Earthquake reveals the problems with Ecuador’s famous ‘good life’ policy

Living his best life? EPA/Jose Jacome

Disasters have a way of revealing the gap between what a government says it wants to do and what it actually does. As Oxfam’s Duncan Green put it, disasters can bring to light some of the tensions, contradictions and strengths of a country’s political and development agenda.

So it went after Ecuador’s recent earthquake, which not only represents the largest humanitarian but also the most significant housing crisis for the country since decades. More than 600 people died, thousands of people were injured and left homeless with their houses and surrounding infrastructure destroyed.

The earthquake uncovered some of the tensions between the government’s official ideas about development and its actual practices, which often ignore constitutional rights. It also revealed that while the government allegedly intends to cut ties with supposed ideological enemies such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), it’s actually working to renew partnerships with the very same institutions.

Ecuador is renowned for its inclusive and participatory development model, which is known as “Buen Vivir” (the good life). In a nutshell, Buen Vivir means that no one should live well if others live poorly, and that humans and nature should coexist in harmony. It is enshrined in Ecuador’s 2008 constitution, which also outlines a vast array of political, economic, social, and cultural rights.

These include collective indigenous rights, the right to nature, and the right to the city. The latter is the guideline for Ecuador’s sustainable and socially just urban development vision, according to which all urban residents are entitled to the full enjoyment of the city and its public spaces.

Citizens are meant to be directly involved in the design, implementation and evaluation of urban policy interventions. These should go beyond a singular focus on housing and infrastructure provisioning. Instead, urban policies ought to address diverse cultural, social, economic, and political interests of citizens, including those who have been historically marginalised such as the poor, women, children, people with disabilities, or ethnic minorities.

All well and good on paper, then – but in practice, things look rather different.

A widening gap

In recent years, indigenous rights and the right to nature have been blithely ignored by the government, which has prioritised resource extraction over specific and supposedly sacrosanct constitutional rights. Urban development interventions have also rarely followed constitutional guidelines on the right to the city, but replicated and expanded the top-down and single sector practices of previous governments, namely housing subsidy schemes and large-scale social housing construction projects.

After the earthquake, this dissonance continued to play out in awkward ways. As a large number of houses had been destroyed, the government introduced specific post-earthquake housing subsidies and presented the first plans for a new social housing project for earthquake victims which it will implement jointly with the Ecuadorian real estate giant Mutualista Pichincha.

These fast top-down, public-private interventions will certainly give shelter to some of those left homeless, but it’s unclear how they will reach those most in need, who might well find it difficult to access subsidy schemes or social housing units. And in the long term, it remains unclear whether and how the government will move to a more inclusive and holistic urban development approach that follows the constitution’s clear principles.

Time to rebuild. EPA/Christian Escobar Mora

If it doesn’t, ordinary citizens will most likely not get a say in the reconstruction of earthquake-hit towns and cities, and the specific interests of those most in need will probably be omitted.

This tension was seized on by local urban activists in Quito in a post-earthquake manifesto, which called for an alternative, bottom-up national reconstruction and development agenda, one that protects all citizens’ rights to the city, including the recent earthquake’s victims.

Hunkering down

Implementing national development agendas often requires international support and alliance-building. Just as his left-leaning counterparts in Bolivia or Venezuela have done, Correa intended to sever Ecuador’s links with international organisations such as the IMF or the World Bank and forge new alliances, both with countries such China and with regional organisations.

The Ecuadorian president, Rafael Correa. EPA/Freddy Constante

These new alliances were put to work in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake. Member states from the Union of South American Nations and the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of our Americas were among the first to send rescuers, as well as financial and technical support. Government staff I recently interviewed in Quito particularly stressed the important role of Chile, a model state for earthquake response.

But the earthquake caught Ecuador at a moment of already serious financial dependency. A global drop in oil prices prior to the earthquake had already led to a decline of Ecuador’s oil revenue, an increase in debt (especially to China), and cuts in social spending.

On top of this economic and financial crisis, the earthquake caused approximately US$3 billion worth of damage. With only US$300m of emergency response money in place, the government sought further financial assistance and returned to the negotiation table not only with China but also with the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), the World Bank and the IMF. By the end of April, a credit of US$600m was already signed with the IDB and the World Bank.

Forging ahead

The earthquake also gave the government a chance to push through some surprising reforms that have been deeply unpopular with entrenched, powerful interests. Days after the earthquake, it was announced that citizens with more than US$1m in assets must pay a one-time tax of 0.9% of their wealth, while those earning more than US$5,000 per month will have to contribute five days of their monthly pay to the government for earthquake recovery measures.

The government also pushed through a law to regulate territorial and land use management, and to introduce new measures for real estate taxes. In a country where wealth redistribution laws, tax reforms, real estate controls and local government oversight have all met severe political resistance from wealthier groups and local bureaucrats, these emergency reforms are a rare chance to redistribute resources to those most affected by the earthquake.

Even alongside all the unpalatable deal-making, the earthquake response can certainly be interpreted as a first step towards a more egalitarian and socially just type of development. But it’s still unclear just who will decide how the money raised will actually be spent.

And overall, it remains to be seen whether the government can actually make good on the constitution’s bottom-up, egalitarian ideals – or whether it’ll just continue with its top-down business as usual.