10 Months in Brazil
My experience in Rio has been incredibly rewarding. My primary academic and professional interests are in Latin American security issues, particularly citizen security and violence reduction programs. Rio has struggled with high levels of violence, drug trafficking, and rampant inequality for many years, making the city ground zero for innovative responses to these systemic problems. The city is host to a number of NGOs and government initiatives working on these issues, including the Igarapé Institute, the think tank I’ve been with since my arrival in August.
Conducting research at Igarapé has exposed me to both high level and grassroots work on citizen security projects and ongoing public security dialogues both in Rio and throughout Latin America. My colleagues were some of the most intelligent and engaging people I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with, and I gained invaluable experience improving my writing and quantitative data skills. One of the main projects I worked on was the Homicide Monitor, currently the most comprehensive database of publicly available homicide statistics in the world. Along with two other researchers, I was responsible for collecting updated murder statistics throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, getting in contact with police commissioners, statistics offices, and ministries of health to find the most accurate information on homicides by gender, age, and weapon in LAC, at the national and subnational level. The idea is to provide a data clearinghouse for policymakers, researchers, and the public in an interactive and accessible manner, something that surprisingly didn’t exist prior to this project.
Right now, the focus of the Homicide Monitor is primarily on Latin America. This is with good reason, since roughly a third of all homicides in the world happen in a region with only 8% of the population (LAC). However, if the tool is continuously improved, updated, and expanded to include subnational data in other regions of the world, it will prove to be an incredibly valuable resource for measuring the dynamics of violence around the world.
I’ll admit that I was a bit nervous prior to my arrival last August. While I spent the previous summer studying Portuguese in an immersion course, I had never actually visited Brazil before. I have previous experience living in Latin America, but it was in a very different and much more rural context in Guatemala. Moving to such a large and unknown environment is always bound to be a little stressful. Fortunately I found myself among a good group of friends and colleagues and built a supportive network for myself, both personally and professionally. When I first arrived in country I began studying Portuguese at the local Catholic university (PUC-Rio), dividing my time between early morning language classes and research at Igarapé. I also found housing through PUC, and rented a room with a great Brazilian “host-mom” in the upscale Jardim Botânico neighborhood. This was a good place to start, but the neighborhood is also a bit cloistered from the rest of the city. After a few months I moved into a (giant) renovated house towards the center of the city in the Glória neighborhood as one of 14 tenants. Living with 13 Brazilians was a great way for me to improve my conversation skills when not in class or at work, and the neighborhood had a bit more of a “lived in” feel to it. Plus there’s always something going on when you live in a house with a dozen people. I still have days where I feel out of place here or get stressed out about the small (or big) differences between Brazil and the US, but I feel much more in my element than when I first arrived.
I suppose my one regret about my time in Brazil is that I haven’t really traveled outside of Rio very much. Aside from just working a lot at Igarapé, I’ve really tried to focus on getting to know the city as much as possible in the relatively short amount of time that I’m living here. Rio is full of historical intricacies and involves so much more than just the beaches in Ipanema and Copacabana. The city is transforming at a rapid pace with mega-events like last year’s World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics. While these events create huge opportunities for development and a prominent stage for Brazil and Rio to showcase recent achievements, there are also a lot of unintended consequences, including forced evictions, rising cost of living, and increased tensions between communities and the government. Keeping up with all of these changes, as well as their implications for security and development outcomes in Rio, is a tall order. I think I could live here for 10 more years and still have a lot to learn about how this city works. Despite this, I do feel like I’ve tried to experience Rio as much as possible, attending local community events, exploring areas outside of the traditional tourist places in the Zona Sul, and always keeping an open mind to new experiences.
As I wrap up my projects with Igarapé, get ready to say goodbye to Rio, and finish my studies at SSP, I’ve been reflecting a lot on how this experience has affected me. I’ve grown a lot professionally and personally and have made connections here that I will carry with me for years to come. Part of the agreement in accepting a Boren fellowship is that you commit to work in the federal government (in an agency dealing with national security) for at least one year following your time abroad. I know that this will likely result in a job located in the DC area, but I’m also sure that I’ll be keeping an eye out for any opportunities that might arise to come back to Rio in the future. I’d also like to take a moment to thank SSP for helping me with this opportunity. Obviously I’ve stayed in Brazil well beyond the summer of 2014, but I wouldn’t have been able to take advantage of the Boren Fellowship without SSP/SFS’s additional financial assistance.