A diplomatic approach: enhancing local government in Cameroon
Decentralisation is essential if isolated parts of Cameroon are to eventually fulfil their potential, but resistance to change is endemic. In the rural north west of the country, VSO volunteer Shamsul Akhtar works with local councilors to implement essential government reforms. Despite difficult living conditions and early frustrations, Shamsul is at last seeing progress.
"If somebody asks me what changes I made, I will tell them that am very proud of my work so far," says Shamsul Akhtar. In view of the obstacles he has had to overcome during his time working with the Babessi community, this is a somewhat modest assessment.
Having amassed invaluable experience working with the Indian government to promote its Strengthening Rural Decentralisation programme in West Bengal, Shamsul felt the urge to apply his skills to a fresh challenge, leaving Africa with a mixture of excitement and trepidation.
Tackling the challenge
As Shamsul explains, things did not get off to the best start: “My placement was away from the Capital city Yaoundé and a sizeable distance from Bamenda, the regional town of north west Cameroon. I was given a house of seven rooms, but it had neither running water nor toilet facilities.” After a week, he secured better lodgings, though these lacked electricity.
“Having moved to a more decent house, I was able to begin work,” Shamsul continues. “I met the mayor and other people with whom I was to work. I began acquainting myself with the local situation in relation to the Participation and Governance programme.” This, too, proved challenging: “I discovered that the work ethic in Cameroon is very different to what had I been used to. The people fear change and so aren’t very flexible. Corruption is another big issue. I was facing an uphill battle.”
Signs of progress
But Shamsul and his VSO colleagues rose to the challenge. In time, Babessi’s local council began to see the value of shifting from an autocratic model – in which crucial decisions were taken by the mayor and the secretary general – to something more democratic.
Shamsul drew up a strategic plan for change, encouraged open communication and equipped both the council and community with a better understanding of their responsibilities. He began to build relationships based on trust and mutual respect. “I held many workshops, and hosted informal and formal discussions until I began to feel and see changes,” says Shamsul. “After some initial hostility, the mayor at last began to delegate power to the community. I was also involved in the recruitment of 20 primary school teachers in the area – a ‘quick win’ that convinced people of the value of the programme.”
There were other victories, too: “We secured a donation of 45 computers from a primary school in the UK, and these were distributed to various schools and administrative offices.” It has been a testing journey, but Shamsul is now seeing the fruits of his labour. There have been personal transformations, too: “I never cooked in India, but I found myself hosting so many people from all corners of the VSO family that I began to enjoy preparing Indian meals for my guests. As well as improving my planning, budgeting and workshop skills, my work with VSO has also helped me to explore my personal potential.”
Read Shamsul's latest report on the small money BIG CHANGE project in Cameroon.
Decentralisation is essential if isolated parts of Cameroon are to fulfil their potential, but resistance to change is endemic.
VSO volunteer Shamsul Akhtar brings expertise, positivity and patience to a situation that demands a diplomatic approach.
The recruitment of 20 primary school teachers is evidence that Shamsul is helping to bring positive change to the Babessi community.