After 10 weeks living in Salcedo, the capital of the rural Hermanas Mirabal province of the Dominican Republic, I still sometimes find myself feeling as if I am caught in a time warp. Way back in 2014, just a few months out of college, I moved here for a year to teach biology at the Liceo Científico, the country’s first STEM-focused public magnet school for high-talent low-income students. Though I soon learned a career in education was not what I was looking for long-term, I was inspired by the school’s mission of cultivating future leaders to lead the province and the country in its ongoing economic development. So when I was considering possible options for my summer abroad through the MSFS program, my mind immediately went to the Oficina Técnica Provincial, the local NGO that coordinates the implementation of the provincial development plan of which the Liceo Científico is a part.
Arriving back in Salcedo, the déjà vu hit hard. Some things have changed since I was last here – there’s now air conditioning in the office, there’s two new restaurants in town – but mostly, the area is just as I left it. What has changed the most is my understanding of why the community has chosen to implement the projects they have, thanks to my first year in the MSFS program and especially my courses for the International Development concentration. I felt that I had a much more thorough understanding of the overall vision of the province’s development, and was more prepared to help execute that plan.
The Oficina Técnica Provincial coordinates and provides technical assistance to a network of around 12 community development projects, ranging from a comprehensive job-training program in the local jail to a province-wide beautification program involving more than 500 public murals and counting. Its initiatives can be grouped roughly into 5 categories: improvements in education and health; women’s empowerment; environmental protection; and cultural promotion. Within these broad goals, the focus is on traditionally excluded or marginalized groups. For example, there are offices dedicated solely to improving educational opportunities for children with special educational needs, to providing legal, psychological, and economic support to victims of domestic abuse, and to creating spaces for senior citizens to socialize and feel valued. All these projects are incredibly admirable and inspiring, but I remember having a vague sense of skepticism hearing about them for the first time three years ago. Weren’t these initiatives that only rich First World countries had the luxury to undertake? Shouldn’t the province be focusing on growing the private sector and creating shared wealth before attempting something so ambitious? Thanks to MSFS, I now realize that any program that helps more people realize their potential and contribute to their society’s advancement is essential to economic development. A healthy and educated populace who feel proud of where they come from is a prerequisite to fast long-term growth, especially in rural areas of the developing world. More fundamentally, MSFS taught me not to conflate economic growth with development, or the increased standard of living for the general population. Growth is just a means to an end, and that end is to make people’s lives better.
The slogan of the Oficina Técnica reflects this view: “Desarrollo es Bienestar con Dignidad” translates to “development means well-being with dignity.” The ultimate goal, for it and its partners, is to allow everyone in this community to live a life that fulfills them. Even better, after 25 years of effort this strategy is working; though the province ranks only 15 out of 32 in terms of per capita income, it is in 6th place overall on the UNDP’s Human Development Index. So, even though the Office also works to put in place other rural development essentials, like investments in better infrastructure and improvements in agricultural productivity, it is their dedication to human capital and human development that is most central to their work. In the end, that’s the whole point, and I’m glad MSFS’ Development Economics course put the spotlight on that. I brought that new understanding to tasks like writing blog posts and applying for grants, and my work was better because of it.
If you’d like to check out the ongoing efforts to make the Hermanas Mirabal province a national model for development initiatives, the easiest way is to follow the province’s Development Network Facebook page here.