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Re-positioning local councils at the center of the response to the refugee crisis in Cameroon

Catherine Defontaine's picture
Photo: O. Hebga/ World Bank


On a visit last year to the East region of Cameroon, a traditional leader we met in the municipality of Garoua-Boulai impressed us with their efforts to help refugees.  
 
We were the first to welcome our Central African brothers. We live at the border, so they came to us. There were women, children… tired, some injured. Most of them had to abandon everything, and travelled only with the clothes they wore. They are our brothers, so we welcomed them. We gave them a place to settle down, some farm a small plot of land,” he said.


But the situation is critical. Today Cameroon hosts about 350,000 refugees from the Central African Republic (CAR) and Nigeria – the 13th largest host in the world and the 7th largest in Africa. Refugees continue to pour into the country, with about 10,000 new arrivals in the first quarter of 2018 alone, mostly concentrated in villages along the border or the transport axis in the Far North, North, Adamawa and East regions.
 
In the host communities, children go to the local school but classrooms are not larger and the number of teachers still insufficient. This situation affects children’s learning. The same observation can be made for health centers or access to water.
 
In villages where refugees are living in camps, we heard about the lack of coordination of camp managers, who tend to work with traditional chiefs and prefects, but do not engage with local councils, even though local councils play a central role in coordinating and planning local development.
 
Throughout this crisis, local councils have been on the front line. They are the smallest administrative authorities, and have competences over sectors relevant for both refugees and host communities: education, health, roads and public works, or civil registry. As the situation becomes protracted, they are overstretched and do not have the capacities to meet the needs of both host communities and refugees.

In part, this is due to the incremental implementation of decentralization policies over the last decade in Cameroon. Local authorities are being empowered, but hurdles remain with regards to the full transfer of financial resources and the availability of qualified human resources needed to allow local governments to fulfill their functions. Access to basic services remains a fundamental issue of concern in the historically lagging regions, also the ones affected by the refugee crisis.

The current refugee crisis has had a disruptive impact on local councils at two levels. First, populations in the four regions have changed, with the arrival of large numbers of refugees, but also internally displaced people (IDPs). Refugees live mostly in Cameroonian villages, sometimes in households headed by Cameroonians.
 
Second, the crisis has seen the engagement of numerous new actors, who work mostly with the State’s deconcentrated services, but little with local councils and village development committees, thus bypassing local democratic mechanisms. The multiplicity of new actors operating in this environment goes hand in hand with massive injection of aid to refugees, potentially fuelling tensions with host communities, who could feel marginalized over time.
 
This situation risks relegating municipalities to the role of mere bystander, while the crisis unfolds in their backyard. So, how can we help local councils play a more proactive role in the management of the refugee crises?
 
In response, the World Bank provided additional financing for the Community Development Program Support Project (CDPSP) through the IDA18 regional sub-window for refugees and host communities (RSW), a new resource available for low-income host countries.  It seeks to support local development and participatory development processes in municipalities hosting refugees to improve access to quality and sustainable socioeconomic infrastructure and services.

Three principles have guided this work, to avoid a ‘business as usual’ approach:

First, the project provides support to communities based on the needs that they themselves expressed. In other areas, the CDPSP implemented a successful community-driven development approach, including participatory needs identification, preparation of local development plans, and implementation of local projects nation-wide. This process is managed and owned by the communes themselves.

Second, our support in Cameroon integrates 4 operations including CDPSP that spans the following sectors: education, health, social development and social protection. This integrated approach aims at responding to the needs of both refugees and their host communities with multi-sector solutions, so that the whole will be more than the sum of its parts. Local councils are at the center of the coordination, notably through local development and community mobilization.

Third, it is crucial to bridge the gap between the humanitarian response and development interventions. In line with the New Way of Working, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other United Nations agencies were involved throughout the preparation of the four projects and will remain key partners during implementation. The strong cooperation with UNHCR at an early stage has been instrumental to better understanding the needs of refugees.

Local councils are learning, as is the government of Cameroon, UNHCR, and the World Bank in this new partnership. The project is supporting this learning process, fostering ownership at the local level and empowering local communities, to ultimately help both refugees and host communities take charge of their own destiny.

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