The Dominican Republic has one of the fastest-growing economies in Latin America, which has helped to reduce the poverty rate significantly – from 44% ten years ago to 34%. However, public services such as health and education are poor in many areas as the country struggles to meet the basic needs of its 10 million citizens. And while Dominicans are far better off than their Haitian neighbours, there are vast inequalities between the rich and poor. Many Dominicans feel social issues would be better addressed, if it weren’t for the corruption scandals which have plagued the country’s politics over the past few years.
In a recent report, the BBC’s David Botti visited the Villa Altagracia municipality to see how some Dominicans are looking to the next generation to solve society’s problems. In one local school, children were regularly falling ill from drinking water contaminated by sewage. A new water tank has just been installed at the school, but not by the local government. The arrival of clean water is all thanks to a 15 year-old major. Yonerys Florentino sits on a municipal youth council. This council is elected by children for children and young political groups of this kind have been set up across the country. Although the youth councils are not part of official government, they have real power to make changes locally, hence the arrival of the water tank. Yonerys told the BBC “I couldn’t put up with these children having diseases. I saw adults couldn’t fix this, so I decided to.”
The youth programme is not just a way to improve life for local people. The initiative’s organisers also hope the programme will have an impact on politics as the next generation grows up. They hope these youngsters will have higher expectations of politicians in the future and less tolerance of corruption. One 12 year-old town councillor admitted proudly to the BBC “unlike adult politicians, we can’t bribe people and say vote for me and I will give you this”. Another youngster spoke openly of the weaknesses which effect national politics, explaining how adult politicians “offer money and force people to vote for them”. Since around 85% of children and teenagers have voted in their local youth elections over the past few years, organisers hope that once they enter adulthood, these youngsters will be “more democratic citizens” and help to promote “more democratic processes.” In the meantime, the youngsters can pride themselves on getting projects done at a local level and helping their communities.