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close this bookThe Courier N 145 - May - June 1994- Dossier : European Union: the Way forward - Country Report: Ethiopia (EC Courier, 1994, 104 p.)
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View the documentImpressions of the Dominican Republic

Impressions of the Dominican Republic

Former EC Commission trainees describe their experiences.

In August 1993, a group of 16 former trainees from the external relations and development direct orates-general of the Commission visited the Dominican Republic.

Their goal was to learn more about the realitities of the European Union's development cooperation with this ACP country. During their two-week stay, they undertook a busy schedule which included visits to a number of EU-sponsored projects and discussions with a broad cross-section of local people including government officials, entrepreneurs, farmers and students. In this vivid account of their trip, Martin Buis and Bod van Dillen recount their experiences. They also give us some of the impressions formed by the trainees about life in the Dominican Republic and about the development process which is currently under way.

Santo Domingo Airport was hot, the atmosphere humid. We were welcomed with a cool drink by officials of the National Authorising Officer, our official host, and a representative of the Commission Delegation. An air-conditioned government bus brought us to the first of our air-conditioned hotels, some twenty kiLomes along the Avenida de las Americas, in Santo Domingo.

We spent about a week in Santo Domingo. It was here that we had extensive discussions with the officials of the Commission Delegation and representatives of the ministries of health, agriculture and education. A Spanish expatriate working for the Education Ministry explained to us, for example, the country's difficulties in the area of primary education. He was happy about the European Union's assistance in providing teaching materials and was very proud of the newly established faculty of artificial intelligence at the Santo Domingo University. One of the main problems he listed was the unwillingness of teachers to work in the countryside, because of the relatively low wages and the bad living conditions. He also said that 95% of children went to school, which seemed a very high figure judging from the number of children playing or selling all kinds of things on the streets. He briefed us on the Union's financial support for a ten year plan which would raise government education expenditure from an estimated 1.4% of GDP in 1989 to 3.5% by the year 2000.

At the Agriculture Ministry we discussed recent subsidised rice exports. We wondered whether this had been a wise thing to do, given the existing poverty and malnourishment of children, especially in the countryside. We gained the impression that a better distribution of arable land would lead to increased production and more equitable income distribution.

The problem of clear land-ownership titles and the new banana import regime were explained to us in great detail during our visit to two banana plantations, where we talked with local producers and the general manager of the export company 'Fyffes'. The Dominican producers felt mistreated because, as non-traditional ACP producers, they could not benefit to the same extent from the favourable trade conditions offered to all other ACP banana producers. Only some of them owned their land, a necessary precondition for getting a loan from a bank.

The representative of the Ministry of Health invited us to visit one of the modern and well-equipped hospitals but instead we went to see a Rural Health Centre. We were struck by the small supply of medicines available and it was explained to us that it was difficult to reach people living in remote areas, because of a lack of mopeds.

It would be wise not to fall ill in the Dominican Republic. There is, for example, only one doctor per thousand inhabitants. Total health expenditure in 1990 was $263 million, which is only 3.7% of GDP or $37 per capita.

The EU supports the country's health and education sectors. Financial assistance is channeled through a counterpart fund generated by the sale of oil. A sectoral import support programme, as a form of balance-of-payments support, was also set up to meet the need for a first quick disbursement of funds after the signing of the Lomonvention.

On our way to Barahona, we stopped for a visit to the oil refinery at San Cristobal. We were informed about safety measures by a local staff member who had recently completed a course in psychology.

He emphasised the need for the workers to feel happy and comfortable, since 95% of accidents were due to carelessness caused by lack of concentration. We thought this might be true, but wondered about the absence of a disaster relief plan, especially since the refinery is located in an urban area.

Water project

One of the projects financed by counterpart funds that appealed to us most was the small-scale drinking water supply provided for some 150 households near the city of Azua. This is a very useful scheme, given that about 40% of the Dominican population lacks access to clean drinking water. We were concerned, however, about the working conditions of those engaged in construction - including a number of young people who were painting the interior of the water tank.

Our trip continued via Barahona to Pedernales, a small city close to the Haitian border. We enjoyed the beautiful, but barren, landscape, the virtually untouched beaches and the warm sea. Near Pedernales we visited a hydro-electricity and irrigation project. It was very impressive to see the irrigation canals, which had been recently completed. The 9.2 kilowatt hydro-electric station had not yet been built, but the proposal was explained to us in detail and looked promising on paper. It can only be hoped that the electricity generated is used for the benefit of the region. The national network is known to suffer from 'leaks'.

Travelling by government-licensed bus and being accompanied by government officials had at least two advantages. First, we were able to travel throughout the country unhindered. Second, and more important, our guides managed to obtain permission from the local authorities to cross the border and visit a Haitian village. We were struck by the absolute poverty. People were hanging around, children were begging for pesos, an almost naked woman was washing some clothes in a brook. In one way or another, we all felt deeply moved. It was perhaps surprising that the Haitians allowed us to take pictures during the performance of a traditional voodoo-dance.

Moving up north to the Lago Enriquillio, we stopped and visited the Las Salinas mining plant, which has been chosen for Sysmin intervention. We were told that the government-run installation has the potential to satisfy the world demand for both salt and chalk. However, due to poor management, lack of efficiency and equipment shortages, average production is apparently less than 10% of potential output. Profits had not been reinvested since, according to the spokesman, the authorities had never shown any interest in maximising (export) production. Turning the plant around seems likely to be a formidable task.

We also visited one of the seventeen so-called 'zones francas', which are enclosed business parks. The companies involved pay low taxes and can therefore fully exploit the export possibilities of the Caribbean Basin Initiative, as well as the Lomrade preferences. The majority of these 'fiscal paradises' are privately run, but they are set up with help from the government, with a view to creating jobs. We were shown a video, made to persuade American companies to move to the free zone, which mentioned local salaries of just 66 cents (US) an hour, with only 11 days' annual leave. A large majority of the workforce are women. The spokesman, a well-dressed businessman, explained the 'Cuban threat' to us: Cuba is closer to the United States, and if the Cuban regime changes, they will probably end up establishing similar business parks there.

Columbus commemorated

We travelled further up north, via Santiago - the second largest town - to the north coast, where we visited a very interesting project at the archeological site of La Isabela, the place where Columbus reputedly first set foot in the 'New World'. The aims of this project are to transfer the local population to a newly built village nearby, to dig up the remains of the first Spanish settlement and to open a museum to display these remains. The new village, as well as the almost completed museum, looked neat, but there appeared to be little local participation.

The country's largest foreign exchange earner nowadays is tourism. A second international airport has been opened near Puerto Plata and a third one is planned near Barahona. The number of hotel rooms has increased tremendously in the last couple of years. Following the Americans, the Europeans too have now discovered this beautiful island and its low prices. We spent two days in a luxury tourist resort in Sosua, under far better conditions than the country's first tourist did back in 1492! It was something of a culture shock after what had gone before and we felt out of place. From a development point of view, we wondered what spin-off tourism provides for the local population. Amorous relationships between local people and overseas visitors are, of course, not unknown. As young and single maim, we were naturally assumed to be interested in this as well. That is how we found ourselves being escorted to a bar 'just around the corner' and ending up some 30 minutes later in a shabby brothel in the backstreets of Santo Domingo, politely refusing the services tendered. Not surprisingly, AIDS is spreading rapidly across the island of Hispaniola.

We spent the last two days of our trip in Santo Domingo, visiting the restored 'old city'. It was from here that Diego Columbus (Christopher's son) ruled the island and the other 'New World' settlements in the region. We did not visit what must undoubtedly be regarded as Mr Balaguer's most prestigious landmark, the so-called 'El Faro a Colon' - a momentous tomb for Columbus' physical remains, which is also a museum and a lighthouse. The cost of constructing this edifice came to some $40 million - which we thought was perhaps a little too much to commemorate someone who, after all, did initiate the extermination of the indigenous population and usher in centuries of foreign domination. The lighthouse is said to be the most powerful light in the western hemisphere and it projects a cross in the sky - that is, if Santo Domingo's electricity system does not suffer from one of its notorious powercuts.

From the outset, we were interted in finding the answer to two basic questions. Why did the Dominican Republic accede to the Lomonvention, and was its membership (to date) a success?

Links with Spain

Part of the answer to the first question lies in the Spanish entry into the Community in 1986. Spain has traditional links with this Caribbean country and obviously has an interest getting a share of the business opportunities generated under the EDF. There was also the fact of the EC's relationship with Haiti, which also joined the ACP group in 1991. As the difficulties encountered in enforcing the UN embargo against Haiti have subsequently shown, the two countries' destinies are closely linked.

The second question is the more difficult one to answer. Although we visited all the projects currently being undertaken, it was not easy to gauge their overall effect on the country's economic and social development. However, the local staff responsible tried very hard to explain the details to us, to answer our questions and to influence our judgment in a positive way.

From what we saw, it seems clear that the Dominican Republic has considerable potential and the Dominicans seem eager to get things done. On the other hand, it was not always easy to determine what, if any, were the government priorities. It has been suggested that the country's political system is unduly bureaucratic and, on occasion, corrupt, but we were also told that the people are not, in general, unhappy with the economic stabilisation policies pursued by the country's 86-year old president, Joaquin Balaguer. They are apparently sceptical about whether the main opposition leader, Pena Gomez, can do any better. This year promises new elections, which will hopefully take place in a free and fair atmosphere.

Looking back now, five months after our return, we feel that our study trip was sucessful in giving us the opportunity to learn more about this ACP state. For some of us, it was our first visit ever to a developing country; our first chance to witness the realities of the Lomonvention in action.

Our overall impression is a balanced one. Strenuous efforts are being made to develop the country, but a lot still has to be done. There seems no doubt that financial assistance from the international donor community is essential but what about the contribution of the rich people of the country itself? We were told that, if forced to pay high taxes, the rich would simply follow the path already taken by almost one million of their (generally poor) compatriots, by emigrating to the USA. In this context, we wondered what we could say to our critical friends in Europe when asked to defend the external assistance provided to the Dominican Republic.