Democracy, Peacebuilding, and Local Empowerment

Noble Peace Laureate and leader of Kenya’s Green Belt Movement Wangari Maathai wrote in 2009, “Too often, the term ‘democracy’ has simply become a bromide offered during voting, rather than a means of enhancing the capacities of governmental and nongovernmental institutions, providing basic services to the people, and empowering them to be active partners in development.”

Frankly, this is one of the best descriptions of what GCI’s CAM’s Project aims to do. Although Cameroon is officially a democracy, evidence points to the contrary, from the voting irregularities to minority marginalization, to corruption and infringements on civil liberties. On a local level, many villages suffer from tribalism, mob justice, and gender inequality. Here, democratization doesn’t just mean a free and fair electoral system (which is sorely needed, anyways), but an intense effort to create a government and a network of civil society organizations that work in tandem to serve the country’s citizens, from protecting their human rights to providing quality health care and education.

Yet, as Ms. Maathai also discusses, democracy also involves empowering individual citizens to be ‘active partners in development.’ It’s not just the voice of the people that counts, but their own agency—their own ability—to contribute to development decisions and implementation. At GCI, this is the approach that we take in order to improve democracy and the status of human rights in Kumba and throughout Cameroon.

Over the past three months, the CAM’s Project has moved away from one-sided sensitization and toward a more collective approach to peacebuilding and democratization. Even though our Spring 2011 workshops in Mofako Bekondo were effective on several levels, our follow-up evaluations proved that straight sensitization didn’t fully address the root problems in the village. So, we strove to create a new phase in the project that would involve different community groups on a much deeper level.

We first thoroughly consulted community constituents about their specific problems: lack of transparency in the Development Fund, underrepresentation of females on the Council, persistent instances of mob justice, and secrecy in Council proceedings. We then went about solving these issues by working creatively in partnership with members of the community.

For instance, the community has consistently complained that they have no idea how the Development Fund (the village’s yearly collection that the Council allocates to certain development projects) is distributed. The Council merely collects the money, meets in secret to determine the Fund’s allocation, and then carries out projects without openly informing the community. To change this, we not only delivered sensitization workshops on the importance of transparency, but we also created a simple budgeting system that involves data collection, community consultation, priority setting, and the publication of the entire budget at the end. We then lobbied the Chief for his support in the endeavor. With the Chief’s guarantee that he would help implement a new budgeting process, GCI will hold a workshop for both the Traditional Council and the Women’s Council to introduce and teach this new budgeting process.

Getting back to Maathai’s quote, GCI is basically killing a whole flock of birds with one stone. We’re enhancing the capacity of a local governmental institution, we’re helping that institution effectively provide basic services to the people, and we’re empowering key actors to create the change themselves. We’re also touching on gender equality, since the women’s lack of political representation often shuts them out of the budgeting process; including them also means that a nongovernmental institution is knowledgeable about proper procedure and can hold the Council accountable for following that procedure. Finally, we’re strengthening the ties in the community by creating the space and capacity for greater transparency.

Obviously, all of this is a long way from simply voting, but this is truly democracy in action.