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What Defines a Third World Country?

"Third World" is a term invented in 1952 by French demographer Alfred Sauvy. It had political connotations at that time, but it now simply refers to underdeveloped countries in general. Although it's typically thought to signify poverty more than anything else, after our recent trip to South America, my wife and I have come to understand it in another way.

Ana, my wife, was born and raised in Ecuador. She remembers using buckets of water to take a shower, because the city she lived in as a child didn't have running water in all neighborhoods. We were in Ecuador in October of 2007, and we were disappointed to learn that thirty years later, there still isn't running water in many towns. It is particularly sad given the economic boom that has taken place in the country in the last six years or so.

Third World Means a Lack of Basic Services

A short while back, we bought a small piece of property in San Vicente, Ecuador, a hundred yards from the ocean (the Pacific). Ana's grandmother was building a small house on it, and we were curious to see how it was coming along. It was almost complete, but faucets and a nice shower can be misleading, as it turned out. When I turned on the shower no water came out.

Neighbors explained that the city had water once every week or two for a few hours, usually on Thursday mornings. The house had a large cistern that held thousands of gallons of water, which was filled whenever the city water came on. This easily lasted until the next time the water was on, but Ana's grandmother was still hauling buckets of water from the cistern into the house for showers, dishes and general cleaning.

As quickly as we could we bought a pump, so now there was running water all the time, except for the occasional hour when the electricity fails. Unfortunately pumps are stolen quickly we were told, even from walled communities, so we had a cement pump house built, with a locking gate, solving that problem.

The whole process had me wondering about basic services. Never a fan of higher taxes, I nevertheless felt they might be needed here. Property taxes were something like $25 per year. This seemed nice at first, but consider the thousands of houses here, most with an expensive cistern, a pump (or a gravity-fed system with a tank), and a pump house that locks. These extra costs were a result of a system that didn't have enough tax revenue to function properly.

What if the taxes were a little higher? Could the city have a water system that worked then, thus avoiding the necessity for all these other costs? This would also mean that the poorest residents, who don't have a cistern and pump, could have running water too.

Roads were another thing that caught our attention. A politician had come through and built nice new roads ten years earlier, but since that time not one penny had been spent repairing them. It shows. Traffic goes slow and cars drive all over both sides of the roads to avoid the worst holes and bumps. There is expensive damage caused to cars I am sure. I guess no thought was given to the cost of maintenance - or any plan for it - when the roads were first constructed.

Big Cities and Small Towns

The water and power are always on in Guayaquil or in Quito, the capital. There the streets are maintained, and people are buying cars and everything else with easy credit. Shopping malls are nicer than anything I've seen in the United States. There is obviously money here, and there are even new subdivisions popping up all over. More people than ever are buying new homes due to easier mortgage loans.

Unfortunately this development is very uneven. Most small towns still have poor roads, problems with basic police service (don't leave clothes drying on the line overnight, we were warned), and no regular running water. This lack of basic services is what really sets third world countries apart from the rest, we decided.

Everywhere where private companies are involved, things are going well. There are wonderful malls, new ways to buy cars and homes, and even some nice private parks to visit. The internet service in the big cities of Ecuador is as fast as in any other country.

On the other hand, anything done by the government is done poorly at best. Roads, parks, water and sewage systems, and anything else they touch don't seem to work. Maybe the first thing that a third world country like Ecuador needs is to start contracting these things out to private businesses. Many of the poor of Ecuador who can't afford a thousand-dollar cistern and pump could afford to pay a bit more in taxes to have basic services, and might not begrudge someone profiting from providing this.

Our latest visit to Ecuador, and what we know about other such "poor" countries which are actually rich in resources, has made us reconsider the term "third world country." It seems to us that a lack of basic services more accurately defines such countries. It also seems that bad government above is the root cause of the problems they face.

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