MPA@UNC Student Travels to Ecuador: Week One

Waiting outside the Fulbright Ecuador building on our first day of orientation, Jeff Hughes, director of the UNC School of Government Environmental Finance Center and our leader on this adventure, looks up at a power line pole covered with tangled wires going in every direction. “I wonder how they tell what electricity goes where,” he said, setting the inquisitive tone for the trip.

Five of us are here in Quito, Ecuador, with Jeff for the next three to four weeks to study applied environmental finance in water systems. We are a diverse group of graduate students with backgrounds in public administration, international relations, public health, and environmental engineering.

“How much do you pay for water related services?” we were asked. Think about it for a minute…how much do you pay for water-related services each month? You’ll realize you pay for a lot more than just your water bill—you pay taxes, fees, filters, and bottled water. Maybe your Home Owners Association has a storm drainage pond, even. Water permeates our lives, and we’ll be asking the following key questions here:

  • Who pays?
  • What are they paying for?
  • How do they pay?
  • What’s the impact?

And, we’ll be answering a classic question in public administration: how predictable is the revenue? Let’s say you pay for storm water drainage systems out of a general tax fund, but your city also uses that fund to pay for public safety. In a tough budget year, who wins? Is this the best scenario for your city? What better ways are there to collect money to perform this service? These are the questions we keep in our head after the end of day one.

We traveled to CONQUITO—a nonprofit economic development think tank—on a very crowded public transit service for $0.25 per person. The CONQUITO building is a former revolving door factory, which has been transformed into a home for start-ups, much like Durham, North Carolina’s, American Underground at the American Tobacco Campus. There we met with representatives of TripleSalto, the NGO that will be placing us in our one-week service learning project on this trip.

TripleSalto brings urban gardening to impoverished communities in Quito. These urban gardens provide not only an income and food security for the people but promote healthy eating and social cohesion. They also bring in volunteers from all over who benefit therapeutically from helping communities.

This is a model we see often in the United States—private and nonprofit companies come together to innovate and then collaborate with the public sector to bring their findings to the people. Next week, we’ll build a greenhouse and irrigation system, and we’ll study rainwater collection, municipal water use, and water system layout to determine the financial cost of water.