Most famous as a holiday destination, the Dominican Republic is on the face of it a country doing very well – its economy is growing, and it has emerged relatively unscathed from the global financial crisis.
However, due to its government’s unfair tax policies and a failure to adequately address poverty, the country’s already high levels of inequality are getting worse.
That is why the huge success of a coalition of tax justice campaigners last summer has been so important to Dominicans. The initial campaign victory seems to have given people the energy to press for further, wider changes.
Under a sea of sunshine-yellow umbrellas, campaigners in the country’s capital Santo Domingo celebrated a hard-won victory when the government finally committed to spending 4 per cent of GDP on education.
For a small Caribbean country in which such investment was the lowest in the whole Latin America-Caribbean region and in which more than a third of the country’s 10 million people live in poverty, this adjustment of national priorities was a major step forward for future generations of Dominicans.
Their country may be a popular place to go on holiday but most of its citizens do not have easy lives. Average income is just $8,506 (compared to $32,538 in the UK) and the death rate among young children is more than five times higher than it is in Britain. Deaths among pregnant women and new mothers meanwhile are more than ten times higher than in the UK (all based on UNDP statistics).
The initial win on education spending in Dominican Republic was achieved by a group called Coalición Educación Digna. As well as securing better employment prospects for Dominican school children, their efforts played a key role in the creation of Movimiento Justicia Fiscal, an influential national group working on wider tax and budget issues.
Movimiento Justicia Fiscal recognizes that as one of a handful of Caribbean countries in which overall economic, gender and political inequality is escalating, the Dominican Republic can only build a more equitable society if it introduces a fairer tax system and transparent public spending across the board.
Encouragingly, almost one year on since the education campaign, the movement has kept its initial momentum and campaigners last week called on the government to reveal exactly how it has spent the national budget this year.
This followed hard on the heels of another campaign the movement co-ordinates, called Paren Eso (Stop That), which is urging an investigation into the corrupt use of public funds. It has captured the imaginations of Dominicans around the globe.
Launching Paren Eso, campaigners declared: ‘The justice system in this country cannot remain indifferent to the fact that a small sector of the political elite is getting rich at the expense of the majority of the population, and (at the expense…) of basic services such as education, health, security, potable water, electricity and transport.’
The country’s President, Danilo Medina, took office one year ago, at a time when the budget deficit was high. But the changes he introduced in the name of reform involved little more than increasing VAT and other taxes on alcohol and cigarettes. That bolstered an already regressive tax system in which the poor pay an unfairly high share of their small incomes, while the super-rich pay very little.
Judging by the number of Tweets, YouTube videos and dedicated Facebook pages, both the Paren Eso campaign and the 4 per cent campaign have captured public interest at home and abroad.
As well as calling on the government to confront corruption and financial malfeasance, Movimiento Justicia Fiscal will also try to ensure the 4 per cent spending on education is implemented and its effectiveness monitored.
Roque Feliz, director of Christian Aid partner Centro Bono, one of the members of the Movimiento Justicia Fiscal, said: ‘Together we will work to promote a fair and equitable fiscal pact with transparent policies, quality public spending and financial responsibility.’