I’m very aware that my perspective is bound to be full of biases and blind spots, and that two months is only a tiny sliver of time. Furthermore, I may say something below that is flat out wrong or will offend someone. Nevertheless, I’m simply going to offer my perspective as I see it and as honestly as possible. I hope others will refute my arguments or correct my mistakes as needed. Lastly, there are obviously books and books and books on these topics. I’m simply offering a little snapshot based on my own personal experience.
Sustainability and agriculture have been essential to my experience here, and I have learned a great deal about them. However, I think I’ve explored these topics extensively in this blog, so I’m not going to focus on them here.
First, development is inherently and unavoidably complex. Any attempt to boil it down to a simple formula is absurd. Development strategies must be tailored to the local circumstances of whoever the strategy is attempting to impact. Better yet, the strategies should actually be created and implemented by those impacted themselves. Strategies that work for potato farmers in Peru may or may not work for potato farmers in Cameroon. Policies that work for small businesses in Cameroon may or may not work for small businesses in Vietnam. NGO’s may be the champions of justice in one community and corrupt exploiters in another community.
Furthermore, abstract ideologies tend to do more harm than good, whether your ideology is free market capitalism, communism/socialism, nature conservation, industrial development, Christian evangelism, Muslim fundamentalism, romanticism, etc. etc. Not to say abstract theory is useless. Discussions about theory are useful in helping us to think about our values and our worldviews. But ideologies tend to be fixed, static, dogmatic, and unyielding. They tend to steamroll over the complex local realities.
Tbiggest asset for Africans, or at least Cameroonians, is themselves. However, the biggest obstacle for Cameroonians is also potentially themselves. As many here have told me, and I’ve witnessed myself, there is incredible wealth and abundance all around – the problem is managing this wealth and abundance. The insidious tentacles of colonization are still present in corrupt governments by elites who are propped up by former colonizers, in multinational corporations which engage in development projects that benefit their profit margin more than local people, and in international policies biased toward developed countries. As an American I should be doing whatever I can to change these things, through the ballot box, through my consumption and purchases, through my work in academia. There’s also a trickle down effect that has built a sense of mistrust among people, a lack of self-confidence, a sense of powerlessness, and of an entitlement to handouts. But blame, self pity, and criticism only goes so far. At some point, Africans will wake up and realize they’re not as helpless as those awful television commercials by American charitable organizations make them out to be. And indeed, I’m a terrible person to be making this point. The real people who are making this point are folks like Nzene Sylvester, and many of his friends and colleagues. They are incredibly intelligent, hard working, compassionate and know what needs to happen to develop their own communities. And they’re making it happen, but slowly. More people like them are needed. Indeed, one of the first things Sylvester ever said to me in our discussions was that the key to development in his community is not more resources but a mental shift. If people starting believing they can improve their lives then they will. No doubt, there are many external and systematic obstacles they will face. But you have to start somewhere and there are lots of opportunities.
An example: one of PFPF’s projects is to rehabilitate a neglected fish pond that will be used to raise and sell fish, as well as teach local farmers how to sell their own. Sylvester hired a local bricklayer to rebuild the fish pond. However, he refused to do any work until he received pre-payment. Now, I’m sure people get cheated now and again, and maybe this guy has even been cheated before. But, the way I see it he’s got nothing to lose and only to gain. I can’t imagine he’s got a pile of other jobs waiting for him – aside from a few houses for rich government delegates nothing is being built here in Bangem. Secondly, the fish pond is not simply for the benefit one person but for the whole community. At some point, people have to start trusting each other and doing the work. Easier said than done, but you gotta start somewhere. So what’s Sylvester going to do? He’s going to hire someone from another town who will do the work. In fact, this is a key part of Sylvester’s strategy. He wants to see his home community improve, so if local people won’t make it happen he’ll attract workers to immigrate, build the community, improve their own lives, and serve as examples to locals.
Globalization – it’s here as it is basically everywhere on the planet. The question is not whether to let it happen or not, but how to maximize it’s benefits and minimize it’s problems. Now, I don’t mean that globalization is the inevitable creation of a worldwide monoculture. I simply mean that interaction between far flung cultures, peoples, businesses is happening and having impacts whether you like it or not. People here love Michael Jackson, blasting pop music and playing CD’s. But they have no idea who Michael Jordan or the Beatles are, and most of the CD’s they play are Cameroonian, Nigerian, or other African musicians. The point I’m making is they’ve taken what they like of western pop culture, and left much of it behind. If Cameroonians could then figure out how to utilize certain aspects of foreign technology and knowledge for building their own communities and businesses that would be good. In other words, instead of asking a foreign donor like the World Bank or some French company to come in and build roads, the Cameroonian government should stop embezzling money and train and hire Cameroonians, buy some machines and start building roads. Simply building roads could be the focal point of a 5 year plan. All the laborers who are being trained and paid to operate machinery, dig ditches, pour concrete would then be using their news skills and income to do other things, having a ripple effect.
I must admit I often carry a skeptical and negative attitude towards businesses of any kind. I’m informed by biases but also personal experience of companies damaging people, communities, and the environment all for profit. I think this skepticism is in many ways healthy. But this is certainly not true of all businesses. I know this intellectually, but emotionally it doesn’t always stick – and it’s often unfair of me to be so negative. Being in Cameroon has helped clear the air a bit for me. I’ve seen that an oppressive and corrupt government, and a stagnant economic environment that does not foster the growth of businesses is terrible. Businesses, which (crucially) are locally based and invested, are without a doubt the lifeblood of an economy and therefore society. Without them, everything grinds to a halt. While free market policies in America often encourage corporate greed, I am now much more appreciative of the relative ease at which people can get new business licenses, receive a bank loan, find dependable workers and market their goods. None of these things are easy in Cameroon – it takes over 400 days to get a business liscence, loans are incredibly difficult to get, workers will often take the money and run or work dreadfully slow, and roads are crap and middleman clog the markets.
As Britt, the iLEAP director, said to me, Cameroon is now in my blood – literally and figuratively. I have made friendships and memories, have learned a great deal and am grateful for all the adventures, challenges, hospitality, and kindness I have experienced here. And as I wrote before about my favorites of Cameroon, there are African ways of thinking and doing that I appreciate and will take with me. And I feel very connected and grateful now to iLEAP as an organization, and look forward to this connection growing and evolving however it does. I’m not sure where my grad school research will go, but I’ve got several ideas. It may or may not directly relate to what’s happening in Cameroon or Africa, but my experiences here will certainly inform the way I see the world and the questions I’ll be asking.
Paradoxically, my experience with Sylvester and PFPF has re-inspired me to focus my energies on my own community back in America – which is to some degree a combination of Madison, Seattle, Cleveland, the Midwest generally, and specifically my family and hodgepodge network of friends scattered across the country and indeed the world. The dedication and energy that Sylvester and other individuals I’ve met here have for their communities is impressive. It also reinforces the truth that the community you can best serve is your own, and that a communities greatest asset and best catalyst for change is its own members. But I suppose, in many ways, this impact on me should not be unexpected at all. Indeed, the iLEAP program is about exchange – it’s not a one way relationship. Sylvester came to America and brought new ideas back to his own community in Cameroon. I’ll be doing the same in reverse.
Finally, thank you to Britt and all the iLEAP folks back in Seattle and around the world for making this experience possible and encouraging me along the way. Thank you to Nzene Sylvester, his family, Athanasius, the other PFPF staff, Ekwe Samson, Egbe Francis, and Anita, and other generous Cameroonians for welcoming me into your lives. Thank you to my family and loved ones for your love and support. And thank you again to everyone who has been reading and following this blog!