The mayor of Brazil's fifth-largest city is turning to a familiar source for help with an array of urban challenges.
Roberto Cláudio Rodrigues Bezerra is only 39 — not even 10 years removed from his postgraduate studies at the University of Arizona — and he acknowledges that his hands are full in leading Fortaleza, the state capital of Ceará, located in northeastern Brazil.
Although Brazil has had a national health care system in place for nearly 30 years, Roberto Cláudio says resources have been lacking to improve its quality. One-fourth of his city's budget goes to providing health care, which is impacted by a high crime rate, drug addiction and traffic safety problems. A recent measles outbreak also underscored the city's limitations.
Fast-growing Fortaleza, with a population of 2.6 million and 21 miles of coastline, is also Brazil's second-most inequitable city, and the gulf between rich and poor is widening. Fortaleza was one of the host cities for soccer's World Cup in 2014.
"We have to give priority to the poorest neighborhoods of the city, and that takes time," Roberto Cláudio said in a recent visit to the UA's Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health, from which he holds a master's degree in public health (2002) and a doctorate in epidemiology (2006).
"A major priority is to improve the quality of life in the poorest neighborhoods of the city, and that takes a multidimensional approach.... We must destroy the Berlin Wall of shame that separates the rich city from the poor city."
Assistance is coming in the form of I3For, an initiative involving the University of Fortaleza, the city of Fortaleza and the UA. The initiative will involve research, community development, an innovation ecosystem that connects to industry, and a partnership of the universities. The goal is to address disparities through innovation.
"There are research projects and faculty (at the UA) with expertise and knowledge in areas of our interest," Roberto Cláudio said. "That will be part of the collaboration."
Roberto Cláudio, who has been in office for two and a half years, said the job of mayor "is a major honor but also a major responsbility." During his tenure, he said he has implemented policies and programs in education, infrastructure, the economy and areas of social concern. Although he originally had planned to be a doctor, he gravitated to public health while at the UA and then to public service upon his return to Brazil. He is a native of the country's northeastern region.
"I got involved (in politics) to defend what I had studied," he said. "Some progress has been made (in Fortaleza), but things had deteriorated so much. No one solves a local health care problem in four years."
Describing his city's challenges as "very profound," Roberto Cláudio said the initiative with the UA is unusual.
"It will be one of few international collaborations to address a city's problems," he said. "We are very hopeful about the outcomes."