Ecuador as a non-starter in alternative development

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T. Ginty's picture

The post-2007 development project in Ecuador does not represent a credible challenge to traditional models. While the reforms that began in 2007, and the development project that grew out of them, have been hailed as radical and ground breaking, the reality is much more lacklustre. Radical and ground breaking change has been limited to rhetoric, with actual policies being derivative and ineffectual. Post-2007 Ecuador is a popularist rentier economy, in which income derived from the export of traditional commodities is used to placate the population. Changes beyond the economic system have been of even less consequence. The rhetoric of a new development path is a facade for the Ecuadorian government, concealing a rentier economy and a non-credible development model.

This essay will present the above argument in four sections. The first will explore the rhetoric and ideas within Ecuador's post-2007 development approach. The second will explore the economic realities behind this approach, revealing it as a system of popularist rentierism working within the measurement framework of a traditional development model. The third will discuss other elements of the reforms, showing that these have been derivative and ineffectual. The fourth section will consider long term trends within Ecuador, demonstrating that the new approach has not led to macro-level economic or social change. The conclusion will restate the main points of the essay, reiterating that the reforms in Ecuador do not represent a credible challenge to traditional models of development.

During his inaugural address in 2006 Rafael Correa, President of Ecuador and a leading figure in the country's reform movement, declared that “Latin America and Ecuador are [going through a] change of epoch [breaking away from] the current political, economic, and social system”1 Similar declarations, positioning Ecuador’s reform process as a radical and ground breaking departure from established systems, can be found throughout the relevant literature and commentary. Arturo Escobar, one of the most significant writers about contemporary Latin America, has described Ecuador's reforms as neo-developmental, radical and ground breaking in methods if not in goals.2 Such writings take the rhetoric of Ecuador's leaders at face value, seeing its reforms as a radical departure from established norms.

Two ideas lie at the heart of the rhetoric around Ecuador’s reforms. The first is clear in the quote from Correa – that Ecuador is moving into an era that is intrinsicly different in terms of its political and economic systems. The second idea is implied by the first, and is that the transformations in Ecuador are unique, or at least very different from systems in the present and recent past. These rhetorical claims, that the reforms in Ecuador are radical and ground breaking, do not correlate with reality, as will be shown in the following paragraphs.

The reality of post-2007 Ecuador is neither radical nor ground breaking. The goal of buen vivir, which is at the centre of the country's development strategy, is so vague as to be meaningless. Economic policy has been a popularist exercise in rentier economics, with progress measured by traditional technocratic indicators of development. Other changes, such as plurinationality and the rights of nature, have been either derivative or ineffectual. As the following paragraphs will explore in detail, the reforms in Ecuador have been characterised by their ineffectual and rentierist nature, rather than the radical and ground breaking nature that is claimed by the rhetoric.

The concept of buen vivir was declared by the 2007 Constitution to be the central goal of development in Ecuador. It has been described as “an opportunity to construct collectively a new development regime,”3 and “the basis of the cosmovisions, life philosophies and practices of the peoples,”4 and is generally hailed as the defining feature of a new era. What is missing from such descriptions is a definition of what buen vivir actually is, which stems from the fact is that “there is no single definition of the term [and] there is no universal strategy on how it could be attained.”5 Buen vivir is meaningless; it is a vague notion of collective wellbeing, one that could be expressed and pursued by any set of policies or ideologies. The official centre of the Ecuadorian development project is therefore an illusion, and policies do not have a coherent endogenous goal.

The system that exists in post-2007 Ecuador is typical popularist rentierism, and is measured by traditional standards. The economy is based on the export of commodities such as oil and minerals, and agricultural products such as bananas, coffee, and cocoa.6 Trade in such products makes up more than sixty percent of the country's gross domestic product,7 and is the source for the vast majority of government revenues.8 This revenue is directed, through a participatory process of '21st century socialism,' into projects that have mass support.9 The outcomes of this have been judged in relation to the Plan Nacional de Desarrollo 2007-2010, using standards that Escobar describes as “economistic and technocratic.”10 Far from being a new system, the Ecuadorian economy is based on popularist rentierism, in which income from basic exports is channelled into projects that appease the population. The results of this are then measured by technocratic standards, which would not be out of place in a project based around the traditional modernisation approach to development.

Other elements of post-2007 Ecuador have also been derivative and ineffective. The recognition of plurinationality and efforts to “frame an 'intercultural' legal code”11 are portrayed as paradigm shifting by writers such as Escobar,12 but similar ideas can be found as far back as the colonial period, when indigenous peoples were regarded as a separate jurisdiction from European settlers.13 The idea of rights of the natural world is also portrayed as significant by Escobar,14 although such rights were blatently disregarded in 2011 when the Ecuadorian government held rainforests hostage to extract money from the international community.15 Thus, outside of the economic and political system, Ecuador's reforms have been derivative and ineffectual.

Finally, Ecuador's reforms have made little difference to long term trends. The economy remains dependent on the same commodities that have supported it for most of its history.16 Inequality remains significant, and has changed little since the 1980s.17 Education levels are only slightly higher than in the 1970s,18 as is per capita economic growth.19 By most significant long term indicators, Ecuador has not seen major change in the post-2007 period.

The development project of post-2007 Ecuador does not represent a credible challenge to established models. The Ecuadorian model uses the rhetoric of radical and ground breaking change, but in practice reforms have been derivative and ineffectual. The central idea of buen virir is meaningless, and in practice development has followed a pattern of popularist rentierism and established technocratic measurements. Changes relating to indigenous peoples and the natural environment have been derivative in the first case and ineffectual in the second. The post-2007 period has also seen little change in long term trends, further limiting the reforms' significance. As a result of these factors, the post-2007 project in Ecuador cannot be seen as a genuine challenge to established models of development. The Ecuadorian model is neither radical nor ground breaking, and is instead characterised by its derivative and ineffectual nature.



1Correa, Rafael. Quoted in: Escobar, Arturo. Latin America at a CrossroadsCultural Studies, 24:1, 1-65, January 2010. 5

2Escobar, 2010. 20

3Acostra. Quoted in: Escobar, 2010. 21

4Walsh. Quoted in: Escobar, 2010. 21

5Villalba, Unai. Buen Vivir vs Development: A Paradigm Shift in the Andes?Third World Quarterly, 34:8, 1427-1442, September 2013. 1429

6BBC, Ecuador Profile, December 2013. Online source: URL, accessed 06/06/2014.

8Williamson, Edwin. The Penguin History of Latin America, Penguin Books, 2009 (first edition 1992). 607

9Williamson, 2009. 609

10Escobar, 2010. 21 – 23

11Williamson, 2009. 610

12Escobar, 2010. 20

13Williamson, 2009. 84 – 91

14Escobar, 2010. 25

15Vidal, John. World pays Ecuador not to extract oil from rainforest, The Guardian, December 2011. Online source: URL, accessed 06/06/2014.

16Williamson, 2009. 607




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