World Affairs Council of Atlanta President Charles Shapiro was reminded of his first job working for the Atlanta Waterworks when he was asked whether the most rapidly growing countries in Latin America are doing anything to improve their sewerage treatment systems.

Given that at least one-third of the world’s poplulation has no access to toilet facilities, the United Nations has called Wednesday, Nov. 19, ‘World Toilet Day‘ to raise awareness and to call the world to action. 

When asked at a Kiwanis Club of Atlanta  luncheon what Latin America’s winners were doing about sanitation, Mr. Shapiro, the former ambassador to Venezuela and career diplomat, had completed his overview of Latin America’s “winners and losers” in terms of economic growth. He designated Mexico, Colombia, Peru and Chile on the winner side of his economic analysis and put Venezuela, Argentina and Brazil on the loser side.

“I’m not making a value judgement about these countries,” he said more than once. “I am only referring to economic performance.”

He also mentioned Cuba as a special case because there are no available figures, but it was clear that through personal travel he is well aware of the current situation there, where unemployment is rampant but infant mortality is low and life spans are longer than in the United States because of a good public health system.

In response to the World Toilet Day question, he recalled his first job with the water works and his habit of looking for new plants as he flies to countries abroad.

He mentioned Colombia specifically saying that from the air, he could see both water and sewerage plants being developed. “That’s what happens when countries grow,” he said. “They get tax revenues with which to build roads, build highways and sewage systems.”

In a wide-ranging talk in which he analyzed the economies of each of the countries on both sides of the ledger, he discussed the negative effect of a drop in oil prices on both Mexico and Venezuela as well as Ecuador about which he was asked toward the end of the luncheon.

When asked whether he felt that “Latino” culture was responsible for the lack of growth in many of the countries, he emphasized the diversity of cultures throughout the region.

“They all speak Spanish except for Brazil, the biggest, where they speak Portuguese,” he replied. “But I’d say that Honduras and Argentina are as different as Argentina is to Poland. Chile is culturally different and that explains why Chile has done so well.”

With only a few minutes left in which to answer a question that needed a larger timeframe to be answered properly, he did say that he felt culture doesn’t “condemn a nation to live in poverty,” but rather “the lack of the rule of law — a lack of commercial law, the contract economy, the sanctity of a contract” — was accountable.

“And what goes along with that,” he added, “is the corruption part, and the challenge whether you are dealing with Asia, Africa, Chicago [mention of the U.S. city drew a hearty laugh from the attendees] is that outsiders can’t solve that problem for another country…At the end of the day the people of a country have to decide they have had enough of corruption and violence and that the rule of law is more important.”

He concluded by saying that countries do evolve and that he didn’t think anybody 30 years ago would have predicted that Colombia or Peru would be doing as well as they are now. “They are doing remarkably well. They still have challenges but they are doing remarkably well.”

An Atlanta native, Mr. Shapiro was introduced at the Nov. 18 luncheon by his sister Jill, and his mother, Delores, attended. He joined the World Affairs Council in September as its new president. At the U.S. State Department, Mr. Shapiro held numerous senior positions including ambassador to Venezuela and principal deputy assistant secretary for the Western Hemisphere.

From 2011-2013 he was the president of the Institute of the Americas, a thinktank at the University of California San Diego. To learn more about the World Affairs Council of Atlanta, click here.