A litmus test on social intervention programmes in Jamaica

DR HORACE
CHANG

Sunday, October 13, 2019

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During the Violence Prevention Symposium held in Montego Bay on September 26, I contested the much-touted success of social intervention programmes in St James. This has sparked a timely and welcomed public debate around the issue of how social intervention programmes have been designed and implemented over the years, and the measure of success of these interventions.

An equally important dimension to this debate is the way forward. As I underscored in my initial interrogation of the matter, the project-based manner in which social intervention programmes have been traditionally carried out in Montego Bay, and undoubtedly across the wider Jamaica, are not appropriately designed to ensure continuity and longevity at the community level. As a result, these programmes have not generated the kind of impact that would sustainably undermine the work of crime and violence producers in these communities.

While this debate has called into question the work of some of Jamaica's long-standing non-governmental partners and international donors, it is equally encouraging that we are at a point in our nation's history when we can embark on frank and respectful discussions about issues of such national relevance and public interest the outcome of which should be an improved way of thinking about how services are delivered to the residents and communities who are beneficiaries of these programmes.

Let me be abundantly clear, the reason for initiating this debate was in no way to negate the value and importance of social interventions. Rather, it was meant to create the context for objectively examining how we have gone about conducting these interventions over the years, and to rethink how to optimise the impact of interventions going forward.

Essentially, I am proposing a fundamental shift in how we plan and execute these programmes. We can no longer rely on project-based interventions that are not inbuilt with the requisite parameters for continuity. We must, however, embark on an all-of-government approach in which the key ministries, departments and agencies work collaboratively within the identified communities. In this way, both the budgetary and human capital requirements will be duly accounted for in advance, and within the framework of the national budget.

A mindset change among the administrators of these programmes will also be crucial to effective interventions. For several decades, and across political administrations, the residents of at-risk communities have been the beneficiaries of myriad charitable and philanthropic social-based initiatives. As member of parliament for St James North Western I have witnessed first-hand the scholarships and facilities that are provided through these programmes. They have positively impacted the families of the beneficiaries, and have made a difference in the educational trajectory and prospects for these deserving young people. It is undeniable that social intervention initiatives in and of themselves are not harmful.

The point of contention is whether in Montego Bay, and by extension the wider Jamaica, they have been successful in creating the environment for sustained behaviour change. A case in point is in relation to how we have responded to the high drop-out rate of boys from the formal education system. In 2012, the Jamaica Constabulary Force Prison Inmates Study revealed that more than half of those who were incarcerated were either drop-outs or left school with very little academic qualifications. It was also reported then, that St James was ranked among the parishes with the highest rate of school drop-outs.

A few months ago, I reminded the nation of the fact that approximately 70 per cent of teenage boys in Montego Bay drop out of school by grade nine. As a result we have a growing body of youth who are being targeted for recruitment by gangs. We must counter this ongoing systemic failure of our boys by providing solutions that are focused on their specific needs and keep them engaged in productive activities.

Albeit well-intentioned, the social intervention programmes over the years have failed to significantly impact the proliferation of crime and violence in our society. This may be explained by their likely disconnect from the real needs of the residents in the identified communities. For example, residents in many of these communities have unfortunately been deprived of their basic social entitlements such as a birth certificate, taxpayer registration number, and national identification card.

These basic yet essential documents are central to one's sense of nationality, and are intimately associated with boosting self-confidence and self-worth. They are the requirements for a job application, school registration, and accessing public health services. In seeking to curtail violence we must restore hope, by offering opportunity.

A recent study by the Caribbean Policy Research Institute on scamming, gangs and violence in Montego Bay called attention to the “strong association between poverty and violence in St James” while signalling that poverty and marginalisation are catalysts for violence. This comes on the heels of research previously presented by the Planning Institute of Jamaica – 'Shaping a Sustainable Development Strategy for Montego Bay and Western Jamaica'; and the Inter-American Development Bank – 'One Bay for All Sustainable Montego Action Plan', which highlighted the safety and sanitation issues in Montego Bay, and underscored the acute socio-economic deprivation experienced by these residents.

The level of poverty in question is not limited to a mere lack of money. Rather it speaks to the unavailability of basic infrastructural resources, such as public utilities, and a lack of access to essential services such as quality schools, health clinics, and the wider social safety net. In order to effectively interrupt this cycle, we must expand our appreciation of the nuances of these communities and direct services and resources accordingly. Social interventions, while necessary, are but a subset of a more all-encompassing intervention strategy that we must pursue in order to bring about the long-term change we desire in Jamaica.

All Jamaicans must be treated with respect and dignity irrespective of their socio-economic condition. We can no longer be satisfied with just rolling out programme after programme in an attempt to appease ourselves that work is being done. Every Jamaican must be provided with equal access to quality public services, and their fundamental rights guaranteed.

There must be greater focus on transforming the institutions that serve identified communities. The mandate of these ministries, departments and agencies of Government should be to provide quality services, and ensure citizens have access to opportunities for personal improvement. In this way, we will restore hope and a sense of purpose to these citizens, improving their sense of self-worth, self-confidence and empowerment.

Dr Horace Chang is minister of national security


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