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Rising from the ashes

street sceneBy the mid-1990s, the deprived inner cities of Kingston, Jamaica’s capital, had become urban wastelands, wracked by crime and outbreaks of street violence. Five years on, people and businesses are flocking back. Leo Thomas reports on an award-winning project which brings together local communities, NGOs and government in tackling the problems of the inner cities.

At the foot of Jamaica’s towering Blue Mountains – where the world-famous coffee is grown – lies Kingston, an urban conurbation of close to a million people. It is a city of strong contrasts: its high rise commercial district and prosperous suburbs seem light years away from the run down, deprived inner city areas. These poverty-stricken districts face a plethora of problems. Inter- and intra-community violence is rampant, political patronage and partisanship is entrenched, housing is falling apart and municipal services are poor or non-existent.

Until the mid-1990s, Jones Town, a community of 12,000 people in downtown Kingston, was no different from any other blighted inner city area. Once a stable and prosperous community of civil servants and business people, Jones Town’s fortunes declined following political unrest in the 1970s.

By the 1990s, 42 per cent of the labour force was unemployed; most of the housing stock was delapidated; many buildings had been abandoned; and garbage was piled up in the streets. Shops and businesses began to depart, and so did many residents. Gun battles amongst street gangs became common.

Those still living in Jones Town were stigmatised. As one resident said, “People write hundreds of applications for jobs. If you give a Jones Town address they say, ‘We’ll call you back’ – but they never do.”

But help was at hand. At the end of 1996, the Kingston Restoration company (KRC), a Jamaican NGO, approached Jones Town residents about a pilot project to develop new ways of tackling urban poverty. With support from the Jamaican government and funding from DFID, the Jamaican Urban Poverty Project was launched in September 1997.

One of the main reasons for choosing Jones Town was that it retained a strong sense of community, despite the debilitating environment in which people lived. Each block in the town has a ‘corner’ group, which provides mutual support and a sense of belonging – as well as protection when street violence is at its worse. Corner groups often give themselves names – the Rodney Raiders, Steamers and the Shocking Vibe Crew. Younger people cook food together (“running a boat”); others pool money so that one person each week can have a “drop” – a cash amount. One youth group organises a hugely successful annual musical event, The Ghetto Splash. It was clear that, despite the enormous problems they faced, Jones Town residents were by no means resigned to their situation.

Participatory planning
If the new project was to have any hope of success, it had to build on and strengthen this community spirit. Furthermore, any initiatives had to be inclusive to ward off criticisms that the project was partisan or imposed from outside. Ownership by all sections of the community was crucial.

The first action taken by the project was to organise a participatory planning process to help all the different sections of Jones Town identify the changes they would like to see. Five key priorities emerged:

• Community safety
• Community capacity building
• Environment and sanitation
• Education
• Micro-enterprise

Within these priority areas, activities were divided into three categories:

NOW Projects: projects that could be undertaken and achieved immediately (0 to 8 weeks) by the community with no or little outside support;

SOON Projects: projects requiring more time and some outside assistance in terms of funding, technical assistance or rendering of some service;

LATER Projects: interventions that require consistent action over a long period of time and depend on significant assistance or cooperation by outside agencies.

NOW Projects encouraged local people to identify local problems and to propose and implement locally-led solutions. They were quick and high profile, helping to create and maintain confidence in the development process, and focusing on what could be achieved without outside support and action by external agencies.

Promoting Urban Stability
The community’s first priority was to make the area safer and to get public transport running again. The area’s only bus service had been suspended and taxi drivers were afraid to go into the area because of fear of violence. The community asked KRC to negotiate the return of the bus service, promising that if it did so the safety of the bus operators would be guaranteed. The success of the bus service encouraged taxi drivers to return and serve the community. Access to transport has made a huge difference, enabling people to gain and maintain employment in the city centre. It has also stimulated business within the community itself as traders can now bring in goods from outside to sell. From being a district with no public transportation, Jones Town is now considering the introduction of traffic calming measures, so great is the volume of traffic.

Soon, there were other changes. By the end of 1998, the number of shootings had dropped by 28 per cent. The price of housing began to rise, and people and businesses returned to the area. Street lighting and street signs have been installed, and people can move around and socialise more widely. As one resident says, “The community’s opened up. During 1996, you couldn’t really move freely as there were too many guns and slights, beefs existing between people …. You can tell things are better just by looking at the number of dances in the community – this couldn’t happen before because people wouldn’t go into other areas.”

Local Ownership
gameThe project has strongly supported the Jones Town Area Council (JTAC) – a non-political, non-denominational community organisation. Over the course of the last three years, JTAC has grown in strength, confidence and autonomy. It has teams of mobilisers called “moving spirits” for each zone of the community, and undertakes numerous development activities. It has formed a wide network of links between Jones Town and civil society actors, such as the University of West Indies, the electronic media, the NGO Council, arts bodies and private companies.

Working with community-based organisations is not without its challenges. Ensuring that the organisation is not captured by any one group; that there is continuity through annual changes in the executive board/leadership; that a clear, transparent funding system is created; and that a well thought through hand-over strategy for project activities is in place are all important.

No Partner, No Action
Putting these marginalised communities back within the effective remit of government, parastatal, non-governmental and private organisations is a priority. KRC and JTAC are limited in what they can or should do and partnership is essential for project success and for stimulating good urban governance. KRC and JTAC always think: ‘“Which agency can and should be helping us with this? Whose responsibility is this really? Who has an interest here? How can we overcome their inertia or reluctance in supporting/serving the community? How can we bring them on board in the short term and then secure their commitment for the long term?”

In this way, organisations as diverse as the Sports Development Foundation (community sports festivals), the Bank of Nova Scotia (micro-enterprise and credit) and the Jamaica Public Service company (street lighting) have become partners.

Expanding Reach
As the situation in Jones Town stabilises and starts to improve, the project is widening its horizons. It has supported participatory planning approaches in nine other garrison communities and trained NGO and government staff in participatory planning. The creation of an Urban Renewal Trust Fund with DFID and private sector support will allow KRC to assist community-led development action in Jamaica’s three largest cities.

Perhaps most importantly, KRC is contributing to urban policy. Working with the Office of the Prime Minister and the National Poverty Eradication Programme on an Inner-City Renewal Programme targeting the seven poorest zones of the capital, KRC can feed in best practice lessons from community-based action.

The Jones Town community and KRC, together with all their partners, have achieved a lot in a short time. As Jamaica’s National Poverty Coordinator, Dr Jaslin Salmon says, “This is a model for what can be done”. As for the inhabitants of Jones Town, their views are summed up by one resident: “For the past year and a half violence is low low …... (Before) you could not go on certain streets ... .All dem tings, de done now”.

Leo Thomas is Urban Poverty Project Officer for the Kingston Restoration Company, the implementing agency for the DFID/Government of Jamaica-funded Jamaica Urban Poverty Project.