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The Next 50 Years - Communities, local government and development

Published:Saturday | December 29, 2012 | 12:00 AM

Horace Levy, Contributor

OVER THE last 50 years, communities in Jamaica have faced many challenges, in particular, the challenges of governance and economic advancement. In their pursuit of development, communities have crept from the periphery to near the national centre, passing through three stages, each with initial success, followed by setbacks.

Stage 1. Foundation years: getting communities organised:

The first stage, which began with Jamaica Welfare in 1937 during a period of great social and intellectual ferment, employed a ground-up approach that first listened to people to identify their needs and achievements,

Jamaica Welfare organised 120 community councils. These were linked to 13 district councils, which, in turn, were coordinated at the national level and represented some 30,000 people. A spirit of nation building through bettering village life strongly characterised this undertaking. A rural people living in poverty were ready to organise community life as a first step towards developing themselves and their resources.

After two decades, however, bureaucracy was cramping the efforts of Jamaica Welfare. Things came to a head in the early 1960s when the grass-roots representatives were removed from the national body, now called the Social Development Commission. Decisions were vested in Minister of Development and Social Welfare Edward Seaga. His 'Hundred Villages' programme had a top-down approach, was highly centralised, and focused on the community centres it set out to build. Social workers were charged to guide the villages by following the specially prepared Manual of Community Development. Every community had to engage in identical sports programmes and had to do straw craft with straw brought from St Elizabeth. Unsurprisingly, the programme was not a success.

State involvement in a grass-roots initiative began with guidance, progressed to providing funding - to replace the cess from private-sector banana exports when war in Europe terminated the exports - but ended up with bureaucratic bungling and ministerial control.

Another failure was on the economic front. By the mid-1960s, the training in home economics and craft facilitated by the Social Development Commission was not meeting people's pressing economic needs. With England closing its doors after the massive migration of the 1950s, unemployment doubled in the decade after Independence ... and homicide began its relentless climb.

Stage 2. 1970s-80s: Legal linkage to local government blocked by party politics:

With the 1970s came a renewed community council thrust. By the mid-1970s, the number of councils was estimated at 160, and by 1977, at 260. By 1978, the number had climbed to 424 "functioning councils", and half of the 1,200 persons attending the national conference were community council delegates.

The conference recommended legal status for councils: "The Government recognises the need for a body at the community level with which policymakers can formally communicate and through which the people can seek to directly influence national affairs."

It was as much for the sake of such projects as to have a formal body for political participation and communication that legal status for the councils was being pursued. Legalisation ran into two roadblocks, however. The first was the fear - partly justified - felt by parish councillors across party lines that their role would be undercut and even eliminated. (In fact, before any final decision could be taken, the People's National Party (PNP) was voted out of office.) The second obstacle, generated by the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), was the accusation that community councils were a communist device to "enslave people".

The JLP's directive to its members not to take part in the councils had the effect of giving the councils a PNP colouration, thereby weakening their impact. Similarly, it affected the economic projects that the councils sponsored.

Given the high levels of unemployment by 1972, it was believed that community economic projects had to go beyond cottage craft industries to include sizeable agricultural, industrial, and agro-industrial undertakings in urban as well as rural areas.

To address this task, the Government, after much bureaucratic delay, launched on April 1, 1979 the Community Enterprise Organisation (Project Development) Co. Ltd. Its role was to vet, approve, and oversee project proposals as well as provide loan financing. In the first year of its existence, according to the report made by the minister of finance in July 1980 to the first national conference of community enterprise organisations, Community Enterprise Organisation (CEO) Ltd approved loans amounting to $6.3 million (US$3.5million) to 127 CEOs, creating over 2,000 new full-time jobs.

Projects included pig rearing, food processing, the manufacturing of garments and furniture, boat repairs, and fishing. Funding was also provided for bakery initiatives and the wholesale and retail trades. According to researcher Ruel Cooke, as an attempt to foster "self-reliance and economic democracy, the CEO programme might be described as a miserable failure". A rushed, controlling, paternalistic execution of what was essentially a good programme could achieve nothing else.

With the change of government in late October 1980, the CEO programme was wound up, the company liquidated. Project equipment was seized and stored centrally where this was possible. A few projects survived, though scaled down, where community support was strong. The JLP Government went further: It stripped parish councils of major functions, transferring poor relief, public health, and public cleansing to central-government ministries. In the 1980s, community development fell to non-governmental agencies like CADEC - the outreach arm of the Caribbean Conference of Churches; the Canadian-funded CUSO; the Social Action Centre; and other members of the Association of Development Agencies

Stage 3. 1990s and 2000s: Innovative structures stalled but civil society pushes

Returned to power in 1989, the PNP revitalised parish councils (PCs) with a programme for their financial autonomy, institutional upgrading, and legal reform. In a 1993 Ministry Paper, it announced: "[T]he Government perceives both local government and community development as being complementary processes by means of which it can achieve its focal objective of empowering citizens to enjoy greater self-management over their own affairs and solving their own problems. A major focus of government's policy is therefore to deepen the integration between these two processes."

The vision was a local government self-managing local affairs jointly, with citizens as partners. Key to the integration of community development with local government was the 1994 establishment of two advisory bodies (only advisory status was to be legalised): a National Advisory Council; and Parish Development Committees (PDCs), named "Advisory" at first, formed under the guidance of consultant Keith Miller.

Both bodies had a broad cross section of membership which comprised representatives of trade unions, the private sector, NGOs, and of course, in the case of the PDCs, community development committees (CDCs). These efforts were supported in several parishes by the education programme of the Coalition for Community Participation in Governance that united NGOs of the Association of Development Agencies. PDCs came alive very slowly, however. The most active were in Clarendon, St Ann, St Catherine, St Elizabeth, Portland, and particularly in Manchester, which set up a secretariat, and with funding from the Canadian International Development Agency, carried out a parish-wide planning process. The lack of movement at the central-government level was to blame for the slow pace .

One very important development, however, was the support given in the late 1990s to local government reform by Bruce Golding, then president of the National Democratic Movement. Golding later took his position to the Jamaica Labour Party, reversing that party's historical stance. Although, misguidedly, he changed local government from a ministry to a department, placing it in the Office of the Prime Minister, the JLP's new position meant that inter-party unity now existed around the outlines of a basic structure of local government and, in particular, its entrenchment in the Constitution. This was a major forward step.

Especially noteworthy is the multi-stakeholder process that brought this unity into being. The process, first seen at work in the Electoral Commission of Jamaica and the Constitutional Commission of the early 1990s, is also evident in the Peace Management Initiative and parish council - Parish Council Development collaboration. This is new governance - a partnership of equals between the State, the private sector, and civil society - which the United Nations has urged for two decades. It is participatory over purely representational governance.

The main hindrance to this partnership has been the preoccupation with power that grips our two political parties. Winning and keeping power have become the end instead of the means. Under the cloak of bipartisanship, the parties have been pursuing control instead of furthering the power of the people. Universal Suffrage should have been the platform from which to extend democracy, not its terminal achievement.

The power-seeking history of the parties is well known: their use of violence, the creation of garrisons; links with criminals and vote-buying; Davies' self-acknowledged sacrifice of the country's fiscal target to facilitate his party's victory in the 2002 election; Golding's open defiance in 2011, for the sake of a House majority, of the constitution's prohibition of member of parliament dual citizenship. The outcome? Party leader popularity emptied of visionary content; in the words of Carl Stone: "entrapment by partisanship".

Civil society and private sector's long acceptance of this scenario is also very much to blame. Hopefully, this is changing. As the annual Michael Manley Foundation and the private sector-funded Best Communities competitions have shown, communities demonstrate tremendous self-reliance in creating income-earning or people-servicing projects : organic, green-house production and a radio station in Jeffrey Town, St Mary; water supply and sanitary conveniences in White Horses, St Thomas; the Learning Centre in Woodford, St Andrew; community tourism in Petersfield, Westmoreland; and tissue culture and potato seed stock production at Devon. The list goes on across the island. -

The strengthening of civil society over the past two decades reached a critical plateau with the formation of the Jamaica Civil Society Coalition (JCSC) in June 2010. The coalition has representation from the NGO sector, two church umbrella groups, urban community-development committees, as well as from private-sector entities such as the Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica, the Jamaica Chamber of Commerce, and the Medium Small and Micro Enterprises Alliance. Though only established two years ago, the coalition's record and method of functioning are impressive.

Minister of Local Government Noel Arscott repeats the regular PNP refrain of constitutional reform to entrench local government. But how serious are the two parties? There is opaqueness in the reform process at central government. Will civil society and the private sector be able to shift the parties away from their cosy clubs? Can they, through the local government and constitutional reform achieved by their pressure, get the debates and decisions at parish council level channelled to Parliament? Can communities, through their collaboration with parish councils, be brought to occupy their rightful democratic place in national governance and economic prosperity? The challenge is epochal, but success is not out of reach.

The following are a few recommendations:

1. The Jamaica Civil Society Coalition (JCSC) to put pressure on Government to move on reform of the constitution and of local government, including entrenchment of local government in the constitution.

2. Government to open up the reform process and invite civil society and the private sector to join with it and the Opposition in moving the reform process forward.

3. As part of local government reform, parish councils, along with their respective members of parliament, to come up with a mechanism by which the latter would bring parish council issues and resolutions to Parliament.

4. Parish councils to collaborate with PDCs and to encourage their advisory input.

5. PDCs to increase their levels of activity in relation to parish councils. (The Manchester model should be studied.)

6. PDCs, through their national association, to join and strengthen the JCSC.

7. Communities to organise more strongly and to network to bring their concerns to their respective PDCs.

The time to act is now!

Horace Levy is a board member of the Peace Management Initiative.