Saturday, June 02, 2012

What's not working here

In college I spent a semester in Denmark partly because I wanted to see what a really well-run society looks like. And it was extremely civilized: people had good free health care, good free education, pleasant public spaces. Studies consistently rank Danes the happiest people in the world. There were few rich people and few poor people. Other than the xenophobia, it was almost an ideal nation.

And Ecaudor, too, has a lot going for it. People here are mostly polite, friendly, and involved with their families. The weather and natural environment are beautiful - it possibly has the most biodiversity per square mile of any nation. It has the potential to be a really delightful tourist destination.

And yet things aren't going so well here. 10% of the country lives on less than $2 a day (adjusted - that's what $2 would buy in the US, not what it would buy here). There are thousands of street children whose parents are dead, imprisoned, deported, or who abandoned their kids. Picketing, purse-cutting, and muggings are rampant in the cities, making them unattractive to tourists. Every house has a wall around it with barbed wire or broken glass cemented at the top to stop housebreakers. Even the grocery stores have security guards. People don't trust the police much anymore since they went on strike and held the president hostage in 2010. People were looting stores and the police did nothing. Freedom of speech is not a right here - people have gone to prison for criticizing the president. Bus accidents are more common here partly because mechanics will rent functioning parts to bus companies so they can pass inspection - then they take them back and reinstall the faulty parts. Firefighters don't always have functioning equipment, and recently there was a case when firefighters refused to show up to a fire. If you go to a lawyer, many will ask "how much help" you want - i.e. if you just want their legal services, or if you will also pay them enough to pay off the judge. Bribing the police is also common.

It makes me realize what difference a well-functioning government makes. It makes me think charter cities are a pretty good idea. Not that Ecuador is a failed state - it does have a decent level of functioning, just not as good as I was hoping for.

The other night we walked in a charming colonial street where families stroll, eating pastries and listening to traditional musicians. A girl with a dirty face, about seven years old, walked up and down begging for money to buy bread. (To be fair, at one point she was doing this with her mouth full of chicken kebab, which made it less convincing.) Eventually she tired of the routine and began playing with pieces of a broken bottle.

I left the street sobbing, furious with the adults and the systems that had abandoned her. The US foster care system is flawed, but at least we have an option other than the street. At 10 pm that girl should be in bed. She should be going to school in the morning. She should have parents who don't let her play with broken glass.

I kind of knew this is what I would see. I wanted to see a developing country to know how most of the world lives. And a lot of it is horrible. Which is why I want to change it.

1 comment:

ajbc said...

It's not just the adults and the system that abandoned her; they encourage her. When I was in Ecuador, my host mom told me that lots of kids are pulled out of school so they can make money for their families by begging. Every dollar tourists give to kids on the street encourages parents to pull them out of school, but at the same time some of those kids might starve without the money--it's sickening.

I've been enjoying reading your and Jeff's thoughts on this trip. Thank you!