Saturday, May 22, 2010

Responsible Short-Term Foreign Presence from the Developed World in Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic

In addition tothe long-term foreign presence I wrote about in my last blog, there is also the presence of foreigners that are in the Puerto Plata area short term. These foreigners come through tourism or volunteer and/or mission trips. Tourists also normally stay in secluded resort areas. Some take part in tourist excursions where they see more of the country. I am in disagreement with the way that the majority of such excursions are run which at times intrusively parade tourists through very impoverished communities without truly educating tourists about the lives of the inhabitants, the challenges they face, and any solutions they can support in making change. They simply pass through sometimes handing candy out to begging children. One excursion leads tourists through in horse drawn carriages. Children from the community have learned to run after the carriages and beg. This image depicts a system that we would hope to change. This depicts a system of rich and poor, subordinate and dominant, royalty and peasantry. This is the enemy of equality and empowerment.

We are making efforts to take such a situation in one of the areas where we have a grassroots school and turn things around so that tourists are educated about the community, efforts being made toward positive change, and are invited to support. We are doing this by setting up an internet center and call center where local artwork will also be sold. Once the center is in full function, we will make contacts with those in charge of running the various tourist excursions that pass through the community, asking them to lead their groups to the center. Profit made at this center then will support the school and other projects to benefit the community.

There are many different organizations and groups that lead volunteer teams on short-term trips. Sometimes volunteers stay for longer periods of time as well. Groups may be medically focused running day clinics and distributing medicines, they may complete a work project such as building or painting, or they may run some sort of educational activities for locals. A critique and concern I have about these trips is that they sometimes have the end goal of providing an experience for the volunteers rather than creating true lasting positive change in the community. A goodgoal and rule of thumb when it comes to such trips which we implement is to be sure that the end goal is not for volunteers to just have an experience but to truly and intentionally bring their presence around full circle to where the community is being empowered in some way. Here are a few examples of how this can be done:

  1. Have the volunteer group fundraise/gather necessary equipment and execute a project that leaves a small business in the community which generates funds from within the commuunity, allowing community development efforts to take place year round.

  1. Determine a skill or knowledge the volunteer group possesses that would be practical and beneficial to pass on to the locals. Execute educational activities in order to pass on the skills or knowledge using care and honesty to be sure that everything is successfully communicated.

  1. Be intentional about analyzing areas in need of development, conducting simple surveys to obtain some basic information that can be shared with others working in the same area or desiring to do so. This information is also useful to accurately understand a situation and explain the situation to those at home, educating the foreign community and rallying support. Be careful to not make any assumptions but conduct well translated surveys and interviews to obtain accurate information.

  1. Require volunteers to engage in continued activities upon returning home that raise support and awareness for the community in which they volunteered. It is also wise to give volunteers a pathway to serve in their own local community upon returning home.

These four practices keep volunteer trips from being a “hit and run” where volunteers obtain an experience an pictures to share but leave nothing lasting in the community. A few last words of advice to groups truly wanting to instill change are focus and persevere. Focus in order to be effective in one thing rather than ineffective in many things. Don’t give up when problems arise but take the time and patience to understand the problem, learn from it, pick up and continue.

Every effort should be made to connect short term volunteer trips into ongoing sustainable efforts. I recently met the co-founders of a new non-profit organization in the Puerto Plata area that is thankfully doing just that in the medical sector. We are in the process of planning ways that our two organizations can partner. Health Horizons International trains community health workers and plans three medical service trips a year focusing on five communities in great need. They are working to build a sustainable system where the community health workers continue caring for patients throughout the year and patient records are kept to ensure that there is continuity between groups.

Time will tell if this model successfully meets the medical needs of the counities they serve and the success will also, just like anything else, rely largely on the continued effort of the staff and volunteers that carry the model out. Nonetheless, the type of thinking that went into creating this model is just the type of thinking volunteer groups working in developing countries everywhere need to have – turning short term efforts into something that lasts long term, has continuity,and truly aims to create change in the community.

Responsible Long-Term Foreign Presence from the Developed World in Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic

The Dominican Republic, located on a Caribbean island just a short plane trip away from the United States and Canada, has a large foreign presence from the developed world. To give an example, for a short period of time I taught math in a bilingual (English and Spanish) private school (pre-K through 12) in the area called OyM Hostos School. This school is American run and staffed by many Dominican teachers but also many foreign teachers, mainly from the United States, Canada, Great Britain, and Germany. The student population is similar with many Dominican students, students of foreign origin whose families now live in the Dominican Republic, or students with one Dominican and one foreign parent. In addition to the foreign nationalities represented among the teaching staff, I taught students who are Russian, Korean, and Spanish. The majority of students with one or both parents as foreigners are German. I can’t speak for the entire country but there is a large German population in Puerto Plata. Furthermore, I have met Austrians, Serbians, Italians, Australians, French, Switz, Argentines, Peruvians, Perto Ricans, Brazilians, and South Africans who live here as well. Our organization, Project Esperanza, works with the large Haitian population but Haitians and foreigners from other Hispanic countries are in a different category than the North American and European foreigners from more developed nations I am referring to here.

Many members of the foreign population live in secluded areas with a high percentage of foreigners as residents. There are some, such as myself, who live more intermingled with the local population, usually married to or in a relationship with a local. My husband is a foreigner as well. He immigrated from Haiti. Haitians typicaly inhabit the areas of Puerto Plata found to be the least desirable and work jobs that are also viewed as least desirable.

All members of the foreign community in a developing country such as the Dominican Republic and more specifically those from the developed world should bevery aware and intentional about the effect of their presece. We should not further a segregation betewen class, race, and nationality, but should use our priviledge of living and receiving education in a developed country to infuse such positive practices we possess into the developing country. A great way I have seen this done here in Puerto Plata is through OyM Hostos School. In this school the foreign presence sets a standard for organization, puntuality, and higher achievement altogether. Dominican teachers and students are a part of an institution that functions much more effectively than many other institutions in their society. They will likely adapt to certain positive practices and carry them, at least in part, to other instititutions in which they have a presence.

It is important to note that it is not simply the North American and Eurpopean presence that makes OyM Hostos School an empowering institution in the community, but it is their presence along with the way the school is run with teamwork and equality. I am aware of a similar bilingual private school in a nearby community that does things differently and has a different effect .Foreign teachers are paid a starting salary that is significantly higher than Dominican teachers. A school run with such underlying principles does not empower Dominican students and teachers but more so flaunts foreigner priviledges, declaring that the key to sucess is to be or become North American or European rather than the key to success being the succesful practices that led the developed world to be able to provide its citizens with certain priviledges.

Those of us who understand that it was not us personally that successfuly developed these countries but we simply benefit priviledges created by those before us will seek to use our priviledges to empower developing communities to do the same rather than to flaunt our priviledges in the developing community’s face as something we choose to remain difficult for them to obtain...something they have to compromise their culture and often personal and family life to obtain. Those of us who understand this and believe this should work toward creating more community empowering institutions and activities with patience, teamwork, and hope.