Amelia felt trapped. There are not many options available for an unskilled 18-year-old mother of two living in Matamosquitos, a low-income community neighboring the posh hotels of Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic.
Then, less than one year ago, she made what she said was the “most important decision of her life”. She applied to the TUI Academy, a program run by Plan International in the Dominican Republic targeting at-risk young people, especially girls. The program provides certification in various hospitality industry disciplines, as well as access to apprenticeships and internships at local hotels.
Through the program, Amelia is now employed at a high-end hotel in Punta Cana. For the first time in her life, she has a steady income. She is saving for her family and is daring to think about getting her own house in the years ahead. Beyond the skills and income, Amelia especially prizes the self-confidence the program instills in its participants.
Punta Cana has been the epicenter of an ambitious “high-touch” tourism development effort in the southeastern part of the Dominican Republic. Almost a billion dollars’ worth of government-encouraged investment over the last 30 years, coming from a range of foreign and domestic investors, have transformed what was once a sleepy part of the island of Hispaniola into a thriving high-end tourist destination.
Tourism industry growth has helped the Dominican Republic post some of the strongest economic growth rates in the region for the last two decades (more than 6% until about 2016; more recently growth has dropped to under 5%). This has helped reduce the poverty rate some (from 32% in 2015 to 30% in 2016). But as a World Bank report stated, with only 2% of the population in the Dominican Republic climbing to a higher income group over the last 10 years, the prosperity has not been shared.
The result? Despite the visible progress in many parts of the country, you don’t see that much progress in communities like Matamosquitos. Poverty creates an enormous increase in the risk of sexual exploitation for girls. Recently, Plan research in the Dominican Republic suggested that more than one out of every five girls under 18 has been pregnant at least once. An equal proportion (23.4%) is living with a man many years her senior. In addition, 37% of Dominican women ages 20 to 49 report being married or in a consensual union before the age of 18, many through forced child marriages. Regionally, these numbers are the highest of any country in Latin America and the Caribbean. Because of limited options, girls and families have increasingly (and worryingly) come to see marriages to older men and commercial sex as logical alternatives to a life of poverty and violence.
Plan has been working in Matamosquitos, and communities like it, for two years in partnership between the Tui Foundation, the Tui Group (an Anglo-German tourism and travel company and one of the big investors in Punta Cana tourism) and INFOTEP (the national vocational training institute of the Dominican Government). On the face of it, the program seems like a straightforward effort to provide boys and girls life skills and technical skills training, combined with practical apprenticeships and internships in Tui’s hotels in the area. About 80% of the young people that go through the program are hired by Tui or other hotels in the area. But the Tui-Plan-INFOTEP program is much more than that.
The project targets the most high-risk young people (gangs, child mothers, etc.) from the most violent communities. They are identified and selected by the community leaders and families themselves.
The training content is much more than hospitality industry skills or even life-skills. It is focused on empowerment and agency. Targeting primarily girls, the program creates a safe space for discussions with peers and peer counselors about their challenges, ambitions and dreams. The program asks them to do more than become good employees. Plan, Tui and INFOTEP want the girls and boys that go through the program successfully to pay back by becoming agents of change in their communities. The program spends time with community leadership and parents to tackle head-on the increasingly pervasive view in too many Dominican communities that girls are objects to be monetized through commercial sex, or delicate flowers to be protected through early marriage. The program helps to create a realization at all levels of the society that this attitude is self-defeating, robbing girls of life options and any opportunity to achieve more for themselves and their families.
The program is still evolving. There have been a number of challenges, including that a high proportion of the girls going through the program who become pregnant while in training or the apprenticeship. The Dominican hospitality businesses have a policy to not hire pregnant women (in part because, in their view, the “law protects the pregnant employee too much” and generates a burden for the firm; this too is an issue that Plan is tackling at the national policy and enterprise level). The biggest challenge is the overall sustainability. The program is not cheap (more than $1,200 per participant), in part because of the complexities of targeting the most vulnerable. For example, because the young people do not have the means to pay for transportation to and from their community to the INFOTEP facility, the program provides transport. And, because the young mothers do not have the means to pay for caregivers, the program provides one for them. Moreover, many aspects of the program require long-term engagement (community gender equality awareness, the girls’ own empowerment process, etc.) but the funding is short-term. It cannot be dependent on corporate philanthropy forever.
In this context Plan needs to explore and evaluate how it can package elements of the financing into longer-term giving products and evaluate whether project-created demand for certain services creates business opportunities (e.g. for a community daycare or for transport) that serve as income generation for other community members. It needs to evaluate opportunities to leverage technology to bring down the costs.
Despite the challenges, this holistic, integrated approach to connecting young people to their communities and to employment opportunities has been transformative for dozens and dozens of young people and their communities.
This program is also a great example of philanthropy, business and government coming together to design and test various approaches to tackling what are complex problems that go well beyond the lack of skills. Poverty does not exist only in poor countries. Poverty is not addressed simply by hoping more investment, national and international, eventually trickles down to the poorest. Connecting the most vulnerable to the opportunities created by a growing economy takes work, patience and imagination. And that is what this partnership between Plan, government and the private sector is all about.
Name has been changed to protect identity.
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