Last month, I visited Jamaica as part of a Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA) delegation. Jamaica has become a stopping point for gun and drug trafficking from South America – and this, plus high unemployment rates, has led to an increase in gang violence on the island. Both the drugs and sometimes the gang’s grudges also make their way to our streets.
Our foreign aid budget is principally managed by the Department for International Development (Dfid). Part of the role of my delegation was to see that our 0.7 per cent was being well spent. We were taken by Difd to inner city Kingston, to Trenchtown, where Bob Marley grew up. Trenchtown is a grid of poorly-maintained roads between low-level shacks, yards and little street “shops” selling cigarettes, newspapers and sweets. On every corner, and propping up every shop, are groups of young men watching life go by, and probably keeping a watch on it too. I have to say I felt a little anxious as we pulled up, piled out of the minibus and walked through the network of dirt alleys, lined by corrugated iron sheeting too high to see over or let the sun in. Eventually we entered a courtyard with an armchair literally burning in the corner. Dfid welcomed us with pride to the inner city farm they were supporting. I thought they were having a laugh!
“Let me introduce you to Sonia, our conflict interceptor”. As we turned to look, a gate opened in the sheeting and a beaming Sonia came through. An older lady with immaculate hair and dress, clutching an oversized bag, she surveyed us and told us to follow her through the gateway. On the other side, surprisingly, there were banana trees. In their shade, a circle of chairs had been laid out and hanging around them were some nervous-looking lads.
Sonia was employed by the Citizen Security and Justice programme (CSJP), a crime and violence prevention scheme funded by the Jamaican government and international agencies including Dfid. Sonia’s role was to change the mindset of local gang members into a positive, productive one. More than 80 per cent of gang members are illiterate, leaving school with Grade 2 reading. Employment opportunities were slim, and as one of the young men told me: “As soon as they see our address, the employers don’t want to know.”
What are the young people of Trenchtown meant to do? Until 2010 there was a strong mafia-style Don structure in the area with a clear hierarchy and a code of conduct, with most of the young men recruited by the gangs. 2010 saw these Dons being extradited and the police actively disrupting the gang members’ behaviour. With no alternative ways of making a living, rather than ending the gang violence, it simply splintered it into disorganised factions. This was exacerbated by the 2015 anti-gang legislation which criminalised people for being guilty by association, but without defining what was meant by “association” – so the law was open to exploitation.
As Sonia spoke, it became clear she was a remarkable woman. Her role was to literally stand in the middle of a gang altercation and try to talk each side down. “Mindset is a weapon of mass destruction,” she stated. The young men believed they had no options, no choices and no way out, so violence had become their normal. Sonia and CSJP were there to challenge that mind-set and they were doing it with farming.
To explain more, I was led around by Basilios Lyons, known as Lion. Lion was in his early twenties, he was slightly built and respectful but found it hard to maintain eye contact. Many of his family had been killed in the local gang violence, his cousin was killed two months ago. Lion had come to the urban farm in a desperate attempt to build a new life for himself and his young daughter. He led me to a large pen, and in it were 500 week-old chicks. As Lion stepped into the pen you could see his confidence build, this was his domain and a place he felt in control. CSJP had taught him how to raise the chicks to maturity and had given him the space to do so. Lion talked with pride about how he had brought his little daughter to see the farm, the place that had given him the opportunity to make his own legitimate living, a place that had given him back choices.
Lion is just one man, one success story. CSJP have 50 projects in Jamaica working with young people between 15-29 years old. Each of these youngsters will be given the training and support they need to step away from the gang culture and gain employment. While I believe it is morally right to give these young people an alternative, I also believe DIFD is making a good investment in preventing the drugs and gang violence reaching British shores. To end violence, breed chickens!