What did I learn from the coalface?

  • • Keep community development efforts away from national or local politics, which will try to take credit, particularly if the efforts are popular and well accepted.
  • • Try to make sure that community development efforts do not enrich different segments of the population, leaving out the citizenry as a whole.
  • • Make sure that community development requirements for voluntary labour do not exceed the capacity of the targeted population.
  • • Where possible, subsume traditional customs and behaviours into the programmes.
  • • Allow a variety of people or groups in a community to take the initiative for a community development effort — make it as inclusive as possible.

What happened to it all?

  • • Shortly after I left Dominica, there was an outbreak of violence from the army and the armed police, and the people’s respect for and trust in the government decreased greatly. This also polarised people politically into different sides and decreased the opportunities for communities to work together on joint projects and programmes.
  • • Again, shortly after I left Dominica in 1979, it was visited by a massive cyclone (Hurricane David) which destroyed a lot of infrastructure and ravaged the banana and citrus plantations. This was repeated in 2018, and, with global warming, there is every chance that Dominica will be revisited by cyclones more frequently.
  • • What I hope I left behind in Dominica is that the citizens have a willingness and readiness to undertake communal self-help work for no pay. It must not be forgotten, however, that this was built on a substantial aid contribution from ODA (DFID). The extent that such contributions, for such purposes, will be a feature of DFID’s aid strategy in the Eastern Caribbean is unknown to me.

On a personal level, the island of Dominica was unique in many ways. First, make sure that you’re talking about the right place - Dominica, not the Spanish-speaking Dominican Republic, which shares an island with Haiti.

Dominica was very lush, forested and very well watered (it claimed it had 365 rivers). It had an astonishing boiling lake in the centre of the island, from which led many hot rivers and even one hot waterfall. Cold, dramatic waterfalls it had in plenty. It was great walking country, and the Dominicans were very proud of the island’s beauty', spuming places like Antigua, to which it exported water. There were also black sand beaches that were a strange sensation, broken down from the volcanic rock in the centre of the island. It has “sold” itself as an ecological paradise and has created a niche but profitable market for ecological tourists.

Its old history was citrus fruit: there were many plantations of oranges, lemons and grapefruit in the hills, but these were now going back to bush and being replaced by bananas. It also distilled its own very strong rum (like many West Indian islands). It had its own version of Rastas from Jamaica — “Dreads” - who were very keen on living naturally, eating naturally and smoking naturally. They were not as peaceful as the Rastas, however, and murders took place, often influenced by the hot politics on the island.

I met my wife in Dominica. She was from the UK and had come out to meet a friend of hers for Christmas. She soon settled in and my Dominican friends approved and told me, “You have a heavy chick there, man.”

At the end of our time in Dominica together we were getting ready to go to the airport when a hurricane warning was put out - Hurricane David, 1979. We reached the airport by car and the winds were so strong that coconuts were being thrown from trees all around us. We walked to take shelter with two Belgian nuns who lived about two miles from the airport and spent the next 12 hours under a table in their kitchen as the hurricane passed over us, breaking trees in its path, but stopping for two hours’ calm as the eye went over. In about the sixth hour the roof of the house blew off and landed in a tree nearby.

Once the storm had passed and was heading to Puerto Rico, we helped the nuns clean up their house and then walked the two miles to the airport, waiting for some planes to come in on which we could hitch a lift. The first two planes were carrying reporters from North American TV who could not film very much since all the roads were blocked by fallen trees. The third plane was from Barclays Bank, checking on the safety of its money. The bank staff were also blocked from travelling to Roseau, the capital, by fallen trees, but gave us a lift to Antigua, from where we went to New York and met friends who had seen television coverage of the hurricane. No news had come out of Dominica so we phoned our parents and told them we were OK.

What were we thinking at the time?

There is a long tradition of community development work in British colonial history, often linked to food for work and to natural disasters. For example:

Hodge, Peter and Brokensha, David. 1969. Community Development:

An interpretation. Chandler Publishing Company, Chicago, USA.

I was aware of this tradition from Botswana but found so many unique features of Dominican life that gave the Self-Help Programme its particular strengths, many of which were linked to the active local government structures. The Self-Help Programme produced many self-help manuals as well as technical leaflets for road construction, culverts, block-making, etc.

Dominica — and, I think, all the Caribbean Islands, except Barbados — is ill-prepared for natural disasters such as hurricanes. In Barbados there are old, stone-built churches to which people run, but this was not the case in Dominica. Added to this was the fact that the last hurricane had been at least two generations earlier — there were no oral traditions that prepared people for what to do, and the government had no disaster response or rehabilitation unit.


  • 1 This was my one and only job for the British Government. They told me that if I wanted the job 1 had to sign up to the Official Secrets Act, which was enforceable for life! I wavered, but signed in the end. When 1 arrived in Barbados at the ODA office I asked to see some official secrets, now that 1 had signed. What I saw was cocktail party gossip - a big let-down.
  • 2 An unexpected result of all this was that 1 got a stress ulcer from too much getting up in the very early morning to go to the airport in Barbados and fly out to small islands. My doctor said, “This is the Caribbean, man - you don’t get ulcers here.”
  • 3 “Babylon”, heard in the songs of Bob Marley, was the all-embracing word in the Caribbean for unwanted modernisation, capitalism and excessive wealth.
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