11 Better Ideas for a Country in Need of Social Change
Even nations with long histories of inequality and violence carry lessons for how to move toward what might be called a more perfect union.
Across the globe, nation-states provide benefits that remain elusive to those living in the United States, from universal child care and health care, to women’s representation in government, to humane addiction treatment, to meeting the basic human need for sustenance, joy, and a clean, healthy environment. Governments from Australia to Rwanda, from Sweden to Brazil, and from Kenya to Belarus have devised policy solutions to bolster the health, well-being, and basic functioning of their societies, sometimes at the urging of grassroots organizers. And while no country is a utopia, even nations with long histories of inequality and violence carry lessons for how to move toward what might be called a more perfect union. Each of these examples prove that with policy and grassroots activism, it is possible to create equitable opportunities for everyone to grow and thrive.
1. Mountains and Rivers Have a Say
The rights of nature movement seeks to grant legal standing to the environment—rivers, trees, mountains, forests, and more. While a handful of U.S. cities have adopted the idea, it’s been most successful abroad. Ecuador was the first nation to incorporate rights of nature into its constitution in 2008, going beyond simple legal standing. There, nature has the right to restoration, regeneration, and respect. Bolivia followed, enacting its Law of the Rights of Mother Earth in 2010. New Zealand has approached nature’s rights more specifically, granting personhood to the Whanganui River in 2017, as well as naming royal and Maori legal guardians who are empowered to bring suit on behalf of these newly affirmed ecological persons.
2. A Focus on Drug Rehab, Not Punishment
After more than a decade spent battling rising heroin use, Portugal made history in 2001 by becoming the first country in the world to fully decriminalize the “consumption, acquisition, and possession” of all narcotic and psychotropic drugs. The sale and distribution of drugs remain illegal—and drug dealers are prosecuted, though penalties are reduced for users who sell solely to fund their own habit. But anyone found with less than a 10-day supply of any illicit substance, from marijuana to heroin, is referred to a local commission composed of three people: one legal expert and two medical doctors, psychologists, sociologists, or social workers. That commission then makes a recommendation for treatment, with an explicit goal of rehabilitation. Methadone and clean needle services are easily accessible. In 2016, 30 people died of drug overdose in Portugal; in the U.S., more than 63,600 people died.
3. More Women in Government
In the wake of the Rwandan genocide of 1994, women’s societal roles shifted drastically, and a generation of widows and orphans was pivotal in rebuilding the economy. Women’s political equality took center stage. The country’s new constitution, adopted in 2003, mandated that women make up at least 30% of parliament; they took 48% of seats in the first election. Today, Rwanda’s parliament has the highest level of women’s representation of any country in the world. As of August 2020, 61.3% of the members of Rwanda’s lower house of parliament are women, and in the upper parliamentary chamber, 38.5% of members are women. While Rwanda continues to struggle with poverty, corruption, and gender-based violence, it also boasts some of the highest rates of women in the workforce in the world, and the maternal mortality rate dropped 77% between 2000 and 2013.
4. Universal, Affordable Child Care
In Sweden, child care has been a cornerstone of family policy for nearly half a century. The Scandinavian country was one of the first to adopt the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, and it now offers universal child care to all families with children from ages 1–12. Subsidized in part by national and municipal taxes, out-of-pocket costs for families are capped according to income level. A two-parent Swedish family with two children spends an average of 4% of their annual net household income on child care costs—while a U.S. family with two parents and two children spends four times as much for child care: 16% of their annual net household income. Sweden’s subsidized child care is just one component in a suite of family-centric government benefits, including a child allowance that increases with the number of children, and generous paid parental leave.
5. The End of Single-Use Plastic
Kenya imposed the world’s strictest ban on plastic bags in August 2017, imposing steep fines ($40,000 USD) and potential prison time for anyone caught using, selling, or producing plastic bags. Eight months after the ban’s implementation, environmental officials reported fewer plastic bags flying through the air, and less plastic waste in waterways and in the guts of fish and other animals. Although enforcement was uneven—street vendors were particularly hard-hit, without subsidies to offset the high cost of cloth bags or other reusable containers—most officials called the ban a success, and neighboring nations considered similar policies. In June 2020, Kenya took another major step toward reducing plastic waste by banning single-use plastics in all protected areas, including national parks, wildlife reserves, beaches, forests, and conservation areas.
6. Car-Free City Streets
In the mid-1970s, the Colombian capital city of Bogotá pioneered what has grown into a global movement to—at least temporarily—remove cars from congested city streets. Every Sunday and national holiday, the city of more than 7 million people closes most of its streets to vehicle traffic, in a tradition known as ciclovía, which means “bikeway.” Pedestrians and bicyclists swarm the streets, and vendors, artists, and musicians turn out in force for the weekly city-wide stroll. Today, cities across Europe, Latin America, and even a handful of U.S. municipalities have joined the car-free or “Open Streets” movement, designating days or entire areas of the city where cars are forbidden. In addition to encouraging bike transit infrastructure, cultivation of green spaces, and social cohesion, removing cars from city streets has tangible environmental benefits. A 2016 research review on European and Latin American cities found as much as a 40% reduction in nitrogen dioxide levels on car-free days.
7. Grandmothers in Charge
The Mosuo, who live in the Chinese Himalayas, are a matriarchal society. Women are the heads of families: They carry on the family name, make financial decisions for their intergenerational household, and inherit property. Men live with their maternal relatives, and play a significant role in childrearing and household duties. The Western concept of marriage does not exist. When a woman reaches maturity, she is free to take a male lover—or several. If pregnancy results, the child is raised in their mother’s household, and there is no stigma around bearing children from several men.
More on the Mosuo grandmothers: yesmagazine.org/mosuo
8. Healthy Mothers
In the final years of the Soviet Union, Belarus struggled socially and economically, and the health of its citizens suffered. This was particularly true for pregnant women, who experienced a maternal mortality rate of 33 out of every 100,000 live births in 1990. By 2017, Belarus boasted the lowest maternal mortality rate in the world—just 2 maternal deaths for every 100,000 live births. (Italy, Norway, and Poland have the same mortality rate.) Beginning in 2005, the government launched several initiatives to improve maternal health, including building health care facilities in rural areas, deploying nearly 2,700 OB-GYNs, and providing stipends for pregnant women to see a health care provider during their first trimester.
9. Public-Private Universal Health Insurance
In Australia, a decade-long legislative battle over access to health care resulted in a public-private health insurance system that is broadly regarded as one of the best in the Western world. The publicly funded program, known as Medicare, subsidizes public hospitals, and covers medical care—including mental health and pregnancy care—for all Australians. New Zealand citizens, as well as permanent residents of either country, are eligible to enroll in the program. Those subsidies come from a federal income tax, in addition to local levies. Out-of-pocket prescription drug costs under Medicare are capped at $39.50 AUD ($28 USD) per prescription, with lower costs available to low-income residents. Private insurance is also available, and provides coverage for services not covered by Medicare. The government sets income thresholds to determine which taxpayers are eligible for a rebate on their health insurance costs, and which are required to buy private insurance or pay a fine.
10. Serious About Education
Since the end of the Korean War, South Korea has made drastic investments in its education system, taking it from a nation where 80% of the population was illiterate in 1945, to now boasting one of the highest educational attainment levels in the world. In 2019, nearly 70% of Koreans ages 25-34 have a post-secondary education (compared with barely 50% of Americans in the same age range). The federal Ministry of Education oversees primary, secondary, and post-secondary schools nationwide; primary and secondary school is universally available, and the national high school graduation rate is 95%. Korean students—of all ages—consistently earn some of the highest test scores worldwide in math, science, and reading. Teachers in South Korea are well-paid, among the most educated in the world, highly regarded in society, and have exceedingly low attrition rates.
11. People’s Right to Healthy Food
Building off Brazil’s grassroots Movement for Ethics in Politics, Belo Horizonte enacted a municipal law in 1993 that established a universal right to food, creating a commission of government officials, farmers, labor leaders, and others. The commission was charged with a mandate to “increase access to healthy food for all as a measure of social justice.” Now, 26 years later, the city has effectively eliminated hunger among its 2.5 million residents. Belo Horizonte’s food security system comprises 20 interconnected programs that approach food security in different ways, including offering fixed, low-cost fresh and healthy food at “popular restaurants”; providing food directly to schools, daycare centers, clinics, nursing homes, shelters, and charitable organizations; and connecting producers with consumers at farmers’ markets and stands. The entire program costs less than 2% of the city’s annual budget.
More on Belo Horizonte’s food program: yesmagazine.org/belo