Julia Anderson, a current Board Member with Jamaican Self-Help returned from a Board Trip to Jamaica in November 2014. Here, she discusses the changes she has seen in Jamaica within the last seven years, especially in regards to development and the increasing importance of supporting our partners who continue to “Step-Up” and change lives.

As a former staff and current board member, I have always believed in JSH’s concept of development that is built on a solidarity model, permeated by concepts of self-help, partnership, and responsiveness.  I have had the privilege of seeing these concepts in action in Jamaica many times in my years with JSH, having met the partners, organizations and individuals who make up JSH as an organization. This being said, it has been some time since my last trip to Jamaica so I jumped at the chance to participate in a Board trip to Jamaica this November.  

Upon arriving in the Kingston airport, it was clear that Jamaica had changed, some shiny new infrastructure (like the airport), roads seemed a little less bumpy and overall things seemed more peaceful then seven years ago, however, once I spent time in the communities I realized quickly that these surface level improvements seemed to have done little for our partner organizations.

Seven years ago, JSH was one funder among many that was collaborating with our Jamaican Partners including Action Aid, British Aid, USAID and many others who had their pocket books open to the Jamaican organizations that were demonstrating accountability and innovation.  Many of our partners were shining stars in the aid world, consistently delivering on outcomes and improving the livelihoods of Jamaica’s most marginalized. As fundraisers, we needed to simplify the frameworks within which we were working and consequently, we tried to neatly define and attribute particular results to the interventions we were funding. While there is nothing wrong with this approach or with the accountability and transparency it creates, what I learned on this trip to Jamaica is that there is a much bigger story to tell which is both far more messy and complicated. 

Simply put, projects do not change people’s lives but instead, it is the people that make up those organizations that change people’s lives.  It may sound simple or cliché but this nuance matters now more than ever.  The rest of the funders who I referred to are gone, left Jamaica entirely or they have reduced and streamlined so significantly that our partners can no longer access funding.  Our partners are tired, staff has been reduced at once bustling organizations, space is cramped and less air-conditioned, phone lines down. Our partners are making the choice to keep programs alive because they understand that being there is what makes the difference regardless of the shoestring you may be dangling from. A good example is a statement that has been reiterated over and over by folks around S-Corner Community Centre. The story line goes like this: 

“Some years back, our communities were at war, people could not walk the streets, the violence had touched everyone, but S-Corner changed all that.

“How?” I would ask “What did S-corner actually do?” (The “Funder” part of my brain wanted to know what project, model, intervention was it that saved the day…)

Over and over I heard the same response:
“They just stepped up” (Big Mike, S-Corner trainee and community member). 

It was not one project, one intervention or even a series of them; it was their presence, their voice and their willingness to take on the work that was not being undertaken by others to innovate and respond. Pulling together gang leaders for ceasefire agreements, to full-scale sanitation projects, to after-school homework clubs, to knocking on doors to deliver sexual education around AIDS, S-Corner showed up and worked every angle to create a community that believed in itself. Violence is down, people walk about with a freedom that did not exist a short ten years ago. But, can S-corner package it all up and prove that its series of brilliant interventions are part of the reason for this peace? No—but the community knows. The community knows that if S-Corner did not step-up, there would be no one else who would.  Individual projects may be taken up by other organizations but as the poor of Jamaica continue to get poorer (don’t let the new airport fool you, food prices are up and low-skilled jobs are down) the individual projects won’t be enough.  Without organizations like S-Corner and St. Margaret’s (another JSH partner) on the ground less children will read and write, violence will rise, and the marginalized will retreat further into the margins.

Together we all need to  join in the messiness of development work, to support the organizations in Jamaica who despite tremendous funding challenges and new realities, have not missed a beat; they are innovating, re-branding and finding projects that will ensure their presence on the ground continues to be relevant but most importantly, they are staying in the game-they are continuing to “Step Up.”

Supporting Organizations to “Step Up” by Julia Anderson