Dominica, West Indies, 1976–78: demanding assistance from the State or the joys of self-help

... In which the self-help scheme in Dominica coordinated and enthused people on the island to build and sustain their own infrastructure, eschewing government handouts.

By this time I had undertaken my specialist training at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and had come out with a Postgraduate Diploma in Social Administration (Overseas) — with merit. The Overseas Development Administration (ODA), precursor to the present DFID (Department for International Development), offered me a job based in their Barbados office as Social Development Adviser for the Eastern Caribbean. There were two of us, one man and one woman, and we divided the islands between us. We, and a bunch of other advisers in different fields, suggested to ODA and its local office in Barbados how British aid in the Eastern Caribbean should be spent.1

ODA’s understanding of social development was limited. The position was generally thought of as one that would involve itself in youth, sports, women’s affairs and possibly community development, but good governance and social accountability were nowhere on the horizon, much less anything that questioned the competence and integrity of the services offered by the governments. The other aspect of the job which rankled was that it was carried out by short “visiting fireman” visits to the islands by plane" and largely involved top-down suggestions linked to the available funds.

My patch was the independent islands of St Lucia, St Vincent, Dominica, St Kitts/Nevis, Antigua and, surprisingly, the Turks and Caicos Islands, still a British colony. My remit was to work with the governments of these small countries, while representing the British Government - the only time I have ever done so. While I was free to contact and work with local NGOs and CSOs, it was ver)' much within the context of what was acceptable to the different Caribbean island governments. And these governments were volatile! Not only were they always apprehensive of being overturned in elections, but the scale of local party politics was small, domestic and almost parochial.

During my initial visits to the governments of these islands I discovered real interest in a comprehensive community development programme in the island of Dominica. Dominica, one of the Windward Islands, was anglophone — but only just; its closest neighbours were the French territories of Guadeloupe and Martinique, and the first language of most people was French Creole. Dominica, with a population of 75,000, was a very mountainous territory and the maintenance of its infrastructure was an ongoing problem. It had, at that time, well-distributed and isolated communities based on available resources like fishing and flat land, but its economy was largely based on plantation agriculture — bananas and citrus fruits. The communities were largely self-reliant (although all were dependent to some extent on the Dominican diaspora and remittances sent home from the UK, Canada and the USA) and had a strong sense of their own identity. They had village councils whose elections were keenly contested.

Much of the physical assets of the island that had been created by the government were in poor repair. There was a general feeling in the population that if the government had built something then it was the government’s responsibility to maintain it. They had paid their taxes, and government should pay for the upkeep. The Government of Dominica was conscious of the cost of maintaining its infrastructure, and well disposed to the idea that the costs could be covered from some other source than its tax base, but it was apprehensive of trying to manage a large programme itself. Excessive rains, resultant landslides and very difficult terrain meant that local infrastructure was under great pressure. The Department of Local Government was well aware of Dominican citizens’ local pride in their villages and their readiness to volunteer for local efforts to maintain and strengthen their facilities. This gave birth to the Self-Help Programme.

The Self-Help Programme prepared people for its implementation by pointing out in pamplilets and on radio that people did not maintain structures built by government but did look after things they considered they owned, or that they had had a hand in constructing. This was widely accepted and fitted with the indigenous self-reliant spirit of the people.

Equally importantly, the government was not apprehensive that a programme of community development through self-help would offer an opportunity to political opportunists to overthrow it, but saw that such a programme, encouraged and put forward by government, would increase its popularity.

The Department of Local Government, with its Permanent Secretary, Mr Joseph, set up the Self-Help Programme, we negotiated a three-year grant from ODA, and it was agreed with ODA that, since this was the biggest project under Social Development, it made sense for me to move full time from Barbados to Dominica to help in its implementation.

The first task was to announce and communicate the nature of the programme to its potential customers — the isolated and self-reliant village communities scattered around the island. The idea was well received in general and people were ready to volunteer their time and effort to improve the facilities of their communities, but the concept had to overcome some peculiarly Dominican concerns:

  • • Villagers were very clear that their contributions of voluntary labour were not to be seen as support for the government or the political party in charge of the State at that time.
  • • Villagers were very clear that, while they were prepared to offer labour and time, they were not prepared to offer financial contributions. They had, they said, paid taxes, and government had to provide what was needed that cost money — the cement, roofing sheets, windows, doors, etc.
  • • Villagers were also ver)' clear that any self-help effort had to be for the community as a whole, or an important section of the community. Roads that went to a specific person’s plantation were not to be built under such a scheme, whereas small bridges, culverts, community centres and repairs to clinics and schools were all acceptable.
  • • The Self-Help Programme was very clear that it would design the interventions, and make up the budgets, once these were agreed by the local communities. It was apprehensive of being seen as supporting local contractors and contributing to the polarisation of the wealth of local people. The Self-Help Programme therefore supplied an architect, a civil engineer and a quantity surveyor as needed. It was also concerned about potential corruption if it did not control the budgets.
  • • The Self-Help Programme did not set rigid rules for the self-help efforts, in the sense that they had to be managed through party political activists, or particular church officials, or any specific group. Any collection of enthusiasts in a village could put forward a suggestion for a self-help effort, the group would be checked out by the programme to see whether it was likely to be able to deliver the bodies to participate, and it would be responsible for managing the effort through to completion. The staff of the Department of Local Government became largely subsumed into the Self-Help Programme and helped to liaise with any other department that needed to be involved — Water, Public Works, Agriculture, etc.

While the programme of voluntary efforts could be seen as an implicit (or explicit) condemnation of the government for having let slip the standards of maintenance for communal infrastructure, this rarely surfaced to the extent that voluntary labour was refused. The Self-Help Programme tapped into traditional and customary approaches to village maintenance and development and was implemented in an inclusive and festive atmosphere, even when the tasks were substantial — ver)' much a Caribbean approach to communal labour, with joint food preparation, music, singing and drinking.

The only negative side — also very Caribbean — was the objection to what was seen by some as unwanted modernisation and the growth of “Babylon”.3 Dominica had its home-grown Rastas (called “Dreads”) who were influential with young people and advocated a return to bucolic isolation — growing “ground provisions” (traditional vegetables) and weed and cutting off contact with the larger world, and particularly with the metropolitan countries. Their objections to the Self-Help Programme mainly served to stiffen ordinary citizens’ enthusiasm for self-help and to reinforce their objections to the Dreads’ ideological platform.

Concerning the administration of the project, the budget that ODA paid for was sufficient for the size of the programme and it was able to deliver the resources that were required to meet the citizens’ aspirations, once they had been stimulated. ODA was flexible enough to respond to requests once the case had been made; they therefore provided a reconditioned ten-ton lorry as the programme increased in size and were prepared to help the programme with technical assistance.

Community Development programmes, from my experience, have the tendency to suffer the following problems — few of which affected the Self-Help Programme in Dominica:

  • • The programme becomes politicised and support for it becomes polarised into different camps — which may prevent other camps from enjoying its benefits.
  • • The programme may be seen and used as a source of income for people who have succeeded in “capturing” it.
  • • The programme may lose the enthusiasm of the community and their readiness to work for free because it does not deal with topics or tasks that are important enough to the community.
  • • The programme does not produce enough of real value for the communities involved, or the quality of the products is poor and rejected.
  • • The programme loses momentum as people lose the enthusiasm to maintain what has been created.
  • • The participants who are the intended volunteers refuse to work without pay.

In Dominica we required limited contributions from the communities - digging roads, ditches and culverts, collecting stones for foundations, “tarrish” (a cementitious aggregate that occurs naturally) and sand. We did not ask them to become bricklayers or plasterers (although some undoubtedly had the experience for this) because this would mean that they would lose an income opportunity. We hired skilled labour where we needed to. We always recognised their achievements through articles in the national newspaper or on radio. We always emphasised that anything created by the people was likely to be maintained by the people. This proved to be true.

The programme lasted three years and improved the stock of assets on the island, while making sure that they were maintained because the people had a stake in what they had built.

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