ICMA Local Government Management Fellows Alex Vazquez and Noor Shaikh received scholarships from the ICMA International Committee John Garvey Fund to attend the ICMA International Summit in the Dominican Republic in March 2017. Here’s what they have to say about being there.
1. What was your biggest takeaway from the conference?
Vazquez: My visit to the Dominican Republic confirmed the value of developing strategic plans and working across departments (and organizations) to solve community-wide issues. This was evident when I participated in the sponsored trip to Boca Chica, a beach town about 45 minutes west of Santo Domingo.
During our tour, we learned about the city’s efforts to develop and implement a strategic plan with five initiatives focusing on crime prevention. Thanks to the engagement of internal and external stakeholders, Boca Chica has successfully implemented processes and programs targeting key drivers of crime and violence in the community. Examples ranged from quick projects, such as establishing a process for police to coordinate with the city’s public works department to put up street lights in areas prone to crime—facilitating patrol and discouraging criminal activity—to long-term projects where city staff work with community organizations to design programs that increase youth access to education and extracurricular activities—keeping at-risk children away from activities that may lead to a life of crime.
Working in conjunction with external partners, city departments have significantly reduced public safety concerns in Boca Chica. Although there is still much for them to do, the work being done in Boca Chica exemplifies how strategic planning and working collaboratively can help create long-lasting, positive change in communities.
Shaikh: I’ll echo some of Alex’s thoughts. I was reminded that it does not matter if you are in Chicago, Illinois, or Boca Chica, Dominican Republic—people face similar problems the world over. What sets communities apart is the level of transparency governments provide and the willingness of everyday people to hold government accountable as well as their willingness to work with city staff to find solutions. Input from civil society makes sure that solutions being proposed make sense for communities and meet their needs.
2. What did you learn from the Dominican municipalities that can be implemented in your municipality?
Vazquez: During the first day of the summit, an epidemiologist from the Ministry of Health spoke to us about the work he and his staff carry out on a daily basis to prevent diseases like Zika. Although the city of Raleigh is unlikely to experience a Zika outbreak, the city can use the communication and community engagement strategies the Dominican Republic uses to educate people about communicable diseases and to inform them about other matters as well.
Shaikh: I haven’t seen this anywhere yet: parks with gym equipment for adults. I walked by the Eugenio Maria de Hostos Park almost every evening and saw dance classes in session, skateboarders practicing, and children playing. The park also had gym equipment (like that in the accompanying picture) that was in use almost every time I walked by. This idea of making a park more than just a place where parents come watch their kids play and instead turning it into something more immersive for adults is new to me. I’d love to see this kind of equipment in my municipality!
3. Outside of the conference, what did you enjoy the most?
Vazquez: Anytime I visit a foreign country, I wake up early at least once to explore the city before sunrise. This lets me visit attractions before most tourists arrive and, most importantly, allows me to catch a glimpse of what people’s daily lives are like. When I did this in Santo Domingo, I walked through the Colonial Zone, taking in as much of the city’s rich history as possible. Toward the tail end of my walk, I sat in one of the city’s many plazas, enjoying some coffee as I watched students run to school, shopkeepers clean their store fronts, and a couple of elderly women feed a flock of pigeons.
Shaikh: I loved being in an area with such a rich visible history. We stayed close to the Zona Colonial in Santo Domingo, so most of my evening walks led me there. Being around buildings constructed in the 1500s and reading about the history of the Colonial City was just a casual reminder that regimes rise and fall and political leaders come and go, but cities and their inherent culture remain. I also loved the food and ate more yucca (in every form imaginable) than I should have!
4. What about the trip surprised you the most?
Vazquez: The most surprising thing was about local government autonomy, or lack thereof. While municipalities across the United States have varying degrees of autonomy (depending on whether they are located in a home rule state), all municipalities in the Dominican Republic are subject to preemption by the national government.
For years, la Federacion Dominicana de Municipios (FEDOMU—the Federation of Dominican Municipalities) has been a major proponent of municipal reform and the decentralization of national power. Despite its progress to this end, as a conference attendee told me, “FEDOMU is fighting an uphill battle.” As a matter of fact, during the ICMA International Summit, FEDOMU representatives had to lobby against proposed legislation meant (1) to curtail municipalities’ budgetary powers and (2) to cut the amount of funding municipalities receive on an annual basis. It will be interesting to see how local government powers evolve, if at all, over the next few years in the Dominican Republic.
Shaikh: I was very surprised by a statistic shared by the Ministery of Women: Violence is the number one cause of death for women between the ages of 15 and 45 in the Dominican Republic. If it is quietly accepted that this is just how things are and is treated like a de facto part of life, it becomes dangerous. Hearing concerned representatives from civil society and the Ministry of Women speak at the summit made me realize that this is a paramount concern and focus of their work. It was then wonderful to hear that FEDOMU and ICMA have been working together on a project that focuses on addressing domestic violence.
5. What are some must-do activities or must-see attractions in the Dominican Republic?
Vazquez: When you travel to the Dominican Republic, I recommend that you visit one or two of the many city plazas. In addition to enjoying the outdoors, you’ll have the opportunity to interact with locals. In Santo Domingo, I suggest you visit el Parque Del Faro de San Souci. There, you’ll be able to enjoy a nice coconut drink while you watch kids flying kites, joggers zip by, couples enjoy drinks together, people fishing, and gorgeous sunsets (some of the best you’ll ever see).
Shaikh: I would suggest walking as much as you can, especially in the Zona Colonial. It’s a major tourist attraction (for good reason) and is filled with great food, historical sites, and beautiful buildings. There is also a choco museo in the Zona as well as chocolate shops. I’d highly suggest you don’t leave without stepping into one!
Alexander Vazquez is the Local Government Management Fellow with the city of Raleigh, North Carolina. You can find more about him by visiting his LinkedIn profile. Noor Shaikh was the Local Government Management Fellow with the city of Aurora, Colorado. She can be found via Twitter and LinkedIn.