Is Paraguay a third world country?

Simple question, right? So you would usually expect a simple answer. However, in this case the answer has proved to be incredibly complex and often misleading.

DISCLAIMER: Please note that I do very much enjoy living here in Paraguay. I write about this to simply expose certain situations for what they are.

As I sit here in the brick-walled courtyard beyond the small office patio and listen to the typical city sounds of passing cars and barking dogs, my mind returns again and again to the task of making heads or tails out of my South American experience. The truth is… I really don’t know what to think about this country. Sure, I experience life here everyday, but I am having trouble classifying this country’s status; it eludes and defies explanation. I can’t for sure call it third world like I can India. Here they have clean water, many cars on the roads, adequate shelter, the Internet, and other relatively modern amenities. But I certainly wouldn’t compare it to first world countries like the United States, England, Japan, Canada, etc. So the jury is out. Maybe my lack of certainty is due to how mentally burnt out I am, but I feel like this confusion has an exterior source. As odd as it may sound, I think this ambiguity comes from the very culture of which this country is founded. I touched on this idea yesterday, although poorly, and I want to delve a little deeper and make things clearer.

I believe that what makes this country so difficult to understand is how its people perceive first world concepts (e.g. high productivity, outsourcing, delegating tasks, higher education) and judge them using preexisting cultural biases to create a sort of cultural hybrid. Let’s take a look at a sampling of what I’d label “first and third world tendencies”.

What characterizes Paraguay as third world?

In short: it depends. It varies. From my experience (which is limited), it seems that third world countries have a couple things in common: oddities in daily life and cultural inconsistencies that seem to hold the country back from progressing and catching up with the rest of the world. For example, you may have a modern looking office with desks and phones, but the technological infrastructure (like printers, computers, Internet) is outdated by at least five years. You may have a mobile Internet card that boasts of being 3G compatible, but you’ll be hard up to actually find a 3G network anywhere in this country. On the other hand, but in a similar vein, you may find a thin beaten filing cabinet and expect it to not contain much more than dust and bugs, but instead find highly organized, finely printed files. These contrasting pictures are common and pervasive as one explores the city of Asunción. I can’t speak for any of the other developed cities like Cuidad del Este.

In terms of cultural inconsistencies, one may observe that school for children starts on time every day, rain or shine. However, if you arrive on time for a governmental meeting, expect to be stared at. No professional meeting ever starts on time, but rather 30+ minutes late. So too, expect to experience lazy, half-hearted and almost always incompetent service. But do other people complain? No. Do they know it’s bad? Yes. But from their point of view, it’s just something you live with. Culturally, people here have been raised to accept nonsense like this because sadly, the status quo here has stayed in the grips of the corrupt. So while myself and other Americans find it hard not to scream at whoever it is that can’t seem to find their way out of a paper bag, folks here just deal with it.

And while I’m thinking about it, expect better service at McDonald’s then from national customs agencies or “professional” services. That’s just the way it is.

What makes Paraguay seem deceptively first world?

As I started my post, I said I was sitting outside on the veranda… but what I neglected to mention was that I was receiving a wireless signal that was allowing me to work on this post online while simultaneously checking my mail. You can’t do that in a country that doesn’t have at least some sense of modernity.

(… note that most of this was conceived while at the office but developed after work. I do my job.)

So, modernity mixed with the “ye olde”, modern medicine mixed with folk remedies, tall buildings with the Native Americans camped out close by in a park. This is the image that is imprinted in my brain, and once again I have had the experience of a situation that defies true explanation.

Or at least it defies explanation with the spare time I have to think about it. Maybe I’ll write more on this later.

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