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Ecuador’s Earthquake: Reconstruction For or With the People? - Philipp Horn

13 June 2016
Quito, Ecuador's capital city image
Quito, Ecuador’s capital city ©Philipp Horn

I landed in Ecuador's capital Quito on 17 April to conduct fieldwork on the country's current development priorities. By coincidence, I arrived just one day after the country's worst humanitarian disaster in decades – an earthquake of 7.8 magnitude which devastated the coastal region. Hundreds of people died, and thousands were injured or left homeless. By the time my plane touched down, the government had called a national state of emergency and started relief and rehabilitation work.

The timing of my arrival meant that I not only learnt a lot about the country's short-term humanitarian response strategy, but also about the conflicts likely to emerge between government and ordinary people in the long-term reconstruction process. This post draws on these initial reflections, and offers a personal account of my two-week visit to Quito which, in this period, was the coordination centre for both the country's short- and long-term disaster response.

Since the election of left-wing President Rafael Correa in 2007, Ecuador's national government has promoted the state as the key actor to set and implement development priorities. This imposed and centralised practice has been criticised by academics, civil society groups and the political opposition as it contradicts the constitutional principles of 'Buen Vivir' ('The Good Life') – the egalitarian, participatory and rights-based development model for which Ecuador is internationally renowned. The government's top-down control was also evident in the post-earthquake context. As one official from the Ministry of Urban Development and Housing (MIDUVI) commented:

The earthquake led to a humanitarian and housing crisis. It must be the government that resolves this crisis. In the past we learnt that residents here don’t know how to help themselves. They built precarious homes and see what’s happened to them. Their houses and lives have been destroyed. We will avoid this happening again.

Indeed, during my time in Quito the government coordinated external technical and financial support and sent out thousands of soldiers, police, fire fighters, doctors, emergency housing experts and other specialised staff to the most affected areas. From what I saw and heard from officials in Quito, the government responded remarkably quickly, and helped those most in need. In addition, it specifically targeted historically marginalised groups (such as people with disabilities) in its response.

Despite the impressive efforts, not every affected area could be reached immediately. This was highlighted both by government staff and by residents in Quito who reported that their relatives at the coast often lacked access to government support. In these cases, ordinary people stepped in to fill the gaps. In Quito, I was impressed by how residents from different neighbourhoods and socio-economic groups set up their own response centres. I volunteered in one of these centres in the city’s San Roque market area, where market vendors donated essential goods such as water, medicine, toilet paper, rice, and clothes. Local community leaders and market vendors, together with Quito-based activists and international volunteers, packed the donations and put them on trucks to reach the more remote villages and small towns affected by the earthquake. Such efforts proved just how wrong the perceptions held by some government officials ('residents here don’t know how to help themselves') are.

Residents I spoke to in Quito also expressed scepticism towards the government's top-down approach and demanded to be involved in long-term reconstruction. A local activist put it this way:

You see, in the past and now with the earthquake, Correa's government does not want to involve people in the design and implementation of its programmes. But it's the houses and lives of us or our relatives that have been affected. Therefore, we want to be involved in deciding how the reconstruction should take place! It is time for the government to stick to its slogan of the 'Citizens’ Revolution' and actually involve its citizens in decisions about the country's reconstruction. 

While Quito’s residents spoke about how reconstruction should occur and who should be involved, government officials were mainly occupied in identifying financial resources to fund the process and worrying about new financial dependencies on the IMF. However, others noted that the earthquake actually represented an opportunity for unpopular domestic reforms. As one government official told me:

To achieve some of our development ambitions we need to raise more taxes from wealthy citizens. Previously we faced a lot of resistance against policies which would help us to address these issues. In a way, the earthquake now helps us to implement unpopular laws.

Indeed, while I was in Ecuador the government ratified unpopular tax reforms to finance long-term reconstruction, including a policy that required citizens with more than USD 1 million in assets to pay a one-off tax of 0.9 per cent of their wealth. Officials whom I interviewed in MIDUVI also told me that they wanted to use the post-earthquake context to push through a law relating to real estate taxes, one which had previously faced fierce resistance from wealthy property owners.

Such policy reforms can certainly be interpreted as a sign the government is interested in redistributing wealth to those most affected and in need. However, what remained unclear was who will be involved in deciding how this reconstruction money should be spent. Will the government continue with its top-down practice or follow a more participatory reconstruction approach? Ordinary residents seemed to demand the latter – it will be interesting to see whether their demand is met.

Philipp Horn is a postdoctoral research associate in the OU's Department of Politics and International Studies and is also part of the SRA in International Development and Inclusive Innovation. He was in Quito, Ecuador in April to conduct fieldwork (funded by IKD) on the integration of the Sustainable Development Goals into Ecuador's national development agenda and Quito's local development agenda. You can follow his work via Twitter.

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