Thursday, July 2, 2015

Ecuanomics ~ a Volunteer Perspective


Bananas, prawns, cocoa, oil, and coffee - that's what the Ecuadorian economy is made of, according to the statistics. Take any bus from Guayaquil to the sierra and you can't miss the acres of leafy green banana plantations, the hectares of skeletal cocoa plants left barren after the May harvest.

But there's one additional factor to add to the list, something that you'll never read about in The Economist or Forbes or Bloomberg BusinessWeek; one very simple principle that keeps the world turning here in Flor de Bastión and weaves its way through the very fabric of the national economy.

It starts with the education system. Imagine you govern a developing country with limited financial resources and a significant poverty level. One of your many responsibilities is providing free primary and secondary education, but here's the problem: there are five million schoolchildren in your country and only enough schools for half of them. What do you do?

You divide up the school day, of course. Half the kids in the country go to school in the morning from 7am until noon; the other half use those very same schools in the afternoons from 1pm until 6pm. Every building, every desk, every single facility is shared in order to open up access to education and further social equity.

Don't have the resources you think you need to survive? Doesn't matter, you can still manage. Just share the resources you do have: that's Ecuanomics.

The same idea applies to the local economy here in Flor de Bastión, a fairly young invasion community in which every resident is living dangerously close to, if not well below, the poverty line. Not everyone has all the money they need to buy the ingredients for groceries or toiletries or household items every day, so the existing money in the community is borrowed and lent in a complex system of partial payments and zero-percent interest.

Pay me half today, I'll manage for tomorrow, and next week when I need to buy school supplies I'll come to pick up the other $5 you owe me: that's Ecuanomics.

But these unspoken agreements extend far beyond mere financial agreements between vendors and clients; they also include time and service. A local church group, made up of people who are themselves heavily economically disadvantaged, make regular visits to local people even more in need. The same mothers who have to feed a family of six on $12 a day will take a bunch of bananas, a pound of rice, or a few eggs from their own homes and take them to the houses of the sick or otherwise needy, will sit with them and provide company and conversation, will clean their house or feed their dog or take their kids to school.

However little you have, you’re still in a position to help someone worse off than you: that’s Ecuanomics.

As a Starfish volunteer, I’ve been lucky enough to experience more than my fair share of this generosity. As well as opening their homes and kitchens, Starfish families have offered me a special insight into this fascinating country. They’ve shown me what it means to be Ecuadorian, they’ve taken me in like a long-lost daughter, they've given me the gift of melodic Pacific-Coast Spanish. From an impromptu house invite for fresh ceviche one week, to a complete history of Latin American dance styles (complete with demonstrations) the next, I can honestly say I feel nothing less than privileged to be accepted into this community.

Of course, the golden rule of sharing economies like these is to contribute an amount equal to or greater than what you have received. But as eager as I am to share my passion for teaching, my love for the English language, and my mathematical knowledge, I can’t help the feeling that I’ll never really be able to reciprocate for what has been offered to me.

Giving on this scale is more than just a financial gesture; it has left an indelible mark on me, forever changing the way that I connect with others, challenging me to open myself in a way that I hadn’t thought possible before.

And that, in a nutshell, is the definition of Ecuanomics.

~Sanchia R, Volunteer.  Sanchia returned to Starfish this summer as our Volunteer Coordinator after volunteer for 3 months last fall.  She is a certified English teacher and a seasoned world traveler.  Check out her other blog posts at:

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