The Global Urbanist

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Cycling in the Caribbean: how can stakeholders clash despite having the same development agenda?

What happens when a foreign charity introduces a development agenda that aligns with local social entrepreneurial initiatives? Will local entrepreneurs be seen as like-minded stakeholders, or as 'competition'? The story of the development of cycling on the Caribbean island of Nevis shows how agendas can clash despite everyone's good intentions.

Mike Duff

Cities: Nevis

Topics: Walking and cycling, Participatory governance, Community organisation, Youth and education, Development

Will it build good will and better friendship? A road sign gives a cyclist pause on Nevis, with the island of St Kitts in the distance. Photo: Mike Duff
Cars aren't the only danger to cyclists on Nevis. Photo: Mike Duff
Winston Crooke works outside his bike shop, next door to the office of the Nevis Cycle and Triathlon Club which he also founded. Photo: Mike Duff
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Nevis, a Caribbean island home to some 12,000 people, is known for its beaches, its easy climate, a powerful cocktail, and holidaying celebrities. It is not the first place one thinks of for cycling, nor as being poor. Thus it seems unlikely that it would reveal itself as an interesting case study on the role of sports-related businesses in urban development, and an arena in which many of the current debates in international development circles are being played out. 

Fifteen years ago, Winston Crooke, an avid windsurfer and member of the British Nevisian diaspora, returned to his homeland. On an island with no history or need of cycling, Winston saw in it an opportunity to move the development agenda on Nevis forward, in environmental, economic and social terms.  Interviewing Winston about the evolution of cycling on the island, it is clear that he has a multi-faceted perspective of the role a sport can play in wider projects for progress.

His ambitions have been to contribute to the growth of the local economy by attracting and growing sports tourism; develop the stable of athletes his country puts forward for international competitions; trigger public investment in cycling infrastructure, and provide some much-needed structure for young people in the form of a club and goals. He argues that the success of this vision was due to attacking all these fronts simultaneously — creating the island's only bike shop, establishing its Cycling and Triathlon Club, and becoming the driving force behind its popular annual international triathlon.

Accustomed to rolling out its projects in countries in conflict, or suffering from abject poverty, the charity was convinced that somehow Nevis 'fit the bill'. Nevis, however, could not be called 'poor' ...

Over time the cycling club developed, and took on an almost church-like role in structuring life for local youths. Winston and his colleagues were careful about who joined, making it clear that membership was conditional on good behaviour, and used competitions to channel the latent aggression of local kids with little to do and few immediate prospects. The bike shop was ticking over, with holiday rentals and cycle tours of Nevis's hilly back roads bringing in additional income.

A new agenda arrives

Around this time a charity approached the island's government to join a scheme which would donate a large number of bikes, and mechanical and safety training, to the island. Accustomed to rolling out its projects in countries in conflict, or suffering from abject, trans-generational population-wide poverty, the charity was convinced that somehow Nevis 'fit the bill'. Nevis, however, could not be called 'poor' (nor 'rich'), and unlike its federal neighbour St Kitts, the vast majority of its population own their homes. It is certainly not stereotypical of the 'Global South'. 

Despite Winston's local nickname, 'Bike Man', he and his fellow proponents of the local cycling agenda were never perceived as stakeholders in the scheme, and by the time he had involved his organisation in the talks surrounding this charitable venture, many decisions had been made. These decisions were made by the Federal and Island governments and the international charity, without grassroots input from Winston and his colleagues, and without any deep local research into Nevisian socio-economics, or the state of its cycling 'market'. Attempts to engage in strategic discussions with relevant government ministries were shunned, and rather than the government seeing Winston's success in promoting cycling and the social development it brought as a national triumph by one of its citizens, it was perceived as 'competition'. His socially-minded interventions were seen to somehow highlight shortcomings in government initiatives.

The scheme to donate several hundred bikes to 'impoverished' Nevisians went ahead, with the federal government allowing the steeds in duty-free, and distribution and training programmes overseen by local appointees of the charity. The majority of the training programmes ended earlier than intended, with locals blaming lax post-intervention implementation by the charity, and a 'disconnect' between the targets of the charity and the aspirations Nevisians held for themselves vis-à-vis cycling. For example, in addition to wrongly characterising the economic condition of the average Nevisian, the charity banned the donated bikes from being used for competition.

Unintentionally, the initiative had flooded the market with free bikes, undercutting the only local private retail initiative, thereby drastically reducing the cross-subsidy this retail element was providing to the development of competitive cycling on the island, and coming close to undoing the social benefit of the local cycle racing scene. 

Rather than the government seeing Winston's success in promoting cycling and the social development it brought as a national triumph by one of its citizens, it was perceived as 'competition'.

Two years later, in 2009, a further four hundred bikes were donated through the same programme.  Despite protestations that this lot ought to go to St Kitts-the island in the federation which could truly be said to suffer from poverty-what appeared to be intra-island political competition resulted in a Nevisian repeat of the scheme. With a similar lack of post-intervention implementation and management, the great majority of the bikes went to those connected to the scheme's local representatives, and none of the additional conditions suggested by the local cycling club were implemented. Among these were a scheme which would have seen each child given a bike write a 'thank you' letter to the government which would double as a petition signature for government intervention around cycling development and cycling-safety infrastructure on the islands. 

Where should development come from?

Those involved in the cycling trade and culture on Nevis, are not alone in asserting that 'development' there is still perceived, by those in the public sector, as coming from somewhere external, or off-island. Locals contend that there has somehow been a hangover from colonial times, where jobs, accommodation, religion, food and in some cases healthcare, were provided by 'benevolent' colonial outsiders, to locals, working in sugar cane plantations, among other industries. The contention is that this subordinate position is entrenched, and remains to this day in government. The consequence is that a more twenty-first century view of development, driven by local privately-owned small to medium businesses, in a hospitable market created in part by public sector intervention, is alien to those in power. Private interests are seen as 'competition', rather than a 'national win', simply in need of occasional subsidy and macro-economic interventions.

This might seem a generalisation too far, but the tendency for the local public sector to take on a subordinate role in the development process, and prioritise external aid over the support and stimulation of local business initiatives can be observed across several key sectors on Nevis. Food, once a local affair, is another such sector. It should be a non-issue on an island where anything grows and land is abundant, yet those keen on reviving the industry fight an uphill battle against subsidised imports from better-off countries which, in addition to undercutting local produce, import a low-nutrient, high-fat western diet.

Entrenched behavioural patterns in government-stakeholder ecosystems are difficult, and time-intensive to adjust. A persistent cycling stakeholder group on Nevis, doggedly creating and maintaining links with other Caribbean and even international equivalents, is an advantage the island has working in its favour. Their growing success will continue to be impossible to ignore. Participation from the government in their activities is increasing, and what began initially as financial contributions, has extended to somewhat coordinated participation from different departments, including transport and policing. Whilst the cycling movement remains primarily bottom-up in drive, Nevisian cyclists and those who visit to ride, can have cause for cautious optimism.


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