Humanitarian Action

Why Ecuador’s post-earthquake recovery could help heal deeper wounds

People receive donations from volunteers as rescue efforts continue in Pedernales, after an earthquake struck off Ecuador's Pacific coast, April 20, 2016.

Image: REUTERS/Guillermo Granja

Michelle Arevalo-Carpenter
Chief Executive Officer and Co-founder, IMPAQTO
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In the last 10 years, Ecuador has become a polarized society, yet solidarity around post-earthquake relief efforts has brought a much needed break to a country that needs unity to rebuild.

Polarisation in Ecuador can be seen in discourse online and offline, in public and family life. A 2014 Notre Dame University’s Kellogg Institute paper ranked Ecuador in the top 5 polarised Latin American countries, characterized by the breakdown in any sort of legislative compromise. In daily life, being pro-government or a member of the opposition often defines who you associate, do business or speak publicly with. Most the country’s brightest young people I know avoid politics like the plague.

Things were not always like this. The story resembles that of many other democracies in the West, as Mohamed El-Erian recently summarized in this blog on Agenda. Much is explained by the rise of Alianza PAIS, a pragmatic left-wing government party which has challenged the supremacy and “old ways” of traditional parties. In the meantime, more established parties have been so busy playing defense they have failed to articulate a long-term alternative vision of prosperity to inspire true followership beyond mere opposition.

Then the earthquake struck...

On April 16, 2106 a 7.8 magnitude earthquake shook the entire country and destroyed several small towns at its epicenter in Ecuador’s coastal region. With over 570 deaths, some 4,000 injured, and 2,000 missing just three days after the quake - not to mention billions in damage - the reconstruction efforts in Ecuador will take many months, if not years.

While the world’s press agencies reported death tolls, official declarations and deeply moving stories from survivors, many missed a key story: Ecuadorians of all stripes in major cities poured onto the streets to donate, volunteer and help. Social media was flooded with videos of human chains of volunteers mobilizing to provide water, food and medicine. Over 200 trucks of citizen donations left Quito for ground zero within 48 hours. Dozens of citizen crowd-sourcing initiatives have emerged to map damages, risks and needs. For almost a week now, messages of unity and support have crowded out social media trolls and everyday bantering. For a brief moment in almost a decade, the country has had a break from polarisation, and even radical politicians have rejected ideological fights in the middle of this crisis.

People organize humanitarian aid for victims of the earthquake that struck off the Pacific coast, in Quito, Ecuador, April 19, 2016.
Image: REUTERS/Gary Granja

The most successful international crowdfunding campaign to support relief efforts has been one started by the Global Shapers Hub of Quito, raising over $100,000 to support the Ecuadorian Red Cross in less than three days. Much of the campaign’s legitimacy comes from the diversity of its members, which include a pro-government LGBTI-rights activist, a youth entrepreneurship education specialist, a university fundraising officer, a refugee rights lawyer and the mayor’s chief of staff (also a member of an opposition party). Together, Shapers have demonstrated that the public is eager to support (with their donations) initiatives that transcend political lines and demonstrate multi-stakeholder collaboration.

Healing deeper wounds

A different, in-depth analysis may look at the root causes of polarization and come to a different conclusion around the erosion of democracy in the country. Yet, the results of a finger-pointing exercise will do little to bring the country’s best and brightest to leave polarising discourse aside, even for a moment, to re-build the country together. In fact, practicing collaboration may heal deeper wounds as opponents discover the endless potential of collective action.

Post-earthquake lessons learned from our colleagues in Nepal and Haiti all point to collaboration as the key to reconstruction. No doubt, if Ecuador maintains this unity, it will improve its chances to build back better, beyond bricks and mortar.

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Humanitarian ActionFuture of the Environment
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