This Dominican Province is Revolutionizing Development in the Heart of the Caribbean

Patria, Minerva, and Maria Teresa Mirabal on the 200 peso note. Photograph by author.

When Americans hear the words “Dominican Republic”, they tend to think of the white sand beaches of Punta Cana, major league baseball players like David Ortiz, and (if they are particularly in the know) bachateros like Romeo Santos and Prince Royce. Personally, I think of butterflies. Not real live butterflies, but instead the three metal and wood facsimiles, of progressively larger size, that adorn many of the houses of the Cibao Valley, a rural breadbasket that cuts across the country’s northern half between the Septentrional and Central mountain ranges.[i] These butterflies pay silent tribute to the Mirabal Sisters — Patria, Minerva, and Maria Teresa — three women from the town of Salcedo who became leaders in an underground movement against the dictator Rafael Trujillo and were murdered for it in November 1960, an act that turned them into symbols of the resistance and ultimately ended Trujillo’s three-decade reign less than a year later.

Though these brave revolutionaries have been gone for over fifty years now, their radical spirit lives on in their hometown province that now bears their name. The Provincia Hermanas Mirabal, a 267-square mile stretch of the Cibao sandwiched between the urban centers of Santiago and San Francisco, is now home to a suite of development initiatives that are attempting to go beyond the traditional focus on economic growth to address questions of inequality and quality of life that have plagued Latin America since the imposition of structural adjustment programs in the 1980s.[ii]

A typical display on houses in the province paying tribute to the three sisters. Photo by author.

For those unfamiliar with the intricacies of development history, during much of the 1970s the developing world had easy access to low-interest loans thanks to the massive windfalls that Gulf nations made during the decade’s oil crises and promptly stashed in Western banks.[iii] But in the 1980s, the debts started becoming due, and many countries were unable to pay. The resulting debt crises throughout the developing world made the 1980s what is referred to in Latin America as “the lost decade” in terms of GDP growth.[iv] To make matters worse, though the IMF and other international development institutions did agree to bail out many of these countries, they did so on the condition that governments implement Structural Adjustment Programs to steady their economies.[v] Common requirements included cutting government spending, lowering trade barriers, devaluing currencies, and loosening controls over financial flows, among other changes.

Though some of these reforms were undoubtedly necessary for macroeconomic stability, equally undeniable is the fact that the poor were often the most negatively impacted by these changes — around 75 million people were plunged into poverty between 1980 and 1994.[vi] Prices suddenly rose while funding for government services like health and education plummeted, making clear that “growth”-friendly policies are not necessarily so friendly to the poor.[vii] Even today, Latin American countries have some of the highest inequality rates in the world, albeit much improved from their peak in the early 1990s.[viii]

The Dominican Republic was not exempt from this history of indebtedness and belt-tightening, with the poor absorbing the brunt of the pain. By the early 1980s, the country had amassed almost $2 billion USD of debt through policies like food and fuel subsidies and pegging the peso to the US dollar. Around 85 percent of the country’s income from exports went either towards servicing the debt or keeping oil prices low. So it approached the IMF, which in 1984 approved a $400 million USD loan on the condition that the government would devalue the peso and allow food prices to double.[ix] As occurred throughout the region, these policies imposed the largest burdens on the middle class and urban poor.[x] The resulting riots and protests in the capital city of Santo Domingo and elsewhere killed at least 55 people and injured hundreds more. Though structural adjustment did reduce the country’s deficits, it also caused a three percent decline in per capita income, a similar decrease in investment and consumption, and record unemployment, all while failing to jumpstart GDP growth.[xi] Overall, the decade was indeed a lost one for the Dominican Republic — the per capita GDP grew at an average rate of 0.2 percent, compared to 4.4 percent the decade before.[xii]

Whether in the Dominican Republic or the developing world as a whole, the effects of structural adjustment made clear to many that development needed to look beyond macroeconomics and include the needs of the poor. Throughout the 1990s, different strategies of democratic development, which aims to involve the poor directly in efforts to reduce poverty, were proposed and piloted.[xiii] One such innovation was what is referred to the “human rights approach”, in which success is defined as guaranteeing human dignity, not just an increase in GDP growth rates.[xiv] Though most bilateral and multilateral development organizations now couch their activities in rights-based language, in reality many of them still operate under the assumption that a rising tide lifts all boats, and that as long as they help grow the economy, people’s lives will improve as a result. What makes the Provincia Hermanas Mirabal so unique and inspiring is that it is trying to ensure that those who do not naturally benefit from growth-centered initiatives are not left behind.

The group at the heart of efforts to guarantee inclusive growth and democratic development in the Hermanas Mirabal province is the Oficina Técnica Provincial (OTP). This non-profit, established in 1993, strategizes and coordinates the efforts of a web of smaller organizations that provide services to the vulnerable and marginalized in the province’s three towns, Salcedo, Tenares, and Villa Tapia, as well as the surrounding countryside.[xv] Though in its earlier days the OTP focused on more traditionally growth-oriented projects like improving roads, increasing access to reliable electricity and wastewater treatment systems, and building schools in underserved areas, it has now expanded its activities to assist a wide variety of groups in accessing the benefits of some of these prior interventions.[xvi] Nowadays the OTP’s “red de desarrollo” and government partners strive to ensure that groups such as victims of domestic abuse, the elderly, children with special needs, current and former convicts, and others enjoy a life of bienestar con dignidad, or “well-being with dignity”.

The OTP website’s heading. Screenshot from http://oficinatecnicahm.org/?page_id=8.

The delivery of human development services in the Hermanas Mirabal province combines two increasingly common development and governance strategies in the developing world: decentralization and alternative service delivery. These approaches reflect a renewed interest in social liberalism, a development model which posits popular participation as “the missing link between productive [economic] transformation… and equity”.[xvii] Decentralizing government responsibilities to local governments more in touch with actual citizens and involving the non-profit and private sectors in the delivery of public services are two ways that governments and international organizations are striving to democratic development a reality.

Decentralization involves sending responsibilities and resources from central government institutions to their local counterparts, under the theory that municipal and regional government officials are better able to hear and respond to the concerns of individuals and communities. From the public’s perspective, local officials are generally more accessible and responsive than national politicians in far-off capital cities.[xviii] The result, at least in principle, is that government services are better planned and targeted at meeting constituents’ actual needs. In the case of the Provincia Hermanas Mirabal, the OTP assists in this process by playing an intermediary role between local governments and citizens. It is in regular communication with community advocates to get a sense of local priorities and solicit feedback about existing initiatives, which it then brings to public officials to inform next steps.[xix] For example, one of its flagship projects, the Liceo Científico Dr. Miguel Canela Lázaro, came about in part because discussions with local authorities and the community made clear the demand for a high-quality secondary school that could prepare the province’s students for the country’s best colleges and the 21st century economy.[xx] As a result, the Liceo Científico was founded in 2013 as the country’s first public STEM-focused magnet school designed to provide a world-class education to the province’s most talented youth (Disclosure: I spent one year working at the Liceo Científico in 2014, and ten weeks interning with the OTP in the summer of 2017).

Students entering the Liceo Cientifico, housed in a former special economic zone between Salcedo and Villa Tapia. Photo provided by the Liceo Cientifico.

The OTP and its affiliates also assist citizens in navigating the bureaucracy of public systems, from the courts to executive branch agencies. Two groups in the red de desarrollo, the Centro Jurídico para la Mujer and Centro de Atención a la Víctima, are both places where women, who disproportionately lack access to official institutions throughout the developing world, can go to obtain complimentary assistance for anything from correcting an error on a birth certificate to pressing charges against a domestic abuser.

The support that the OTP provides in connecting citizens with their government relates to the second development concept at play in the province: alternative service delivery, where the government collaborates with private and non-profit actors to improve the quality of public services. This arrangement allows the government to cede its operational responsibilities to more effective providers, focusing instead on its role as manager and regulator.[xxi] In the Provincia Hermanas Mirabal, most projects are collaborations between the OTP, its affiliates, and relevant government agencies at the municipal, provincial, and national levels. The Liceo Científico was not only a result of local advocacy but also of President Danilo Medina’s educational reform efforts. This pilot project is funded through the Ministry of Education and is part of the normal public school system, but the OTP supports the day-to-day operations of the school, from accounting to recruiting.

The streets of Salcedo, the provincial capital. Photo by author.

Similarly, the OTP has partnered with the Dominican Army and local governments on a prison reform project at the local jail. Inmates go on daily runs through the town, enjoy relative freedom of movement within the compound, and receive professional training in everything from computer skills to metalworking. The idea is that upon release, they will have the skills and healthy habits to become productive members of the community and avoid falling back into a life of crime. Finally, the OTP works with the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources to help manage several protected areas in the province, including the Salcedoa Scientific Reserve, home to the world’s only population of the aptly-named plant Salcedoa mirabaliarum. In all of these instances, the government provides the funds but charges the OTP with ensuring that services are delivered in line with citizen expectations and needs. This both improves the quality of government services and results in a rich network of civil society organizations and civic involvement at the local level, a prerequisite for long-term democratic development.

The OTP’s red de desarrollo addresses many of the components of growth that most economists have long recognized: health, education, infrastructure, gender equality, and natural resource protection. But beyond all of that, the OTP’s core mission is to build a province that works for everyone, to go beyond encouraging growth to spreading the benefits of that growth. Many of its affiliates do just that. The Centro de Atención a la Diversidad provides educational services, including home visits, for children with special educational needs that are not addressed through the official school system. The Casa de la Tercera Edad provides a space where Salcedo’s elderly inhabitants can go to socialize and take part in recreational activities like sewing and dominoes. The Casa de la Juventud runs summer camps and after-school programs for children and adolescents who might otherwise get involved in drugs and violence. The Escuela de Bellas Artes provides art-inclined youth with the opportunity to develop those skills. And the semi-annual Festival Cultural Hermanas Mirabal, put on in collaboration with the Ministry of Culture, attracts thousands of visitors while celebrating the province’s rich rural culture, boosting pride in a province threatened by emigration to nearby urban centers.[xxii]

Near Salcedo’s central square, a sample of the more than 500 murals that the OTP has sponsored throughout the province to encourage tourism and local pride. Photo by author.

All of this serves as a needed reminder that economic growth is a means to an end, not an end in itself. The OTP and its partners understand this, and the data reflects their success so far: though the Hermanas Mirabal province ranks just 15 out of 32 in terms of per capita income, it places sixth on the UNDP’s Human Development Index.[xxiii] This is not to say everything is perfect in the area. Salcedo has gained a reputation for a darker kind of revolutionary politics as well, with some members of the community engaging in periodic strikes that can turn violent and deadly. There are also valid questions about how non-governmental organizations like the OTP can preserve their autonomy and downward accountability while being so dependent on government funds for their continued operations.[xxiv] But while it may have a ways to go, the Provincia Hermanas Mirabal is well on its way to honouring the revolutionary nature of its namesakes in fighting for a better life for its people and making sure development efforts are working for and involve everyone.

Endnotes:

[i] N. Terence Edgar, “Structure and geologic development of the Cibao Valley, northern Hispaniola,” Geological Society of America Special Paper 262 (1991): 281.

[ii] Pablo Tactuk, “Division Territorial 2015,” Oficina Nacional de Estadística, October 2015: 297–298. http://www.lmd.gob.do/transparencia/phocadownload/Publicaciones/Division-Territorial-2015.pdf

[iii] “The LDC Debt Crisis,” in History of the 1980s: Lessons for the Future, (DC: Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, 1997), 192–195, https://www.fdic.gov/bank/historical/history/191_210.pdf

[iv] See, eg, Margaret Daly Hayes, “The U.S. and Latin America: A Lost Decade?” Foreign Affairs 68, no. 1 (1988): 180

[v] Duncan Green, “A trip to the market: the impact of neoliberalism in Latin America,” in Developments in Latin American Political Economy — States, Markets and Actors, ed. Julia Buxton and Nicola Phillips (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999), 14–16.

[vi] Green, “A trip to the market”, 22.

[vii] Green, “A trip to the market”, 16.

[viii] Nora Lustig et al., “Declining Inequality in Latin America in the 2000s: The Cases of Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico,” World Development 44 (April 2013): 1.

[ix] Emelio Betances, “Building Social Citizenship: Popular Movements in the Dominican Republic, 1992–2014,” in Popular Sovereignty and Constituent Power in Latin America: Democracy From Below, ed. Emelio Betances and Carlos Figueroa Ibarra, Carlos, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan US, 2016), 140.

[x] Rosario Espinal, “Economic Restructuring, Social Protest, and Democratization in the Dominican Republic,” Latin American Perspectives 22, vol. 3 (July 1995): 67.

[xi] Espinal, “Economic Restructuring,” 66.

[xii] Espinal, “Economic Restructuring,” 68.

[xiii] Richard Peet and Elaine Rachel Hartwick, “Critical Modernism and Democratic Development” in Theories of Development: Contentions, Arguments, Alternatives, ed. Richard Peet, (New York: Guilford Publications, Inc, 2009): 314.

[xiv] “Principles and Guidelines for a Human Rights Approach to Poverty Reduction Strategies,” Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, 2006, iii, https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Publications/PovertyStrategiesen.pdf.

[xv] Oficina Técnica Provincial, Documento de Trabajo: 2016–2020 (2016), 1, http://oficinatecnicahm.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/documento-de-trabajo-2016-2020-web.pdf.

[xvi] “Documento de Trabajo”, 4.

[xvii] Henry Veltmeyer, “The Poverty-Development Problematic,” in Poverty and Development in Latin America: Public Policies and Development Pathways, ed. Henry Veltmeyer and Darcy Tetreault (Sterling: Kumarian Press, 2003), 26.

[xviii] “Decentralization: Rethinking Government”, in World Development Report 1999/2000: Entering the 21st Century, World Bank Group (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 107–109.

[xix] “Documento de Trabajo”, 1.

[xx] Oficina Técnica Provincial, Liceo Científico: Genesis de un Proyecto (November 2015), 3. http://www.liceocientifico.org/uploads/1/6/0/4/16046240/liceo_cientifico_origen.pdf

[xxi] Richard Batley and Claire Mcloughlin, “Engagement with Non-State Service Providers in Fragile States: Reconciling State-Building and Service Delivery,” Development Policy Review 28, no. 2 (March 2010), 135–136.

[xxii] Oficina Técnica Provincial, Genesis de un Proyecto, 3.

[xxiii] Oficina Técnica Provincial, Documento de Trabajo, 3.

[xxiv] See, eg, Jude Howell, “Civil Society and Development: Genealogies of the Conceptual Encounter,” in Civil Society and Development: A Critical Exploration, ed. Jude Howell and Jenny Pearce (Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2001), 34–35.

International development professional based in Washington, DC. Boston College '14, Georgetown University SFS '18.

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