A new paper by Africa Research Institute looks at grass-roots democracy in action in Cameroon’s capital, Yaoundé.
Through a process known as participatory budgeting, communities debate and vote on basic infrastructure projects in animated neighbourhood meetings.
Elected representatives then present their neighbourhood’s proposals in a competitive forum where the mayor decides which standpipe, well or road will receive funding.
SMS reminders are sent to residents to boost attendance at meetings and dummy cheques circulated through neighbourhoods demonstrate that the mayor is committed to funding the projects selected.
Civil society organisations have been crucial to the adoption of participatory budgeting in Cameroon and the report looks at the experience of one in particular, the Society of Booklovers. The Society was founded in the 1990s when a group of university students decided to share their books with residents of some of the poorest neighbourhoods in Yaoundé. It then moved on to tackling other everyday challenges related to health, water and infrastructure.
PB is neither a developmental “silver bullet” nor a universal panacea. But in a city where municipal budgets can amount to as little as €2.50 per resident per year, participatory budgeting allows municipal authorities to make the most of very limited resources.
Edward Paice, Director of Africa Research Institute said:
“It is fascinating to see participatory budgeting, an example of grass-roots democracy, take hold in a country like Cameroon which remains a dictatorship in all but name”
“The spread of participatory budgeting in Cameroon is especially impressive as this is not a country associated with democracy, participation or a tradition of public service”
“Thanks to the determination of some progressive mayors and committed civil society organisations, PB has delivered some real benefits to long-suffering citizens”
The paper makes the following recommendations for donors:
• Action taken by donors to support PB requires careful consideration, as donors tend to create fiefdoms and are not renowned for the flexibility which is one of the most important characteristics of participatory budgeting.
• Although participatory budgeting does not lend itself to distillation in a blueprint, financial and technical support for local civil society organisations involved in promoting participatory budgeting would be constructive.
• Donors could usefully assist in addressing the capacity constraints in local government. This would promote the adoption of realistic local development strategies that would integrate developments delivered by participatory budgets in a more methodical manner.