many crimes occurred in public parks with few lights, so we put up lights. Our mission is to use the best evidence to identify the problem and then find solutions that will have real impact.
We needed to share this success with others. The mayor of Bogotá adopted a similar approach, and his city’s homicide rate dropped. After leaving the mayor’s office, I took the lessons of Cali and led efforts to increase violence prevention efforts and expand initiatives to gather and share better data on violence throughout Latin America. This week the battle against violence has taken me to New York City, where I will receive the Roux Prize, a new award for improving public health by using research and data.
This brings me back to those leaders gathered in New York. As the speeches fade and everyone flies back to their respective homes, there are lessons from Cali that they should keep in mind.
Every problem has a solution. It may not be fast, simple, or popular, but there is always some step you can take to improve a situation. When I first became mayor, the assumption was that nothing could change in Cali without taking on the drug cartels. But when we dug deeper, we found the problem was much more nuanced and there were factors we could influence.
You need to get the facts. Too many leaders act based on poll results or hunches without gathering and examining quality data. My strength lies in abandoning preconceptions and following the facts. Data-gathering efforts were critical to identifying policies to drive change.
Commitments on the global level, or even the country level, are important, but there is no substitute for local action. Home is where things happen. Leaders need to look closely at the challenges, opportunities, and variables of their cities and towns, and work closely with their mayors.
As I look forward to new challenges, there is one thing that continues to drive my work: I love to help people. This is a mantra that leaders – as they return to Berlin, Bangkok, or Bangui – need to keep at the forefront of their minds. If it is not their primary motivation, they should look for a new job.
Dr. Rodrigo Guerrero is the mayor of Cali, Colombia, and the recipient of this year’s Roux Prize from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington.