The wider the gap between the “haves” and “have nots” the greater the chance social unrest will follow, such as what happened in Egypt with the Arab Spring in 2011 and most recently in Brazil 2013. Other areas that could potentially erupt include Ukraine, Argentina, Greece, Indonesia, Pakistan… In fact the list of countries is so long that one might wonder, what exactly could the IMF or similar international financial institutions do differently and can lessons learned from one country be leveraged elsewhere?
To further explore new insights with countries operating within dual economies, I recently led a facilitated discussion with 38 university students at the Universidad del Caribe (UNICARIBE) in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. This island is a foothold for over 10 million inhabitants and a micro version of a typical young democracy. My goal was to hear how young Dominicans felt about their dual economy and extract a list of recommendations to pass along to political leaders and international creditors. I also hoped their ideas might offer new insights to other country leaders.
Universidad del Caribe is not your typical university. With over 19,000 enrolled students and 330 instructors, the university covers an ambitious range of degrees and disciplines within a two building complex. Students work by day and attend classes, one to two days per week. Campus spirit is notably strong fueled by an enthusiastic faculty comprised of volunteers, many of whom hold other jobs to make ends meet.
Life for a young impoverished Dominican is a daily challenge. Most will spend their lives operating undetected by government scrutiny in an underground economy where basic financial stopgaps such as access to credit for emergencies or a reasonably priced business loan are rarely accessible. Their greatest asset is their ingenuity and vibrant personality, which shines in much of what they do. Job security does not exist. They earn what they can from odd jobs, pay no taxes, and cut corners wherever and whenever by, for example, stealing electricity off the national grid. Providing for family needs consumes their meager incomes leaving them with little to no savings. In short they have few options within their reach to improve their livelihood.
On the other side of the economic spectrum, the Dominican middleclass have their own set of problems. As avid consumers they buy beyond their means and spend much of their time fighting frivolous lawsuits or fulfilling new government requirements. Aside from having to pay income taxes, they are also saddled with higher utility bills required to offset the electricity stolen by freeloaders.
Surprisingly, the number one aspiration for a young Dominican adult is not to earn a college degree or to own their own business but rather to align himself or herself with a political party early on in life. In their minds, the only way to obtain job security is by serving a well-connected political group. Competition for these positions can be fierce, not because of an over-supply of skilled workers, which are scarce to begin with, but more for the oversubscribed pool of politically connected job seekers.
Open positions require a minimum of three years working experience, which leaves first time entrants with no other alternative than to join a political party. This type of politically motivated workforce, one based on connections rather than qualifications, tends to create a vicious circle. On the one hand, managers and leaders, also mentors, will send the wrong message to younger Dominicans who will see little value in advancing their own education or training, since the better paying jobs can be won with less effort through political connections. On the other hand, less qualified government officials are less inclined to require professional certifications from contractors to ensure that state-of-the-art services are rendered. The end result is a less competitive workforce.
The upkeep for a politically motivated workforce can become prohibitively expensive for any government. Venezuela and Cuba are two good examples where individuals are forced into political alliances for fear of being denied even basic services. Over time the workforce becomes lazy, and their leaders complacent. To please their international creditors, government officials devalue their local currency, which only makes matters worse with higher inflation rates. Eventually, both public and private sectors become trapped by the weight of their own unwillingness to progress. Adding to the malaise are party leaders who fail to recognize the immense value their Informal Sector could otherwise render with existing resources. Instead they would rather keep a tight lid on their potentially vibrant young workforce who due to their discouragement will enter a life of crime making matters even worse for their government and the rest of society.
With these facts on hand, I asked the discussion group what they thought was the root cause for their dysfunctional dual economy. Some cited a lack of women’s rights as they affect the welfare of the family unit. Others pointed to the criminal justice system for sending hardened criminals back on the streets without offering them a job or alternative form of income. After a lively exchange, the unanimous vote for the root cause focused on the country’s weak judicial system.
According to the participants, on paper the justice system appears formidable, while in practice, it is virtually spineless. Laws are readily legislated, approved, and published to please voters; however, in the courtroom, these same laws are rarely enforced as written or at all. For the right price, a political leader or powerful investor can influence a judge’s decision to their advantage.
Despite their impoverished status, these 38 student/workers recognized the importance an independent legal system. Participants noted that whenever politicians or influencers are allowed to operate above the law, trust between the government and its people erodes. This same feeling of distrust infiltrates society and its family units creating a precariously, wider gap in their dual economy. This revelation raised an important question.
In a dual economy governed by a biased legal system, what can the government and international financial institutions such as the IMF do differently to create a brighter future for the Dominican Republic?
To counter the gap-widening effects caused by a weak judicial system, the group suggested the formation of a student entrepreneur association based out of the University del Caribe. Members would join the Association then be matched through an interviewing process according to skills, experience, and interest to a cluster of no more than ten students each. Each cluster would be be guided and arbitrated by a university appointed mentor. At least one member of a cluster would have a specific entrepreneurial venture in mind or a launched startup in its initial stages. Members of a cluster would become the new startup’s board of advisors and help in their varying capacities to further the entrepreneur’s venture. As the venture grows, members of the board of advisors can opt to work for the new entity or start their own venture within their same cluster. The University would act as an independent arbitrator to ensure members adhere to a clear set of rules and contracts.
On an interesting side note, one individual admitted that if a cluster were to help him launch his dream construction business, he would most likely leave the cluster and not return the favor. His revealing comment confirmed the inherent distrust among his peers, which our facilitated discussion found to be primarily caused by the lack of an independent judicial system in the country. His comment re-enforces the University’s role as the cluster’s so called “mini judicial system,” one that is independently operated. Initially the process will most likely be an uphill battle but after a few success stories should convince others of the many benefits that can be gained from trusting each other.
Although our time ran out, other questions remained unanswered that could serve for future facilitated discussions. For example, how should the contract among members be drafted and how should the spoils and liabilities of a successful launch be structured to ensure a sustainable business? Of course, securing funding for mentors, garnering support from government officials, attracting outside investors, and designing an eco-system for future entrepreneurs are important topics too. After the discussion ended, the enthusiasm from both the students and faculty was evident by the clusters that began to form immediately among them.
As I listened to their animated voices, I could not help but think how this two-hour discussion, with a sample of prospective local entrepreneurs, could potentially change the course of a nation. Hopefully, members of the IMF and other international financial institutions can learn from this case study and consider including a similar cluster program as a funding requirement for young democracies.
Tom Kadala is CEO of ATC, Inc. This piece first appeared on his personal blog.