In my last blog post I used the term “hit and run” referring to short term volunteer groups or even tourists who visit the Dominican Republic, have a good time whether spending time at the beach or engaging in activities with locals, taking pictures, then return home and continue with their normal lives. Their experience in the Dominican Republic remains a memory but other than the experience, memories, and pictures, no real and lasting connection exists between the individual or group and the community that was visited. This is the situation that I referred to as a “hit and run” but after receiving some feedback, I realize that this comment needs further explanation.
Here the economy is very slow and there is little opportunity for work. It is not entirely accurate to assume that locals are lazy and don’t want to work or lack business ideas that could be implemented to create work and profit. It is more accurate to understand that the economy is depleted. There is a lack of start up resources and there is a lack of consumers with resources to which goods and services can be marketed and sold. There is also, in many cases, a lack of local leadership and training but this is not hard to find a solution to with thousands, tens of thousands, and hundreds of thousands of people available tolearn when a proper teacher or teaching team is present.
Whether or not members of communities here have cognitively recognized that these are the missing factors that cause the economy to remain slow, they do realize that visitors from the developed world possess resources that are lacking here and this causes their presence to be exciting and bring hope. However, as in any situation where one is excited and hopes are high, there is the risk of being let down. It is important, therefore, for foreign visitors to fully realize the effect of their visit and to be wise and sensitive accordingly. It is my point of view that if someone or a group cannot engage in such a relationship with the developing world with great sensitivity, conscienciousness, and committment than it is best not to engage at all. Any other such engagement ends up in some sort of exploitation. The Dominican Republic is full of the negative effects of such exploitation.
After locals have had a few encounters with “hit and runs” – foreigners who cheerfully visit but do nothing to create change in the community long term and begin to serve as a reminder of what locals do not have rather than bring hope for a brighter future, some locals take on a mindset that they should learn to get what they can out of visitors while they’re here. The most honest way to do this is to market products or services that foreign visitors seem to like and jack up the prices. Such products include alcohol, cigars, jewelry, and artwork. Such services include hair braiding, massages, and tourist excursions where visitors are led further into local communities on horseback, horsedrawn carriages, four-wheelers, go karts, or monster trucks, and sometimes to experience natural attractions such as waterfalls. I am not suggesting that all such activity causes negative effects but some have seemed to in the past when executed without careful consideration and sensitivity.
First, it is important to realize that those conducting such business with foreign visitors are indeed reaping a profit but this profit often benefits them personally rather than benefiting the local communities, schools, members of society in most need, etc. During the 2008/2009 school year I was responsible for two students in a small elementary school located in a rural area about twenty minutes outside of the city of Puerto Plata. This school had an established relationship with a monster truck tourist excursion business. Things seemed to pick up throughout the year, but by the end of the year, according to reports from the students I was responsible for, about four trucks full of about 20 foreign visitors each visited the school almost daily. Dominican public school days last about four hours and quite honestly, they do not provide very high quality education. Private schools do a much better job but still do not cmpare to the education I received from U.S. public schools. The students reported that visitors from the monster trucks interacted with them during recess. Often times they would have their pictures taken, would receive small gifts, or would come home with e-mail addresses. They once reported that one visitor threw coins up in the air and a group of kids mobbed to fight over the coins. They said that after recess their teacher always called them back into the classroom to begin class. Sometimes visitors came to stick their heads in the doorway and take pictures of the class.
Apparently community members began flocking around the school while visitors came in order to beg. The school’s director ordered these community members to leave. I became increasingly frustrated with this situation and believed that the school had compromised its purpose and the education of the students in order to entertain tourists. Also, the students I was responsible for are smillar to family members for me so imagining how many random people had taken their pictures was... and still is.. unsettling. I spoke to a teacher about this once, just stating that I heard about the visitors. He was filling in some paperwork as I spoke and without looking up, proudly replied that yes, this school receives visitors from the U.S., Canada, France, etc. With the schools Project Esperanza runs things are done much differently as far as visitors are concerned and I wanted to share my thoughts but felt sheepish to do so. I didn’t share my concerns with the teachers at this time The school year ended and the two boys did not attend the following year. This is an example of how such tourist excurions can be disruptive and exploitive from a local point of view.
Other ways locals have learned to benefit from the presence of foreign visitors is through dishonest business transactions or blatantly stealing as well as prostitution. Prostitution is present in various forms here in the Dominican Republic. To give a few examples, there are prostitutes who sell themselves on street corners at night and there are wives and mothers who “go out with the girls” every now and then but end up making money from a gringo somehow during their night out. There are homosexual men that move here or visit here occasionally who seek out relationships with boys on the streets. Shoe shine boys have reported such men becoming shoe shining clients but then the man eventually invites the boy to his house where he attempts to engage in a sexual relationship in exchange for food, clothes, money, etc. It has been my experience with the police here that they are not very motivated to bring about justice by the mere presence of injustices but are motivated by money. I have never attempted to persecute one of these men for this reason but plan to do more research here in the future should the situation arise again.
I am not relating this next situation to or labeling this prostitution but it is common for foreigners who visit here often to have a local boyfriend or girlfriend who they take care of financially in some way as long as the relationship lasts. These people may not feel as though they fit into a “hit and run” category because they do leave with a connection here and are helping someone out financially in some way. However, I have seen this situation largely taken advantage of as well. For example, I recently learned of a woman who lives in a community we work in who had a gringo boyfriend buy a nice, new vehicle for her. The word is that when her boyfriend visits, she says that her husband is her brother so that he thinks she is single. The husband is, of course, well aware and in on the business. I have seen this happen on various occasions. Perhaps the foreign boyfriend does not expect his Dominican girlfriend to be 100% loyal but I just use this example to point out the fact that funds being channeled into the country in this way does not necessarily create positive change in society. If anything, it sets an example for another exploitive practice. These flings are, of course, very different than more serious relationships and marriages between foreigners and locals.
In conclusion, as members of the expat community, it is important to be intentional about your presence here and to realize the effects that your presence has on the local community. The local community is honestly fragile in many ways, has been taken advantage of, been toyed with, and has taken advantage and done its toying in return. Or perhaps the abuses were simultaneous, I am not sure. Regardless, those of us from the developed world must admit that we, in general, have access to more resources which gives us more power which leaves us with more responsibility. So instead of asking those with less power to resist the temptations our presence poses them, we should act first in changing our practices. The more powerful party should set the stage. The local community needs sensitive and considerate interactions with the foreign community in order to become more stable and for such abuses to end. Let’s be aware of whether we are supporting a negative system or a positive system in the way we spend our time in the Dominican Republic or any other developing country.