A new paper by the Africa research institute looks at grassroots democracy in action in Cameroon, one of Africa’s oldest dictatorships.
The paper describes how citizens, local mayors and a society of booklovers have worked together to establish participatory budgeting (PB) in Yaoundé, in spite of a weakness in democracy and an absence of traditions in participation or public service in Cameroon.
In participatory budgeting, local authorities work along with the inhabitants of a municipality to determine the allocation of public money. Initially communities debate and vote on basic infrastructure in what are reportedly animated meetings, and then elected representatives will present the proposals in a competitive forum. A variety of projects could be funded including roads, paving, housing, sewerage, sanitation and street lighting.
Civil society organisations have been crucial to the setting up of PB. The article looks in particular at the history of the society of booklovers, who were founded in the 1990’s and started to share their books with the poorest residents of Yaoundé. This then expanded to tackling everyday challenges such as water, health and infrastructure. The growth of civil society organisations has accompanied the shift towards the decentralisation of power from the central government,. However, as the government still retains a tight grip on power, local governments have experienced an increase in their responsibilities without the financial backing to match.
This is an initiative which helps limited financial resources to go further. For instance in Yaoundé V there is a very limited budget per head so the participatory budgeting offers the opportunity to make sure that limited resources are directed to where they are needed the most. The communities need to contribute for the process to work, for instance via cash, manpower or land. Greater involvement helps to strengthen accountability for projects, and without the support or commitment then trust can break down, and so can the process. A shortage of time and resources to put the projects into place can also be a problem. The Mayors working in the communities also have an important role to play, as they may feel deterred by the need for people to work together in a transparent way, and thus could abandon the process. Or they may favour certain projects over others, which could compromise the process.
When these difficulties have been overcome, however, it becomes apparent that the rates of participation in the process can be impressive. For instance in Yaoundé II, only 351 residents took part in the first PB cycle in 2009 but more than over 11,000 were involved by 2011.
As the article concludes, participatory budgeting may not be a universal panacea, but it can deliver much needed public works to areas which have previously not benefitted from state involvement.