This article was written by Marilyn Facey, Programme Director and Lecturer in Communication Arts and Technology at the University of Technology Jamaica.

COVID-19 has had a significant negative effect on the economy of Jamaica. As a developing country, the island is heavily reliant on tourism and remittances for revenue. Earnings from the tourism sector dropped sharply – due to low visitor arrivals since March 2020 – when the island closed its borders following its first positive COVID-19 case. The economic contraction and significant loss of revenues has bolstered the case for social intervention programmes to meet the needs of the most vulnerable citizens, many of whom live in inner-city areas.

Montego Bay, in the parish of St James – Jamaica’s most popular tourist city – hosts the majority of the island’s inner-city communities. Many of the residents work in and depend on the tourism sector for an income. Areas in Montego Bay, including those in Canterbury, Albion, William Street and Paradise Row, were targeted for a sanitisation and sensitisation campaign. This formed part of the implementation stage of a four-pronged COVID-19 relief initiative which began in July 2020. The initiative was made possible following a US$100,000 grant awarded to the St. James Municipal Corporation. The communities benefitted from a social intervention project that provided sanitisation, COVID-19 sensitisation, garbage collection and distribution of care packages; along with opportunities for training and counselling.

The UN Habitat’s Participatory Slum Upgrading Program (PSUP) was launched in Jamaica in 2008. PSUP is a tripartite partnership programme with the Secretariat of Africa, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States (ACP), funded by the European Commission (EC) and implemented by UN-Habitat. The programme seeks to improve the living conditions of people living in informal settlements worldwide. More than half of the urban population in Jamaica live in slum conditions or informal settlements; about 71 such settlements are in Montego Bay in St James. The PSUP is “aimed at developing urban poverty reduction policies and programmes at local and national level based on assessment of needs, capacity gaps and institutional ability to respond to priorities agreed on by stakeholders of a given urban area” (UN Habitat, 2008).

Lessons learnt of the UN Habitat's Participatory Slum Upgrading Program (PSUP) in Jamaica:

  1. Local government ownership: The St James Municipal Corporation proposed and implemented the project. Local government representatives utilised a network of community workers – mainly women – to organise community clean up, food distribution, counselling and youth activities.
  2. Inter-agency cooperation: given the limited physical access to these communities, the project created an opportunity for several agencies, including the Ministry of Health, the Fire Department and the National Solid Waste Management Authority to work with residents in sanitisation and sensitisation activities.
  3. Community buy-in: residents were engaged at each stage of the project; from the identification of needs, to cleaning and counselling. Through frequent consultation, the Municipal Corporation ensured the intervention met the residents’ physical, emotional and basic financial needs.


1. Local government ownership

A significant obstacle in the fight against the spread of disease, including COVID-19, is poor sanitisation practices. The need for proper sanitisation and physical distancing has been crucial in the fight to mitigate the effects of the pandemic in Jamaica. However, this is extremely difficult to achieve in inner-city communities with improper waste disposal practices, overcrowded households and limited physical space. An initiative targeting residents of four communities that border the North Gully in Montego Bay, St James, has provided relief.

According to Trevion Manning, Director of Planning for the St James Municipal Corporation and Project Manager

for the PSUP in Montego Bay, St James, the project “was a well-needed intervention”. It saw community members engaged in the removal of bulky waste and the cleaning of drains. The sanitisation exercises were paired with the sewing and distribution of cloth masks, hand sanitiser and care packages. Additional training and counselling sessions provided short-term employment opportunities for residents. Another aspect of the project was the painting of murals at the entrance to Canterbury. “The beautification resulted in a general lifting of the morale of the residents”, Trevion Manning stated. And while the PSUP support for these communities existed before the start of the project in July 2020, he stressed that it “was seen as important to assist when the COVID-19 pandemic came about.”

The ownership of the project by the municipality aided in community participation. Councillor for the Montego Bay South Division, Richard Vernon, explains, “we have a more personal touch to these communities within the municipality. It [being] a Municipal Corporation project, gives us better manoeuvring of the situation. We were able to reach out to the citizens, organise them and, as you know, we work with them on a day-to-day basis”.

2. Inter-agency cooperation

A common approach towards guaranteeing successful project outcomes is stakeholder participation. To this end, the municipality – which initiated the response – partnered with several local agencies, a faith-based organisation and community members to implement the project. The primary outcomes of the COVID-19 relief effort were a sanitation campaign, initiatives aimed at preventing infection, removal of waste and distribution of care packages.

One of the initial obstacles to the sanitisation effort was limited vehicular access to these communities due to the intricate network of dirt tracks, narrow bridges or roadways. This meant that fire and garbage trucks could not easily reach all areas. The community sanitisation and ongoing cleaning exercises introduced central collection points in each community and provided garbage skips.

According to Councillor Richard Vernon, the communities – which have suffered from severe flooding as recently as 2017 – lacked a central point to deposit waste that was accessible to the National Solid Waste Management Authority (NSWMA). This fuelled the longstanding practice of improper garbage disposal in the North Gully. To tackle this, the municipality liaised with the NSWMA to collect the residents’ garbage at the skips. The Ministry of Health and the Fire Department partnered with the St James Municipal Corporation to deep clean and power wash the market and sections of the roadways. They also organised cleaning activities and bulky waste removal, while three garbage-holding areas were constructed to manage the ongoing collection and disposal of waste in the communities.

In addition to this, the joint efforts of the Ministry of Health and Wellness, through the St James Public Health Department, trained over 40 residents and 15 members of a faith-based organisation to assist with sanitisation and COVID-19 sensitisation. Deep cleaning and sanitisation of communal sites, such as markets, was paired with COVID-19 information and training sessions. They provided counselling to residents, shared COVID-19 prevention messages, and engaged in distributing information leaflets, hand sanitisers and masks. This aspect of the campaign provided temporary employment, as the project sought to fill several needs, including providing some financial relief. An ongoing plastic bottle collection and recycling drive by residents of Canterbury also helped to bring in some much-needed income.

Nikane Jemison of the St James Public Health Department credited the success of the project to interagency participation. “Intersectoral collaboration played a major role. It was essential to get the community members [and] everyone involved.” Nikane Jemison also mentioned that the removal of bulky waste resulted in the displacement of rodents in the area. The Ministry assisted with the placement of over 200 bait stations to help reduce the infestation.

3. Community buy-in

Notwithstanding the collaboration among various agencies, the participation of the residents was the key element in the successful execution of the project. Richard Vernon explains, “you need to identify the needs of the residents in order for them to buy into the project. And this is why I always push for inclusivity. You want to ensure that whatever you are doing, it is what the residents want.” An April 2021 visit to the communities revealed that efforts to maintain a clean community were ongoing. The communal spaces, gully and market were well-kept.

The role of women was another key element in the programme; they made up the majority of the residents trained and employed through the programme. Many had lost their jobs in the tourism sector due to COVID-19. Additionally, the community representatives – who served as coordinators for food distribution and offered counselling – were also women.

Local Economic Development Officer at the St James Municipal Corporation, Dr Joan Dove, says the need to address the impact of COVID-19 at community level was the motivator for crafting “a long-term beneficial and impactful initiative with a holistic approach”. Community engagement, Joan Dove said, gave the communities a voice and therefore helped to gain trust and buy-in. This was evident at each stage of the project.

These communities are known not only for extreme poverty, but also for incidents of violence. The project’s February 2021 Report cited only 2 incidents of crime and violence over the prior 6-month period. According to Shamona Whyte, from Canterbury, the residents are “too busy for that,” referring to criminal activities. Community members now gather in the common areas to socialise or organise youth activities.

The Municipal Corporation/UN Habitat COVID-19 response is especially significant to the residents, because it comes during a time when the pressure of daily curfews and weekend lockdowns are accompanied by a loss of income. Many residents of Montego Bay were laid off following Jamaica’s island-wide lockdown in March 2020, and several hotels closed down as international travel screeched to a halt. Temporary employment and community engagement  – in maintaining a clean environment – have provided much-needed relief during the pandemic. The provision of basic needs, together with sanitisation exercises and a sensitisation campaign, aided the effective execution of the project.

Click on the play button below to watch our video on the UN Habitat’s Participatory Slum Upgrading Program (PSUP) in Jamaica.

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 Participatory Slum Upgrading Program (PSUP) highlights

  • Sanitation campaign

The sanitation campaign included the training of 40 community leaders and 15 members of a faith-based group. The groups conducted house-to-house visits in the four communities, handing out flyers and spreading COVID-19 prevention messages. On each occasion, flyers were distributed with care packages. Murals were painted on the walls in the community of Canterbury to provide uplifting messages of togetherness and peace.

  • Protection from COVID-19 infection

Masks and hand sanitisers were provided for the residents of the four communities. A total of 2,500 masks were made by community members. The group also handed out masks to young people who had none. The aim was to raise awareness among young people on the importance of always wearing a mask.

  • Removal of bulky and solid wastes

Removal of bulky and solid waste from the communities was carried out during October to December 2020. A total of 435 cubic feet of waste was removed. Locals moved the bulky waste to a central location within each community. A truck was engaged to take this waste to the government-approved dumpsite in Retirement, St James.

  • Distribution of care packages

There were four food care package distributions; deliveries were made in July, October and December 2020, and in April 2021.

  • Counselling

Over 300 adults have been counseled so far, while young people are engaged in weekly activities. A course aimed at building self-esteem was held for 49 women in the communities between August and October 2020.

Read the other episodes of the voices from the field series:

Credit: Video © Capacity4dev | Photo © Marilyn Facey


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DISCLAIMER: This information is provided in the interests of knowledge sharing and capacity development and should not be interpreted as the official view of the European Commission, or any other organisation.

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