UN expert says poverty, lack of employment is at the root of Ecuador’s plague of violence
Poverty is the primary reason for surging violence and insecurity in Ecuador, the UN’s expert on human rights said Friday following a two-week visit to the country. Although he urged the government to increase law enforcement efforts against drug cartels operating in the port cities, he said investment in education, healthcare and social programs was the long-term solution to the plague of violence and crime.
“Alarm over the recent spike in crime and violence in Ecuador, including the appalling assassination of presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio, should not distract us from the root causes of this insecurity,” said Olivier De Schutter, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Poverty.
“A lack of job opportunities and poor education have made young people easy recruits for criminal gangs,” the expert said. “And these gangs are in turn fueling poverty by extorting small businesses, taking hold in schools and disrupting children’s education, and creating such fear and despair that a growing number of Ecuadorians are simply leaving the country. This vicious cycle can only be broken if the country invests more in its people.”
He cited the closure of schools during the Covid-19 pandemic as a reason some young people joined the gangs. According to Ecuador’s census and statistics office, about 14% of high school students did not return to class once schools reopened.
During his visit, De Schutter traveled across Ecuador, meeting with people living in poverty – including representatives of indigenous communities and people of African descent – as well as civil society groups and public officials including outgoing President Guillermo Lasso.
The Special Rapporteur praised Ecuador’s generosity towards refugees, particularly the roughly half a million from Venezuela. He also acknowledged a number of recent achievements: a significant reduction in child malnutrition, increasing the statutory minimum wage, and expanding the social protection budget from US$ 500 million in 2020 to US$ 1.2 billion by 2023.
However, De Schutter highlighted ongoing issues keeping people in poverty.
“Schools in Ecuador are not only unsafe; the quality of education is so low that they fail to compensate for the disadvantages experienced by children from underprivileged backgrounds,” De Schutter said. “And despite more money in the pot, a poorly updated social registry means officials are struggling to ensure social protection benefits reach those who need them the most.”
The Special Rapporteur also expressed alarm at the urban-rural divide in Ecuador: while nationally 38% of the population lives in poverty, the rate stands at 70% in rural areas, compared to 23% in urban areas. In some urban slums, however, such as those in crime-plagued Guayaquil and Esmeraldas, the poverty rate is similar to that in rural communities.
“It is telling that poverty rates are highest in the provinces where indigenous groups are overrepresented,” De Schutter said. “It must never be forgotten that as well as a right to free, prior and informed consent to any change affecting their lands and territories, these groups also have the right to basic services – to healthcare, water and sanitation, and especially to education – no matter the logistical challenges or costs.”
De Schutter urged Ecuador’s next government, to be elected in October, to continue improving the progressivity of the tax system and shift the budgets currently ringfenced for fuel subsidies towards meeting the needs of rural communities, particularly indigenous groups and Afro-descendants.
“Fuel subsidies are a lifeline for many poor communities, particularly those living in remote areas”, De Schutter noted. “Yet the $4.5 billion USD that went to these subsidies in 2022 would have been better spent in financing schools and healthcare for the poorest communities, and in increasing social protection.”
He added: “Provided this shift is gradual and well sequenced – with increased support to communities coming first, and the gradual phasing out of fuel subsidies accompanying social investment – the conditions of a just transition can be met,” De Schutter said.
Referring to recent referendums that voted to halt oil exploitation in part of the Yasuní National Park, a protected area of the Amazon, and mining in the Chocó Andino biosphere, near the capital Quito, the expert welcomed the results and called on the country to move away from its current model of extractivism.
“The real wealth of the country is not in its subsoil; it is in its people and the priceless wellbeing they derive from their environment. What is needed now is not to dig deeper, but to increase social investment. This is the challenge I put to Ecuador’s next administration.”
De Schutter will present the final report of his visit to Ecuador in 2024.