The Challenges of Rural Development In Africa: Case Study of Cameroon

Our nine preceding articles in this series covering the African continent also indirectly addressed, by association, Cameroon’s rural development challenges. This last piece of the series tackles some of those challenges as perceived in Cameroon’s development context from the vantage point of Cameroonian village communities. In the context of this article, the “village” refers to the rural population in general and to village agro-pastoral and other livelihood activities. State-village development linkages : Cameroon’s rural development challenges are best understood through the analytic lens of State-village development linkages in virtually all sectors. Since the colonial era and up to the present, those linkages have been weak, amorphous and ambivalent. This is due to several reasons. Firstly, Cameroon has never really had a “village policy”, or more precisely a longterm strategy for the modernization of its villages, in contrast to Government’s policies and projects promoting urban planning and development. It is as if the State lacked a clue about what to do with its villages. The lack of State policy and administrative identity for the villages extends also to almost everything within the village environment. It is for instance not clear where the State places the village smallholder - in the formal or informal economic sector? Is he recognized as an investor? If so is he granted the same privileges as enjoyed by other local and foreign investors? Further, village customary laws, including land laws, seem to be tolerated but not really recognized by the State beyond the village setting. With respect to language policy, the country is currently witness to a fratricidal conflict over foreign languages which could have been long replaced, like in Ethiopia, Somalia or Tanzania, by its more melodious native languages fluently spoken in the villages. This example, which should break the heart of any Cameroonian nationalist or Pan-Africanist, touches on the cultural policy dimension of rural development discussed in part 3 of this series. It also underscores the point made time and again in this series, namely that rural development in Africa is equivalent to nation building. Secondly, although the Constitution recognizes traditional chiefs, their village territorial jurisdictions - at least for the over 10’000 village-based 3rd degree chiefs - are not administratively defined in the same way as for Governors, Senior Divisional Officers, and Divisional Officers in presidential decrees Nos. 2008/377 and 2008/377, both dated 12/11/2008, relating to the administrative organization of the country. Recognizing traditional chiefs is obviously not equivalent to recognition of village communities. Traditional chiefs in Douala and Yaounde for example had lost their villages long ago to urbanization expansion. In the rural setting a good many village chiefs who have chosen to reside mostly in cities are no longer perceived by their village communities to be credible leaders. Yet the level of success to be expected in human capacity building programmes in Cameroon’s rural heartland will depend to a very large extent on village leadership aptitudes, which is why a root and branch reform of village traditional governance is indeed crucial, as noted further below. Thirdly, practically all the functions previously performed by the traditional chiefs seem to have been devolved to Divisional Officers, as borne out in the above-mentioned executive directives, notwithstanding the fact that traditional chiefs are officially considered to be Government’s “administrative auxiliaries”. But this designation is all but moot and vacuous in light of the Presidential Decrees in question, which muzzle the role of village communities as natural, self-contained self-governing units. By ancestral tradition, the chiefs are supposed to serve only their communities and be accountable to them. Fourthly, there is the more problematic ambiguity, if not contradiction, of having village hereditary monarchies operating as administrative adjuncts within a national constitutional democracy. Furthermore, Cameroon’s decentralization framework consists only of regional and local councils and therefore does not extend to the village periphery, which presumably falls within the jurisdictional purview of local councils. In Cameroon’s current rural setting, however, the vast majority of the local councils are still so short of technical and managerial capacities that they cannot properly perform the local government functions assigned to them under decentralization laws, and much less mount the much needed and overdue robust village modernization programmes. However, the increasing village-focused interventions of PNDP (Programme National de Développement Participatif), among other initiatives, appear like scattered bright spots on an otherwise sullen rural development horizon. Lastly, State-village relationships do not seem to have changed significantly since colonial times when the anti-village complex took hold. That would mean we are still trapped by pre-independence urban-oriented and command-and-control administrative legacies, which suited a particular era but are no longer appropriate to wrestle with the challenges of economic transformation, modernization and nation building, as also emphasized by René Dumont in his 1962 prophetic bestseller: “l’Afrique noire est mal partie”. The foregoing observations are sufficiently indicative of the vigorous institutional reforms required to clarify and elevate the status of Cameroonian villages within the overall decentralization framework; and also re-align village self-governments (traditional or otherwise) with national, regional, and local government democratic institutions and processes, for the benefit of much needed coherence and transparency in State-village development relationships. That could help galvanize rural development throughout the country. As argued in part 5 of this series, village communities being extended families or clans, if and when their kinship honour is pricked, such as in an inter-village development competition, could bring to the rural development process an emotional and motivational charge not likely to be experienced at more artificial, administrative levels of State organization. Development achievements can also spring from psychological art and craft, and not only from brick-and-mortar projects. Rural-based local governments can be a transformative development force if constantly stirred to action and held accountable by village self-governments which function democratically as active change agents or development molecules, both individually and through inter-village syndicates or associations. The present state of rural development : The Growth and Employment Strategy Document (DSCE), which is the current perspective blueprint for Cameroon’s development up to the year 2035, succinctly outlines the present state of rural development in Cameroon as follows with respect to rural agriculture: «(I) aging rural population; (ii) difficult access to land; (iii) difficulties accessing to inputs (fertilizers, improved seeds, etc.); (iv) difficult access to modern agricultural techniques and other innovations in agronomic research; (v) lack of access to credit; (vi) inadequate infrastructure to support the development of the rural sector (roads, roads, storage warehouses, slaughterhouses, cold stores, etc.); (vii) difficulties marketing the products, often because of a too long chain of marketing which takes up most of the agricultural value added and hampers reinvestment.” Against this backdrop, the DSCE proposed a raft of remedial policy measures designed to turn around this stark rural development picture and to tap into the extensive potential of the rural sector in order to meet its economic growth and employment targets up to the year 2035. However, more recent evaluations by the World Bank and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) suggest that, some sporadic successes notwithstanding, Cameroon’s rural development and poverty statistics have hardly improved over the past ten years. Close to 80 per cent of the country’s poor population resides in the rural areas and overall poverty rates appear to have worsened, particularly in the northern regions. IFAD summarises its evaluation conclusions as follows: «IFAD’s portfolio has suffered from over-ambitious and complex project design, limited project coordination unit management capacity, and sometimes poor technical expertise from service providers, excessive transaction costs and reckless financial management. These factors have reduced project effectiveness, limiting the scale and sustainability of IFAD’s impact in Cameroon. The poorest and most vulnerable rural populations, including women, targeted in the country strategy and projects, have not been effectively reached and the portfolio’s attention seems to have progressively moved away from this target group.” Agricultural cooperative societies : While the DSCE devotes full attention to the rural sector, it conspicuously omits the urgent need to strengthen and retool the country’s agricultural cooperative movement, which could serve as the primary instrument for DSCE implementation in the rural sector and for achieving the economic growth and employment rates flagged in the document. The State might consider copying the example of the European Union and other developed countries in terms of their subsidies to farmers by providing substantial and systematic support to the development of well-structured and managed farmer cooperative societies at the level of each administrative division and federating at the level of each Region of the country as another avenue, in addition to strengthening village self-governments, for pumping new blood and energy into rural development efforts. By so doing, a direct bridge could be established between the State and the national farming community. In the meantime, however, it is the government bureaucracy that serves as the conveyor belt between the State and the farmers. Its performance of that role is all but debatable.

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