War in Paradise: Civil society groups battle Caribbean gun violence

Maribel Gonzales Conventional Weapons

Maribel Gonzales

The Ploughshares Monitor Summer 2011 Volume 32 Issue 2

The Caribbean is known for its pristine beaches. Yet amid this beauty are communities of violence where citizens are caught in a virtual state of war. The region’s homicide rate of 18.1 per 100,000 inhabitants is more than double the world average of 7.6 (UNODC 2004). And more than 70 per cent of the homicides are committed with guns (Richards 2009). Deaths due to gun violence in parts of the Caribbean rival those in many current armed conflicts monitored by Project Ploughshares. But no countries in the Caribbean region are affected by war.

Instead a complex interplay of factors—illicit trafficking of guns and drugs, poverty, social exclusion, weakened family structures, collusion between organized crime and corrupt officials, and poor governance—creates a new landscape of insecurity. How can we address violence so severe that it threatens the region’s democratic fabric? One response is to mobilize civil society.

Civil society organizations (CSOs) can play an important role in preventing and reducing armed violence. With direct links to communities and flexible structures, they are well positioned to supplement state-sponsored initiatives. They can effectively raise public awareness of the human toll of violence; they can help citizens do more locally to identify and repair the damage resulting from violence; they can act as mediators and help resolve conflicts; they can provide services to survivors and victims of violence; and they can advocate for solutions.

Realizing that their problems were similar and that the drivers of crime and violence transcend national boundaries, nine CSOs came together in 2006 to found the Caribbean Coalition for Development and the Reduction of Armed Violence (CDRAV). Today 17 organizations from 14 countries belong to CDRAV. While most are volunteer-based organizations, there are also three government or quasi-government agencies. Many tackle armed violence from multiple entry points, including women and gender, youth development, and community development.

While CSOs are key actors in the region’s development, research suggests they face technical and human resource constraints in carrying out their work (Harris 2009). Project Ploughshares’ CIDA-funded project Building Peaceful Communities in the Caribbean has supported building the capacity of CDRAV since 2008.

Between December 2010 and March 2011, CDRAV and Project Ploughshares conducted five training workshops in Grenada, Jamaica, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and Turks and Caicos Islands, drawing between 18 and 35 participants to each event. Altogether, close to 150 participants from a diverse range of organizations, including the public sector, attended the workshops. CSO participants represented women’s groups, community-based organizations, youth groups, and sports clubs. All worked on reducing violence in their communities.

Two workshops invited the police to attend. As one participant put it, a key lesson was “working with the police officers more closely, and learning that they are not as bad as the public makes them out to be.”

Training focused on practical and effective organizational and program management skills. Eight modules of instructional material were prepared and organized into a training manual by Nelcia Robinson, a veteran community educator and co-ordinator of the Committee for the Development of Women, a CDRAV member. Planning and execution of the training workshops were performed by the hosting CDRAV member in each country (two cohosts in Jamaica). Six CDRAV members from five countries produced proposals for workshops, which were funded on a rolling, first-come, first-served basis to the limit of available funding and if requirements had been satisfied.

Preparing the proposals was in itself a practical training exercise. The CDRAV Secretariat and Project Ploughshares provided a proposal template and technical support throughout the process. The host agency of each workshop chose the modules to be delivered and made modifications as needed. They were also responsible for selecting the local trainers, inviting participants, organizing logistics, preparing budgets, and managing the funds. Costs per participant ranged from $169 (U.S.) in Turks and Caicos Islands to $60 (U.S.) in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

The process for developing the training ensured a standard of quality in the training content, while providing flexibility for each agency to make modifications. Caribbean culture has a strong oral tradition. Stories and poetry were used to communicate the local context of armed violence. A participant opened the Turks and Caicos workshop with a poem written for the event, “Mortgaged Prisons,” which decried the contrast between the islands’ beautiful beaches and the growing insecurity among its citizenry. In Jamaica, a teenager did a monologue on the violence affecting inner-city youth. In St. Vincent and the Grenadines, participants performed a play on domestic violence written by a police constable.

Remarkable energy and commitment
Several agencies supplemented the instructional material. Using examples of housing schemes, workshop participants in Grenada analyzed the link between poor housing conditions, lack of adequate recreational facilities, and violent behaviour among youth. The St. Lucia host added material on financial management. Two workshops included community walk-abouts in violence-affected communities.

The energy and commitment of host agencies and participants were remarkable. At the first workshop in Grenada, there was a group of enthusiastic participants in spite of tight timelines and upcoming Christmas holidays. Noting the decrease in availability of training opportunities in the region, CDRAV members proclaimed the value of these workshops.

CDRAV members have identified relations with funders as their greatest challenge (McFee 2010). The training aims to develop skills that will help CSOs improve their prospects of securing funds. But, in reality, most CSOs, except perhaps those in Haiti, are facing significant declines in funds because of changes in donor priorities and broader economic crises (Babb 2011; McLean 1999, p. 5). This factor, coupled with the reliance of most CSOs in CDRAV on a largely volunteer workforce, can challenge the longer-term sustainability of CDRAV and its members. Quite often, such operational costs as office rent and staff salaries are ineligible for funding. In this respect, Project Ploughshares’ CIDA-funded project to support CDRAV is unusual. Providing for core funding should be considered in projects to build the capacity of CSOs.

Increased funding does not, of course, ensure better performance. Organizational cultures of CSOs need to accommodate the increased accountability required by donors. Yet our own project experience has shown that documenting expenses, measuring performance, and meeting contractual obligations can be difficult for CSOs. Enforcement of accountability standards, along with ongoing training and mentoring to develop the required competencies, will be needed.

It should be noted that the potential to generate funds at home, either through income-generating activities or by fundraising aimed at the general public and the business sector, is largely untapped. This is a possible direction for future capacity-building assistance to CSOs in the region.


Babb, Cecilia. 2011. Speech delivered at “Creating Sustainable Partnerships with Civil Society in a Time of Economic Crisis,” a policy forum hosted by the Caribbean Policy Development Centre, March 8, Bridgetown, Barbados.

Harris, Margaret. 2009. Capacity Development in Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean. Report No. 1 Executive Summary and Major Recommendations.

McClean, Maxine. 1999. A Situational Analysis of the Funding of Caribbean Non-Governmental Organisations. A report commissioned by Caribbean Policy Development Centre and Caribbean Development Bank.

McFee, Deborah. 2010. CDRAV Membership Survey.

Richards, Peter. 2009. High tech systems trace influx of illegal arms. Inter Press Service, January 26.

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. 2004. UNODC homicide statistics.

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