Globalization and Education in the Dominican Republic
Sarah Chevallier Thursday, 10 February 2011
Globalization's proponents assert that it fosters wider access to information, resources, and opportunities while its opponents warn of "a new colonialism that manifests itself through economic domination, cultural aggression, and political imperialism." Globalization's problems and potential are particularly evident in the case of the Dominican Republic's educational system. The current global recession negatively affects the government's ability to provide quality public education, but international religious organizations have begun to construct a middle option between costly private schools and underfunded government schools. Far from being a form of colonialism, mission schools provide culturally viable educational opportunities that empower Dominican students to be responsible citizens.
With a GDP that ranks 118th out of 194 countries in the world, the Dominican Republic is one of the poorest countries in the Caribbean. In the past, globalization has lifted the country's economy, especially through trade relations with the United States. Sixty percent of Dominican exports are sent to the U.S., and remittances sent to the Dominican Republic from the U.S. account for about a tenth of Dominican GDP. Unfortunately, the Dominican economy suffered as American demand for Dominican products slipped and U.S. remittances shrank five percent in 2008. In 2009, President Fernandez had no choice but to negotiate a new 28-month, $1.7 billion standby agreement with the International Monetary Fund.
The Dominican Republic's continuing economic struggles affect its ability to provide quality public education. In 2006, the country spent 3.6 percent of its GDP on education, putting it at 126th in the world for education spending; in 2007, it spent only 2.2 percent of its GDP and slipped to 165th in the world. Only 16.1 percent of the Dominican Republic's poorest children between three and five years old attend pre-school, in contrast to 75 percent of the richest. (Pre-school education increases readiness for first grade, giving the latter group an advantage.) USAID describes the Dominican education system as "overwhelmed by poor infrastructure, few hours of actual class time, frequent teacher absences and limited didactic materials ... [C]onsequently, Dominican children have fewer opportunities to develop into productive citizens and are subsequently at increased risk of economic and social abuse."
While the worldwide economic downturn is undoubtedly part of the problem for the Dominican Republic and its education system, globalizing forces are also a part of a possible solution. Foreign-based non-profit organizations—especially religious organizations, many of which are Catholic—are bridging the gap between local needs and global resources by founding mission schools. These mission schools challenge the status quo, in which private schools are only for privileged children and the poor have no choice but an often second-rate public education. Private mission schools create a middle ground between these two extremes. As Mary Sheila Maksim has argued, these schools provide an education that does not discriminate "against the poor, academically struggling, or disabled, but welcome[s] them, and benefit[s] them more than public systems." In addition to providing an education, these schools are also dedicated to "developing the rounded person who is able to achieve his or her own full potential, make a valid contribution to the community and live in harmony with others."
The role of religious organizations in development constitutes, as Peggy Levitt asserts, "an under-utilized, positive force that social scientists and activists can no longer afford to ignore." Seth Kaplan describes this force, stating that "religion's potential to spur development is enormous, especially in the world's poorest, most fragile states... [F]aith-based organizations are often the only locally organized groups working among the destitute, filling in for governments where governments are too feeble to provide even basic schooling and health care." In many countries in Latin America, the Catholic Church plays dual roles as an influential advocate and provider for the poor and underprivileged and as a participant in many states' power structures. Though it once rationalized colonialism in Latin America, the Church has since transformed—most notably through the modernization efforts of Vatican II—into a contextually and culturally authentic "world church" that integrates its values into the existing setting. Today, there are over 35,000 Catholic social welfare institutions, 16,000 Catholic elementary schools, and 9,000 Catholic secondary schools across the continent.
While global economic ties will always have both positive and negative effects, mission schools in places like the Dominican Republic challenge the claims of globalization's critics—especially claims that globalization is culturally aggressive and politically imperialistic. First, they do not promote cultural aggression because they adhere to the religious beliefs of the local people (who are part of Catholicism's "world church"). The Dominican Republic is an officially Catholic state, and 95 percent of its citizens are Roman Catholic. Local mission schools are culturally acceptable because they are true to Dominicans' Catholic traditions. One example of such a mission school is El Hogar de Niñas Hijas de la Altagracia in Bani, Dominican Republic. Founded in 1990, El Hogar is funded and supported by the Immaculate Conception Foundation (an American nonprofit) and run by Dominican religious sisters. El Hogar currently houses 25 girls and provides assistance to another three girls who have started attending college. Elias Valdez, one of the administrators of the Immaculate Conception Foundation, says El Hogar makes no religious requirements but is simply motivated by the precepts of the Catholic faith to enable the girls to "carry on their own life with dignity."
Second, mission schools do not constitute political imperialism because they promote responsible local citizenship. El Hogar not only teaches students to read and write; their education sets them on a path towards escaping the cycle of poverty and consequently enables a more empowered participation in civil society and public affairs. One former resident of El Hogar received a scholarship to complete her doctorate and is now studying medicine in Spain. Other alumnae have worked as teachers, administrators, and secretaries—including four who have been recognized for their excellent management of a children's museum. While El Hogar's limited resources proportionally limit its effort to fill this critical socio-educational role, its affiliation to the Catholic Church helps supply the infrastructure necessary to achieve its goals. Looking ahead, the Church's global resources and its international and local connections are potentially capable of standardizing and expanding models like El Hogar into a streamlined movement of alternative education. This alternative education could serve as a crucial stopgap measure, as ongoing economic difficulties may continue to dim the prospects of Dominican public education in the foreseeable future.
Globalization's impact is deeply felt in places like the Dominican Republic, and it provides both challenges and opportunities. While economic interconnectedness often proves a liability during a downturn, solutions to local problems can also be catalyzed and supported via global connections. Foreign-run mission schools like El Hogar in the Dominican Republic demonstrate how religious motivation and international resources can work in tandem to foster healthy citizenship and a brighter future. These mission schools, while foreign-based in their organizational structure, are legitimized both through their affiliation with the local Catholic Church and through their contribution to cultivating the next generation of responsible citizens. Globalization may always present difficult challenges, yet it can also become, as former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan once said, "an engine that lifts people out of hardship and misery, not a force that holds them down."
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 Sister Mary Sheila Maksim, "Review: What America Can Learn from School Choice in Other Countries," Catholic Education 12, no. 2 (December 2008): 281-283.
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 Bishop John H. Ricard, SSJ, "The Engagement of the Catholic Church in Peacebuilding: Burundi and Beyond," United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Justice, Peace and Human Development, http://www.nccbuscc.org/sdwp/international/peacebuilding.shtml (accessed 21 September 2010).
 Elias Valdez, Administrative Circle, Immaculate Conception Foundation, Personal Interview, 14 October 2010. For more information on the Hogar de Niñas Hijas de la Altagracia and the Immaculate Conception Foundation, please visit http://www.fuinco.org/?m=201008.
 Kofi Annan, opening address, 53rd Annual DPI/NGO conference, New York City, New York, 28-30 August 2000.