Natasha Burnett | No proof of social reform’s value in August Town
With regard to your editorial of Thursday, October 3, 2019, where you stated that the minister of national security, Dr Horace Chang’s, remarks regarding the inefficacy of social interventions with regard to violence prevention were confirming the findings of our study, Zero Murders: Searching for Lessons from Two Decades of Anti-Violence Interventions in August Town, you stated that our study “found that social intervention measures have very little impact on the level of violence in depressed communities like August Town,” and further “that gang violence now revolves around power struggles, money, and reprisal killings”. With regard to the latter, this is not an original finding of ours. This is an established feature of the current situation with gangs and violence in Jamaica.
With regard to the former statement, we would like to offer some clarification. Our research did not find, nor did we state, that social interventions have very little impact on the level of violence in depressed communities. Rather, we don’t know what effect they do have because the majority of interventions in August Town (and similar communities) are not systematically evaluated, so there is no reliable evidence to substantiate what worked or didn’t work.
Most anti-violence interventions, as they are done in Jamaica, are not designed around a coherent theory of change with baseline indicators against which to measure progress or lack thereof. Further, there is a systemic weakness with regard to sustainability and consistency of interventions as they have been carried out in August Town, which is true for the rest of Jamaica. So that, even in the absence of evaluations, no intervention attempting to end or reduce violence that has such a long history and is so deeply embedded as a cultural norm has a chance of success if it is not properly resourced and carried out for a reasonable period.
There is no definitive answer to how August Town arrived at ‘zero murders in 2016. The commonly held view that it was the outcome of social-intervention attempts, particularly mediation, could not be substantiated by the available evidence. That conventional wisdom is rivalled by hypotheses that imply that the interventions did not have any significant effect on the existence and activities of highly active violent gangs, or on violence as a social norm.
The report did say that with regard to interventions in general, given the available evidence, they have not had a sustained impact on the violence in August Town, as measured by the murder rate. However, while the number of homicides is an important measure, it cannot be the sole indicator if the problem of virulent violence is to be truly solved.
Underlying and correlating social and economic changes need to happen, and those need to be targeted with evidence-based, sustained interventions that build on the community’s existing strengths, and that are measured with relevant indicators.