I am currently visiting family and friends in Ecuador, where I cannot help but be confronted daily with poverty and inequality. Having lived here in the early 1990s and returning at least every couple years since then, I’ve been able to observe the changes occurring – some positive but many negative – in this country I love, and which are indicative of trends in Latin America and other parts of the developing world. Unfortunately, one area that I’ve witnessed deteriorate over the years is the level of security and safety, and I can’t help but think this has something to do with the extreme levels of social and economic inequality.
Latin America has some of the highest levels of inequality in the world. According to the 2007/2008 Human Development Report, the ratio of income controlled by the richest 10% to the poorest 10% in the U.S. is 15.9 (in Japan it is 4.5 and in Finland 5.6). In contrast, in Ecuador it is 44.9, in Brazil it is 51.3, Colombia 63.8, and Bolivia a whopping 168.1. With such high levels of unequal distribution of income, it isn’t surprising that crime is also on the rise.
Without a recent history of civil war or military oppression as in other Latin American countries, Ecuador was previously seen as an oasis of relative tranquility. When I lived here in the early 1990s, I travelled throughout the capital city and the country on bus and on foot, and was never robbed or really even felt insecure, though I did take common sense precautions because I knew that petty crimes were somewhat common. Each time I come back, however, I hear stories of increasing insecurity and even violent crime.
Several years ago, I was stunned by the explosion of fancy shopping malls in Quito, with prices at or higher than those in the U.S., and I couldn’t help but wonder what would be the psychological effects of a globalized consumerism out of the reach of the masses would be on society. Having access to better goods and services is a good thing, but in this case having all the latest toys and luxury items thrown in your face but without the educational and economic opportunities to afford them could only lead to problems, I reasoned.
On one of our first days here, I got to experience these contradictions first hand. Due to the vision of some dedicated municipal leaders and transportation planners, Quito has made some positive improvements in public transit, namely the electric Trolebus, which runs from the north to the south of the city and gets about 200,000 riders everyday. It’s a convenient way to get through the increasingly congested city, and we decided to take it to a new children’s museum (El Museo Interactivo de Ciencia). The museum was wonderful, engaging for both our 6 and 9 year old, another example of many of the positive artistic and cultural developments in Quito in recent years. On the trip back, however, my sister-in-law had her wallet taken from her purse in the crowded Trole, putting a damper on the day. We were conscious of the risk and careful but were not able to avoid this unfortunately common occurrence.
These problems are not unique to Ecuador or Latin America, of course (and shouldn’t discourage anyone from visiting them because there are so many wonderful places and things to experience). But they should also provide caution to societies like the U.S. that are experiencing growing social and economic disparities. Inequality may be good for a few for awhile, but the social disintegration that will likely prevail eventually isn’t good for anyone.