04 December 2006

Cracking the Whip of Progress

Our latest presidential election took place the other day here in Ecuador. It is undoubtedly the most important decision that Ecuadorians make as a nation, the highest expression of a 25-year old democracy. Concerned citizens exercised their God-given right to participate in choosing their development path as a nation. A nearly 100% turn out rate! Beautiful.

Yet, in the first round, 17% of the people voted “nulo”, and a noteworthy percentage left the ballot blank, which combined placed them in third place. In the second round the figures, although lower, weren’t much different. So, one might ask, why would anyone make the effort to go out and vote, just to scribble all over the ballot or fold it up and stuff it in the urn without writing a thing on it? Well, although there are many possible explanations, an important one is the law obligating people to vote. That’s right. As in the majority of Latin American countries, if you want to get or renew a passport, open a bank account, travel outside of the country and a whole slew of other important transactions, you must present your voting certificate. Is this democracy after all?

This all made me think about other relevant current events. Congress is close to approving a sweeping health bill that, among other things, gives doctors permission to provide first term abortions for women whose health or life would be endangered by carrying their pregnancies to term. Of course, many concerned citizens opposed to any form of abortion decided to demonstrate their ire by taking to the streets. So far, so good. The march took place in the morning on a weekday, and to my surprise, its ranks swelled with thousands of children, adolescents and youth as reported by the local press. So, one might ask, don’t these children go to school? One might also ask how so many adolescents have become so well informed and organized around this volatile issue. Simple, they are obligated to go. That’s right, entire schools and high-schools bus their students to these marches, give them signs and tell them to make noise. Even more surprising is that if these schools didn’t act so strangely, many parents would actually put their children in schools that did.

Indigenous people in Ecuador have a rich history of community building. Most indigenous communities are tight-knit units, highly organized around elected administrations with hundreds of years of history. The most remarkable element of this organization is the minga. The entire community turns out to help one of its members build a house, an animal pen, sow or reap the harvest or plough a field. Women, men and children participate in the event by working, cooking, cleaning or all three. In this way the community prospers because it takes care of its members by providing invaluable services to those who have no other means of properly doing so. Yet, again, they are obligatory. These are especially punitive as the water or electricity is cut off for the house whose members didn’t participate.

Other examples abound, some more and some less punitive. Surely, leaders of these events must have their reasons for obligating people to participate. I assume that left to their own not enough people wouldn’t vote, or protest or help each other to keep these institutions working. They aren’t mature enough to act properly, so obligating them will provide a structure, albeit a propped up one, around which society can function until, one day, they will realize how beneficial these actions are and will rise up to do them on their own. Meanwhile, people vote “nulo” because both the candidates and the entire process are meaningless to their daily lives, children scream slogans they don’t understand, and the minga is full of fearful participants.

This archaic scheme could only be acceptable as a parallel effort with sizeable investments in education, so that people may gradually become responsible enough to make mature decisions. Sadly, this seems to be the case only in isolated, local, privately funded efforts, as at the national level it doesn’t pan out. According to the 2006 UN Human Development Report, Ecuador spent 3.4% of its GDP on education (These are 1991 figures, although more recent figures from other sources put the investment between 1.5 and 3% of GDP). Comparatively, (2006 figures) the 10 countries with the highest Human Development Indicator ratings, average 5.7%. The USA spends 5.9%, Cuba 9.7%, Norway 7.7% and Israel 7.3%. Closer to home, Chile spends 3.7%, Colombia 4.9%, and Brazil 4.1%. Of these, only Colombia doesn’t obligate its citizens to vote.

Several things become clear from all of this. At least in Ecuador, obligating people to do things isn’t carried out as a stop measure. It is rather a cultural fixture. Investing in education has not been a priority for our leaders, in spite of noteworthy goals (the current goal is to gradually raise spending on education to 6% of GDP in ten years time). Not surprisingly, Ecuador has one of the least stable political systems (recently rated on a par with Haiti by The Economist), as no president has finished his 4-year mandate since 1996. This indicates that people are increasingly rebellious as any child becomes with overly strict parents. International institutions and corporations request greater political and economic stability to invest in infrastructure projects. However, until our leaders find the link between greater investments in education and more mature and productive citizens, these requests will go unfulfilled. Can our leaders expect anything different?