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How does a citizen express her “voice” in the face of State neglect?

Cyprian Fisiy's picture

What does the demand for good governance mean to an ordinary citizen living in a remote village in the developing world? For a woman in Bangladesh, social accountability means she can state “when I open the tap every morning, water should flow from it.”  Could a villager in Cameroon in similar circumstances demand such a service of the state?

As a Cameroonian who visits home every year, I often  puzzle over  the nature of the social compact between citizens and the state. How do ordinary citizens exercise or express their ‘voice’?

On a recent trip home, I was able to witness the remarkable ingenuity of my compatriots struggling to eke out a living with a very limited asset base and few resources. Invariably, in all the big cities and towns I visited, including Douala (the economic capital) and Yaounde (the political capital), I found an endless stream of ambulant merchants hawking their wares along the streets, at stop lights, almost everywhere. In essence, these cities have literally been transformed into an endless market space, with little attention paid to any zoning regulations.

This market phenomenon represents both the immeasurable coping capacity of my fellow citizens and the apparent lawlessness or absence of any shared code of conduct underpinning civic behavior and engagement in the public sphere. This is not to say that there were no police officers on duty; on the contrary, they were plenty of them along the crowded streets, flagging and shaking down taxi drivers for imaginary violations of traffic rules or for lacking appropriate documentation regarding the roadworthiness of their vehicles.  These brief encounters with the omnipresent forces of law and order were characterized by quick handshakes and the exchange of money, after which the cab drivers continued their business as usual – even though, at first sight, the vast majority of taxis on these half-paved roads did not meet the basic conditions of roadworthiness. Given the poor quality of road infrastructure or lack thereof, navigating these streets is a nerve-racking test of one’s patience, with interminable traffic jams providing the street hawkers a captive market.

The questions that constantly came to my mind were:  Who do citizens turn to for accountability in this chaotic state of affairs? How does one achieve accountability in this system? And, more personally, do I belong here? And what will it take for me to do so once more?  Heading to my family’s village in the North-West Province of Cameroon, where the state’s presence is at most minimal, seemed a perfect antidote to the hassles of urban life. But could one truly exercise an ‘exit option’ from unresponsive state structures by retreating to a quieter village environment or was this merely an illusion?

At the village, I found myself constantly holding court, discussing a wide range of issues (including answering the incessant questions about how the Obama administration will transform governance in Africa).  My fellow villagers were very excited that the government had just ‘given’ them a new secondary school but were also worried that they had to undertake most of the construction themselves if classes were to begin during the fall. It has become common practice for government departments to allocate health and educational licenses to local communities with the expectation that the community will provide relevant infrastructure. Repeatedly, I was called upon to contribute to a school or health project, the repairs of local road infrastructure, or the construction of the local church building. The local councils were, for all practical purposes, a replica of the central government structure, collecting meager taxes without ever providing services to the community. In these circumstances, the state emerges as the authorizing environment to local communities for the provisioning of services with token assistance from the government.

In such a context, one begins to wonder: is there any genuine social compact between citizens and the state?  What, if anything, might be the point of departure for framing an agenda on the demand for good governance?

What one finds within the village setting are local customary institutions, which are not fully aligned with state institutions. Local elites exercise power and privilege by straddling formal and informal institutions, acting as power brokers between the different institutional arrangements.  The bargaining and contestation plays out within an elite realm. Where is there space for ordinary villagers?  Indeed, are villagers actually ‘citizens’ in anything but the most formal way? Cui bono

Photo credits: Abisola Adekoya and Helah Robinson (via Flickr user The Advocacy Project)


Submitted by KMBPI on
we agree... in the Philippines, what we did is we came up with a local organization consisted of urban poors (since we are in the urban area) and has the same sets of problems... we call ourselves Katipunan ng mga Mamamayan ng Bagong Pilipinas, Inc. (KMBPI)/ Aggregation of Citizens of New Philippines/Paranaque) (started in Bulacan & Paranaque) and advocates for the poverty alleviation of urban poor sector members... our difference is that we combined the power of tax paying (member companies who believes in our advocacy and the local people (urban poor) and we never stop to knock on the local government's doors to provide the basic needs to the urban folks through our local newspaper (Katipunan Times)... we also direct to them (local government) through the power of the Ombudsman, neglected social problems such as lack of school buildings, lack of infrastructures, lack of replies on the queries of the poor man's plight as mandated by law, misappropriated use of the taxes... someone should start to take charge to knock on the doors of the local government and ask them where and how the tax-payers' money are being spent while there are several thousands of poor denizens in Paranaque and probably all over the Philippines suffering from their plight... we do the queries in writing and we publish them in our Katipunan Times with copies to the Office of the Ombudsman (a government institution which is supposed to be the Protector of the People)... TL

Thanks for an excellent article and great questions. Still looking for the answers.

Submitted by Sabina Panth on
An NGO in India, Janaagraha works with citizens and government to change the quality of life in India’s cities and towns with a special emphasis on demand-led accountability. They have had good success on some of their programs. Their website is worth checking out:

Submitted by Paula on
Thanks for framing a discussion that has such deep operational implications into these terms. What can be frustrating is that voice tends not to be heard unless it escalates into violence or protest. I have seen local "lack of co-operation" (foot-dragging) with nationally defined projects, and it sometimes seems to me that the number of people claiming to "speak for the people" outnumber the people themselves. No answers either- but I agree we should keep asking the questions.

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