JIS News

Story Highlights

  • It is often said that talk is cheap.
  • However by demolishing social and political barriers, through meaningful dialogue, several inner-city communities have demonstrated that talk can in fact be quite invaluable.
  • Under the United Nations Development Programme's (UNDP) Civic Dialogue for Democratic Governance Project in Jamaica, citizens have realized that meaningful dialogue can change whole communities, resolve conflicts and identify solutions.

It is often said that talk is cheap. However by demolishing social and political barriers, through meaningful dialogue, several inner-city communities have demonstrated that talk can in fact be quite invaluable.

Under the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) Civic Dialogue for Democratic Governance Project in Jamaica, citizens have realized that meaningful dialogue can change whole communities, resolve conflicts and identify solutions.

During a recent visit to the UNDP’s headquarters on Lady Musgrave Road in Kingston, JIS News was treated to a first hand view of civic dialogue in action as some 20 community leaders of the Kingston and St. Andrew Leadership Forum, representing mainly inner-city communities, crossed political and social barriers to meet and discuss the issues affecting their communities. The group also explored solutions.

Executive Coordinator of the UNDP, Noel Watson informs that the idea for the meeting was born out of several ongoing projects in the Greenwich Town area. The latest was an expo, held on December 18, where residents displayed products that they had crafted on their own.

The expo assisted in breaking down long lasting divisions in the community. “There are people in the bottom of Greenwich Town who had never gone to the middle part of Greenwich and who don’t talk with each other. What we did in this expo is to bring the artisans and people of all areas of Greenwich Town to one place to display their skills,” Mr. Watson explains.

He further informs that, “Myself, Minister Portia Simpson Miller, (Minister of Local Government Community Development and Sport) Justice Ian Forte and the head of the UNDP (Juan Carlos Espinola) went around and judged and gave prizes to the best three displays, some of which were fantastic,” he says, remarking, “It didn’t cost us any money at all, only time.”

Mr. Watson attributes the success of the Civic Dialogue project in Greenwich town to the cooperation of the residents. “Once we are in a community where the residents want to get up and stand up and want to do things we will support them,” he says.

He informs that the first request the UNDP had made was a meeting with the business community in that area. “It was out of this meeting that the idea of the expo was born. Then they asked if we could set up a health fair in the community. So we got Shipping Association mobile health unit, doctors and nurses to come in for a day. Then we were told that a lot of children were not registered so we arranged for the Registrar General Department (RGD) to come in with their mobile unit,” Mr. Watson further expounds.

But how exactly does the civic dialogue work? Coming out of a workshop, two years ago, leaders from various groups were chosen to form the leadership forum of the Civic Dialogue Committee. This included the judiciary, the church, civil rights organizations, inner-city communities, public sector, private sector, unions and academia. This group of leaders is chaired by President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Ian Forte.

Mr. Watson stresses that it was essential to choose people from a wide cross section so as to have a fair representation of the groups. “It does not make sense having people come to talk about the future of Jamaica and they are not representing big groups,” he adds.

Through a series of workshops, four scenarios for Jamaica’s future were developed. Each scenario paints a picture of a possible future for the nation. They include, ‘Paradise Lost’-a situation where some of the worst negative trends continue; ‘Sitting On the One One Coco’- a variant of the ‘one-one coco full basket’ philosophy; and ‘Nose Mus’ Run’ a variant of if the Jamaican idiom ‘if you want good your nose must run’.

All three scenarios depicted somewhat of a negative future. However, the final scenario entitled ‘Get Up Stand Up’ depicts a positive future and reflects a shared vision around which Jamaicans can unite. It envisions a low crime rate, good health, jobs, respect, unity, cooperation, consensus, sacrifice and hard work.

Resident Coordinator of the United Nations in Jamaica, Juan Carlos Espinola informs JIS News that civic dialogue was the way to go for the reformation of the society.

Referring to the initiative as the flagship project of the UNDP in Jamaica, Mr. Espinola says, “I think the Civic Dialogue is the way to go for this society of Jamaica for the communities of Jamaica, for the community dwellers and for the people who would like to see a change of the situation.”

He points to the fact that the Civic Dialogue was providing that platform to refocus. “Starting with dialogue at the community level helps because you get the people involved, but the project is not only about dialoguing, it is not just sitting and talking about your problems and at the end there is just no solution.”

Mr. Espinola adds that the project also “with the participation of the members, suggests in what ways communities can now overcome their own situations with their own strengths and forces and then supplemented by what in this case the government is doing, what UNDP is doing and what the other UN agencies are going to do and in an integrated fashion be able to respond to those community concerns”.

In addition, the project looks at ways of bringing social services back to the communities. This he says would be done through the partnership the project is creating in the form of a very dynamic executive board, health clinics and registering children in schools. The issue of crime and violence are also high on the agenda.

“Here is where the real dialogue is starting to happen. Here is where community dwellers are sitting together who normally couldn’t have a platform for consensus, just for simple discussion on what is to be done,” Mr. Espinola emphasizes.

The project is now giving to the communities a platform for peaceful resolution of conflicts and for peaceful negotiation of strategies to overcome those issues, with the participation of all concerned. “You have to extend the negotiation also with those who are in heavy resolution of things and here is where the different types of strategies need to be developed in addition to those that are already in place with the participation of other entities,” Mr. Espinola notes.

He adds that this is where the media comes in. “The media plays a very important role in showcasing the positives of the communities, which up to now are only focusing on the negative,” he says.

Under the theme ‘Vision 21 Secure and Prosperous’ these four dramatized scenarios are then presented via videotapes to groups or individuals for dialogue to begin. Mr. Watson explains that this methodology, which was instrumental in rebuilding South Africa in the aftermath of years of Apartheid, is already making great strides in the communities where it has been implemented.

The Civic leadership forum is the core group responsible for setting up the meetings with groups drawn from their spheres of influence. “Once we got into a community they would go back and tell other people and soon we were getting requests from all over,” he says.

With the project gaining momentum members of the Kingston and St. Andrew Leadership Forum are helping to get the message out. The KSA Leadership Forum is a spin-off of from the Civic Leaders Forum.

He informs that the members had pledged to spread the word and begin the dialogue throughout 700 communities in Kingston and St. Andrew. “Now that they understand the process they want to take the video out into their communities and show it and get their people to buy-in to the vision,” he explains.

For the rest of the island, the group will be working with the Parish Development Committees (PDCs). “The idea of this project is to get people to dialogue. The whole process of this exercise is to show that we can have different views, different priorities but at the end of the day we are all working together and we need to have consensus to move the thing forward together.

But the Civic Dialogue project is just not only about talk, as Mr. Watson points out that after the dialogue comes the solution.

The community will then seek to address a particular issue. “The community then points out what it is they can do and what kind of external help would be required.”

From here, Mr. Watson says the UNDP then collaborates with the communities to bring in the necessary resources. “After this project finishes the Parish Development Committees should have been strengthened enough that dialoguing becomes a part of their everyday activities,” he says.

While the bulk of the work for the project is being carried out in Kingston, it has not been restricted to the parish as the Committee has done significant work in St. Mary, Trelawny and Montego Bay.

Mr. Espinola notes that “Any project that is ground breaking would have to start in one place and this is what the project has been doing. Start in one place gaining experience, having successful story overcoming difficulties and problems and then develop strategies to move on.”

He explains that the Civic Dialogue Project will not only focus on dialogue but will also act as a facilitator in directing communities to agencies that may assist. The UNDP Representative used the opportunity to challenge communities to act for themselves. “The only people that can act are you. Don’t sit back and wait for the government to act,” he states.

Although the model has been quite effective at the community level it is not restricted and can be used for other social groups.