‘Questioning forms of governance in Kingston, Jamaica’ by Dr David Howard MSc course director and lecturer

Kingston - Jamaica (c)  Nicolas OrenStereotypes of Caribbean societies tend to focus more towards beach and weather matters, and cultural skills in the recording studio or on sports fields. Caribbean societies, however, are among the most urbanised, and arguably violent, places on earth. United Nations and World Bank reports over the last five years have systematically revealed urban violence to be the major roadblock to economic development in the region. Amid all the World Cup glitz, 8 out of the 10 world cities recently announced as having the highest murder rates were located in the Americas – three of these are in the Caribbean. Governments, development agencies and citizens have echoed the concerns, and in Jamaica the call for change has seen dramatic shifts in local forms of governance, and the urban landscape itself. My current research considers the interconnections between urbanism and socially sustainable development policy and practice, concentrating on lower income countries and particularly Kingston, the capital of Jamaica, as a case study.

The main focus of research for the last year has been to analyse the renewed emphasis on formalising housing tenure in low-income neighbourhoods as a means of releasing capital for residents to gain access to basic services, such as water and electricity, which are increasingly delivered by public-private partnerships. The empirical evidence for my study comes from interviews with residents, police officers and development workers in Rose Town, a low-income community in downtown Kingston. Until recently, the area was informally governed by the Discipline Gang, led by the community don ‘Rooksie’. Intensive military and police intervention since 2010 has removed the physical presence of the gang, and levels of violence reportedly decreased at first. Ethnographic research addressed the emergence of new and flexible structures and sites of citizenship, related to forms of informal and formal, or ‘hybrid’ governance, in relation to the provision of basic infrastructure. The study places particular attention on a formalisation of tenure programme in Rose Town, which started in 2009 with the financial and practical support of the Jamaican government, the Department for International Development (UK), USAID and the Prince’s Foundation for Building Community.

For the next month, I’ve returned to downtown Kingston, and in particular, I am spending time with colleagues at the Rose Town Federation, a community development group. During 2013, I interviewed eighty residents from the neighbourhood, of all ages, about their housing conditions, access to basic services and community life after the ‘incursion’ and forceful removal of the gang networks and leadership. Opinions were divided. The Discipline Gang did provide ‘discipline’ of sorts – extreme and extra-legal for the most part – and many residents suggested that under their regime some elements of ‘day-to-day’ crime had disappeared. Many regular abuses such as rape and assault, however, are sometimes not recognised as a ‘crime’, and seldom reported to the police. With the visible demise of the gang presence over the last three tears, reported major crime figures were reduced for a while, but many residents feared the return of more problems as the old guard and their associates sought to re-establish themselves, and new leaders emerged from street-corner groups or rival clans. The undercurrents of ‘don-ship’ and community gang networks remain evident in Rose Town, and the next few weeks of discussions and follow-up interviews with residents will provide a poignant overview of the alleged ‘post-don’ era. I will re-interview police officers as well, many who gave candid and clear accounts of life as a ‘law enforcer’ in downtown Kingston. The Commissioner of Police has just stepped down on the eve of a report on police brutality and extra-legal killings by the military and police officers. The tussle between informal and formal governance and turf-control looks set to remain, with Rose Town residents are left insecurely in the middle-ground.

Dr David Howard is is a University Lecturer in Sustainable Urban Development, Fellow of Kellogg College and Course Director for the MSc in Sustainable Urban Development.  His principal research has concentrated on the contemporary urban societies of the Caribbean and Latin America, with a specific focus on urban livelihoods, social sustainability and identity politics.

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