While taking on a life of its own in 1965, the seed was planted in 1937 when, Queen’s Council (QC), Mr Norman Manley and a team of seven Jamaicans who were interested in the development of the working class, started the Jamaica Welfare. It was launched under the banner “We are out to build a new Jamaica with Christ as our pioneer.’
It was a fitting time for the emergence of such an organisation. Following World War I, Jamaican communities were in turmoil as a result of low wages and high unemployment in the agricultural sector. The banana industry, like others, had to compete for prices on the international market. This gave rise to a legal battle between the Banana Growers Association and the United Fruit Company. Mr Manley represented the Banana Growers Association in court. So impressive was his submission on the social components of the case that the President of the United Fruit Company, Mr Samuel Zimurray, recommended to his Board that one cent from each bunch of bananas shipped from Jamaica should be placed in a fund for “the upliftment of the people in Jamaica, in particular the Jamaican peasantry”.
At that time, social organization in Jamaica was led by church organizations and a number of voluntary social services but, despite their best efforts, the services were inadequate. Jamaica Welfare introduced a two-pronged thrust – self-help activities among the rural people through popular education and the development of cottage industries and social welfare with emphasis on establishing cooperatives and programmes for youth advancement. The organization first experimented with the building of community centres to serve as the hub of this rural development, the flagships being in Guy’s Hill (1938) and Porus (1939).
So successful was the effort that after only six years in operation, the British government accepted a recommendation to use Jamaica Welfare as the pattern for rural development in the West Indies. In addition, the Board was reorganized and it experienced the first of many name changes, as it became Jamaica Welfare Limited.
The programme now saw a shift in focus from community centres to community associations. These were organized with full participation of community members and activities focussed on community life. Cooperative development was an important component and was combined with a “Study-Save –Work” Plan. Training in home economics and agriculture were introduced in the communities and generaluse of indigenous materials was encouraged. The Food for Family Fitness (3F) Campaign was born out of this initiative.
This integrated programme was the hallmark of the Better Village Approach through the 1940s, culminating in the development of a special Better Village programme in 1951. Its success hinged on the desire of the villagers for self-improvement, and resulted in the formation of village committees and community councils; initiating social surveys to determine community needs, training local leaders, and setting up practical projects. These efforts were complemented by pre-professional social welfare courses sponsored by the University of the West Indies (UWI).Pioneers like Mr Eddie Burke and Mr Thom Girvan assisted the development of welfare work in Barbados, Tobago, St. Kitts, and Nevis.
In 1949 Jamaica Social Welfare became a statutory body with rules governing the organization amended into The Jamaica Social Welfare Commission Law -1949. Under this law the Commission was
empowered to promote, manage and control schemes for and to do any act or thing which may directly or indirectly serve the general interests and the social, cultural or economic development of the agricultural or working peasantry, small settlers, labourers and working people of and in Jamaica
With this mandate, the Jamaica Social Welfare Commission continued to embrace community and village groups involved in setting up cooperatives and providing training in areas like handicraft, savings unions and buying clubs, and the arts among others. A literacy project was undertaken with the assistance of UNESCO and the first urban initiative started in Railway Lane in St. James.
In 1960 the Commission was given responsibility for Community Development following a special study of the acute urban conditions in Western Kingston. In 1961 the organization undertook a national community development programme with West Kingston as model.