An Interview with Yale World Fellow, Enrique Betancourt
Bridging the Gap: An Interview with Enrique Betancourt
Conducted by JR Reed
Born in Mexico, Enrique Betancourt is a trained architect and urban planner, who most recently served as the Executive Director at the National Center for Crime Prevention and Citizen Participation in Mexico. During his professional career, Betancourt has taken a variety of roles in architecture, social policy, urban planning, and crime prevention strategy. He served as the Deputy General Director of Social Policy under Mexico’s President Felipe Calderon, and he also co-founded CONTEXTUAL, an agency that designs policy toolkits and mechanisms to combat urban problems. Betancourt studied architecture at the University of the Americas in Puebla, Mexico and received a Masters in architecture and urban design from Harvard University.
During his tenure in government, Enrique Betancourt, along with a team of policy designers in the Ministry of Urban Development, met with major city players in Ciudad Juarez to identify opportunities to strengthen social cohesion. As of August 2009, Juarez, one of the fastest growing cities in the world located at the border between Mexico and the United States, held the highest reported murder rate in the world. In 2012, however, there was a 57% reduction in the murder rate.
The Politic: To start off, could you talk a little bit about your background and when and how you started to dive into social policy and urban development?
I am an architect originally, and I started doing architecture design for a while. Then I decided to move a bit from that perspective and started to become more engaged in the urban scale. So eventually I applied for a Master’s Degree in Urban Design and did that at Harvard from 2004-2006. In the process of doing urban design, I also became much more interested in social policy and urban policy. After staying in Boston for one more year working in a planning firm, I received an invitation to join the Mexican Federal Government under the Ministry of Urban Development.
So I came back to Mexico, where I am originally from, and worked on urban policy for three years – basically strategic urban projects, housing policy, and mechanisms to strengthen local planning capacities. After a while, the security and the safety issue in Mexico started changing dramatically, and President Calderon asked the different government ministers to put together a team that could go to Ciudad Juarez and start thinking of different ways to address violence, not only from the enforcement perspective but also from a preventive perspective. So I became a part of a team of ten people that would go to Ciudad Juarez every week and work with different stakeholders in the city to identify opportunities to strengthen social cohesion, work with the Caucus on Violence to identify where violence was being mostly concentrated, and also identify the best practices around the world to implement there.
The Politic: And what were your contributions to that team?
I think my perspective was very urban. The place-based part of my proposal became the base on which the different agents started collaborating to deliver comprehensive approaches and strategies. The President’s Office started asking me how to do this in other cities in Mexico. We designed a strategy to do that, and eventually I joined the President’s Office, working there for a year and further developing this idea. Afterwards, I was appointed as the Executive Director for the National Center for Crime Prevention. There, I designed place-based policy across the country that would focus on implementation of interventions targeting socially vulnerable communities.
The Politic: When you reference these interventions, what exactly do you mean? What do these interventions look like on an urban scale?
Interventions are mechanisms, agreements, and collaborative processes with the participation of the community and different agents of government, designing actions with budgets on how to address risk factors in specific communities.
The Politic: So why did you decide to step down from your post as the Executive Director for the National Center for Crime Prevention? What drew you to apply to the World Fellows program?
There was an election in Mexico last year, which marked the end of the Calderon administration, so I stepped down from that in February. I decided to do that because I didn’t want to become a full-time bureaucrat. I wanted to try something else, so I decided to stop.
Meanwhile, my former boss at the President’s Office was actually a World Fellow here. And – I remember perfectly – on the day that she hired me, she mentioned the program. At one point during my tenure at the President’s Office, she actually showed me a brochure. I kept that in my mind as a possibility of a really nice way to transition from my position at the government to my future life. It was very clear that the end of the administration was approaching, and I didn’t want to stay longer, so I decided to apply for the World Fellow program. Interestingly, on the day that I was signing my resignation, I found out I was a finalist in the World Fellows program.
The Politic: So what’s next after your semester here at Yale? Where would you like to take your career?
Now I’m thinking about the question of transitioning from government to what exactly? One of the things that I learned in the process of being in government is that you can get really acquainted with best practices and research, and you can design programs based on evidence of what has worked and what has not, but the path from that design to implementation is very large. So even if you are more or less in control of the design, when you go to the site of implementation, things aren’t happening the way you imagine and the outcomes are not the ones you expect.
So what I am thinking about now is establishing an organization that would design toolkits for policy implementers that would close the gap between policy design and implementations. Oftentimes, the information about these best practices and research is scattered and dispersed across the web and in different books, and also the language is not easy to understand for implementers. What I would like to do is get acquainted with the research and best practices, bring everything together into a toolkit, and translate those into words and diagrams to show how to implement those in a much better way with a set of indicators – not only giving indicators regarding the final outcome but also showing how you can measure the process of implementing your strategy, which is very important for local governments and implementers.
The Politic: When you talk about designing these toolkits, do you have any ideas in terms of what areas they would be used? Or is this a general toolkit that many different urban areas can use to their benefit?
I think they intend to be very generic tools, but very much focused on applicability in local contexts. They are general, yes, but they always, always consider the neighborhood. The idea is not approaching individuals or communities as a whole, but units of communities and neighborhoods. We strongly believe that working with communities in groups is the best way to deliver policy rather than implementing those through a large-scale policy or to individuals.
The Politic: When you saw “we”, you mean you and who exactly?
Myself and a team I am trying to put together back in Mexico. The idea is to establish this organization as a platform to work with people around the world, but the management will be based in Mexico City.
The Politic: Have you started developing that team already? What kind of progress have you made?
Here’s one example of something we have done: It’s a book called A Hundred Creative Tactics for System Security. So we investigated what artists and creative people were doing around the world to bring together people in communities and discuss security issues through art or art processes – ways to trigger conversations and dialogue within the community that could then start changing the cohesion of that community.
We surveyed this project and interviewed people about hundreds of different projects scattered around the world. We brought artists to Mexico to discuss this one on one, and then we designed a toolkit. The toolkit is essentially a compendium of practices and also a small booklet that tells community developers how to use these practices in their communities – how to measure the impact of these actions in their communities. This is just one example.
Now, we are thinking about developing something for the World Bank for the Latin American region. It would be a toolkit to assess and make recommendations to help government improve the delivery of crime prevention policies in the region. We have already started doing interviews with big stakeholders in the region to see how clear they are in terms of the processes of implementation, understand how high this is on their agenda, and understand how much budget they have allocated for these policies.
The Politic: Could you see these recommendations being spread to locations not only throughout Latin America but the world?
Of course, our focus originally is Latin America, because that’s where our connections and networks are. But we see this is also relevant for Africa and even places in the U.S. like New Haven.
The Politic: Shifting back to your experience as a World Fellow, you mentioned you thought this would be very valuable in your transition out of government and into this new career path you would like to take. What were some of the other factors that influenced your decision to apply? What did you see as some of the biggest incentives?
I can really describe it as a luxury. It is giving my family and me this time and space to really think. Work in the government was very demanding. I was traveling all the time. You are doing things with no time to think, because you are constantly performing. You have to deliver all the time. It was very important for me to have the space and time and the contextual conditions to think about the past and reflect on what the next steps would be. That’s basically what I wanted to do. As I mentioned, I studied at Harvard, so I knew what type of environment I would find here, which was perfect for me.
The Politic: During your time here so far, in addition to this time to think, what are some of the other aspects of the program that you have found particularly valuable?
The program is really unique in terms of the intensity of interaction it produces among the Fellows. It’s very interesting that we are all in this similar stage of our lives. We all come from a stage of putting our feet in the water and having chances to fail and succeed in many ways. So the intensity of interaction among the fellows is the most important factor here.
Also, the opportunity to take any course I want is a great asset to learn something new and expand and be uncomfortable with regards to the things I know. So I’m not taking any classes in the architecture school or in urban planning; I’m taking courses in psychology, sociology, and engineering, which I find really interesting. And I see very appealing connections between those disciplines and the primary topic I’m interested in. The interactions with students, too, are very dynamic, which is a great thing to have. You constantly are exposed to fresh perspectives from students at the college on how the world works.
The Politic: I’m curious to hear what courses you are taking.
I’m taking a class called the Psychology of Group Life, in which we’re studying how groups form and what the rules are for those groups to sustain themselves over time – from ants to bats to fish to human groups, like gangs. I’m very interested in understanding the underlying reasons for why these groups, especially gangs, exist.
I’m taking another course called the Logic of Empirical Social Research. I don’t intend to become a researcher, but I work a lot with research, and I want to be better at understanding this research and be much more clear on how I frame my own questions. Having a methodology to ask questions is very important.
The third course I’m taking is called “From Science to Solutions”, which is under the Forestry and Environmental Science Department. It’s a problem-framing course, which takes engineering tools to understand complex problems.
The Politic: You underscored the importance of these interactions with the World Fellows. I’m curious to hear if you have seen opportunities for collaboration in the future with regards to what you plan to pursue and their interests?
Definitely. You even have to be cautious about it, because you see connections immediately. When I was back home working on crime prevention, I saw figures and started thinking some of the policy designs could be applied somewhere else, but I wasn’t sure. When you come here and start interacting with people from Africa, you have a chance to really ask if certain figures are accurate and ask these people if they think your findings are interesting and if they agree with your assessments. Then, if they say yes and you can see your policies through another lens, then you start seeing opportunities for collaboration. Especially considering cities around the world are built by neighborhoods and the approach I am proposing is neighborhood-based gives a big opportunity to work in different costs. And this is something that is well understood across the cohort of fellows.
The Politic: What’s the mindset considering the term is so short?
You have to really jump into the water, do your stuff, and then you’re gone. It’s really an opportunity to reshuffle the brain. You can’t engage in a long-term research project. It’s designed for people who can’t spend more time. You stop a bit at home, come here, and then you go back.
And, I think one of the other interesting opportunities the fellowship represents is the notion of fellows going back to their places and staying in touch with the University and serving as potential providers of internships for students at Yale. It’s a big opportunity for the University to have connections in these different parts of the world. The network is already 240 people in about 80 countries around the world.
The Politic: While you are currently pursuing a new career path with this toolkit idea, do you ever see yourself returning to government in some capacity?
Definitely. Government is a great place to be. There’s a lot you can do in a position of power within government. I definitely see myself coming back at some point. I don’t have a particular political leaning, so I see myself as a technocrat – someone interested in making things happen. I just wanted to not become fully engaged in government and also try to do something from the outside. But my experience in government was great. I had incredible, committed people – people who were really challenging the structure and the speed and the way that things work in government. Especially in Mexico, I’m a witness of how people fight to change things that aren’t easy to change.
The Politic: What are some pieces of advice that you would like to give those Yale students particularly interested in pursuing a career in public policy or government?
I think a wealth of point of views is key to really be good at designing policy. If you always see policy from the federal level perspective, then your view is very partial. You have to see policy from the different stakeholders’ points of view. I think this is something that is probably obvious, but it is really important. That’s what makes the difference in policy design. When you can see a policy and understand that the policy will be funded by Congress, you have to design to appeal the Congress. And there’s a piece of that policy or the process of designing that policy that has to address the unions, or the business people, or the researchers, or the Universities, or the local government. It’s critical for students to experiment with these different roles and know all sorts of tactics and perspectives. Being able to have these conversations with people of different backgrounds is key.
Also, another important thing to consider is that the most obvious discipline to use in order to solve a problem is probably the wrong one. Sometimes we think, for example, that we should address a problem of the city through urbanism or urban design, and you will come to the urban designers to ask for a solution. Sometimes, that solution is wrong if you approach just urban designers. You have to ask economists, political scientists, and you have to get acquainted with public health perspectives and other unfamiliar positions to grasp the complexity of the problems we face on a daily basis.
So, in terms of crime, you cannot solve crime only through policing. The most obvious way to think is to talk to the Chief of Police and say that ‘he has to solve this problem’. But the problem is systemic – it’s a problem that won’t be solved by the police only. Of course, the police are very important – if you don’t have police, it is not going to work. But you have to address this in a comprehensive way through different avenues.
The Politic: Based on your experiences, would you encourage Yale students to, at some point in their careers, spend time in some position of government or some form of public service? Is it important to have exposure to that type of environment before going onto another career path?
I think it depends, of course. You can go to government or you can decide to go to an NGO. In whatever you do in life, the more you have this notion that there is an impact of what you do in the social context and the more you are aware of that, the better it will be for you and the community you live in. Either you do that from a position within the government or through an NGO, it doesn’t matter. The important thing is to have this idea and be sure to acknowledge the fact that everything you do has an impact on the community. We all have a responsibility to make our communities better.
The Politic: Now, more generally, what is the single most important piece of advice that you would like to share with Yale students?
See the world. I think Yale students can do this, and this happens a lot in Ivy League schools. You see the world as your turf. There are no limits for Yale students to see different parts of the world. But this also requires a very committed process of educating yourself to understand the differences in the local flavor and the little differences in each of these contexts. It is easy to assume that, but it is also very easy to follow generalizations that sometimes come with being in just one place and seeing the world through media, and this is the situation in which we are living right now.
So the idea that, for example, Mexico is a violent country is not a black or white thing. You really have to go to understand the scales of grey within that claim. Or with the idea that China is the next world leader, you have to really question how, when, and whether or not the process of development in China is really following the pattern that will make them this powerful nation.
The Politic: Is there anything that we have not discussed that you think is particularly important for Yale students going forward?
My last point has a connection with what we just discussed. Sometimes, I think Yale people see the world as their turf, but I see a disconnect between Yale and New Haven. You can be thinking in a classroom at Yale about how to fix a problem in Africa, and next door you have something really big happening. So, also keep an eye on things in the neighborhood. You can learn so many things hands-on in the community, and the benefits of doing that for your future work are tremendous.