Quality and Nature of Relationships with Local Communities

We began by asking about the quality of the NGOs’ relationships with the communities where it worked. Specifically, we asked whether the interviewee would describe these relationships as “very good,” “good,” “fair,” or “poor.”2

In general, the interviewees who responded reported very positive relationships with local communities, with a mean response almost exactly halfway between “very good” and “good.” Over half of the NGOs (54 percent) characterized their relationships with the local communities as uniformly “very good.” No interviewee characterized his or her NGO’s relationships with any local community or with communities in general as “poor,” only 3 percent said that their relationships were uniformly “fair,” and only 13 percent reported an average of relationships with different communities somewhere between “fair” and “good.” There was no noticeable difference between the average quality of the relationships reported by Type I and Type II NGOs.3

Good relationships with the community were clearly a source of pride for some of the NGOs, but they do not seem to have been at the top of the priority list for most NGOs. When asked to identify their NGO’s most important strengths (see chapter 6), only 19 percent of our interviewees mentioned good community relationships; this ranked well behind mentions of the technical skills of the NGO and the strengths of its staff. In addition to general references to good community relationships, several of these responses cited the NGO’s knowledge of local language and customs, the trust it had earned in local communities, and grassroots involvement.

Not surprisingly, the percentage of interviewees who mentioned relationships with local communities as one of their NGO’s weaknesses was also quite small (12 percent), ranking this weakness far behind shortages of funds, equipment, and staff. The six respondents who identified community relationships as a weakness cited a variety of specific problems, including lack of community involvement in their work, poorly educated citizens who did not understand their work, local political corruption, citizen resistance to their work, and conflicts with citizens engaged in illegal resource exploitation. This result is also in line with the results we obtained when we asked interviewees who said that their NGO had been “not very succesful” or “completely unsuccessful” in reaching at least one of their goals to identify factors that had hindered their success. Eighteen percent mentioned problems in relationships with one or more local communities where they worked or with recipients of their services (see chapter 6).

More detailed data about the problems that the NGOs experienced with local communities comes from the section of the interview that focused directly on the NGOs’ relationships with local communities. Here we asked the ten interviewees who had characterized their overall relationships with local communities or their relationship with at least one local community where they worked as only “fair” (see above) to identify the biggest community relationships problems they faced (see Table 9.1 ) . The table also includes comments from 25 additional interviewees who characterized community relationships as “good” or “very good,” but went on to describe specific problems.

Table 9.1 Reported problems in relationships with local communities

Problem

Percentage reporting

Community resists NGO efforts due to traditional norms or lack of understanding of environmental science/need to change

23

Local community unwilling to contribute effort/funds to NGO’s projects

23

NGO caught up in conflicts within community or with government

20

Community wants NGO to help solve problems outside its mission

17

Local citizens resist NGO goals/projects they see as threatening their livelihood

17

Factions in community (except elites/leaders) compete with one another over who will get help/resources from NGO

11

Local elites/officials see their privileges as threatened by NGO efforts or elites want to monopolize benefits of NGO efforts

11

Local community only wants money from NGO

11

Local elites/officials corrupt—usually involves wanting bribes

9

Local community suspicious of NGO as possible ally/agent of national government/business firm

9

Local community impatient with slow pace of NGO service delivery/flow of funds

9

Hard to work with community because of lack of community organization or leadership

6

Other

20

N=35.

The problems mentioned by our interviewees proved to be quite diverse, with no specific problem dominating; however, most of the problems mentioned are not surprising in view of the literature reviewed above. A partial exception was resistance to projects on the grounds that they conflict with local customs, an issue cited by almost a quarter of those who mentioned a problem. While this issue has sometimes been mentioned in previous literature (see above), it has not been prominent. Some of the comments about this problem were of a general nature, but others offered specific examples, such as resistance to the introduction of firewood-conserving stoves by people who preferred cooking in the traditional way over an open fire. Several comments in this category also involved resistance to science-based changes advocated by the NGO that potentially threatened traditional ways of making a living, such as eliminating the hunting of endangered species, overgrazing, or overfishing. We discuss problems with threats to local livelihoods in more detail below.

Almost a fourth of the responses also mentioned the problem of community unwillingness to contribute resources, especially funds or volunteer labor, to their NGO’s projects, suggesting that a significant number of NGOs were not getting the support they hoped for from the communities where they worked. One interviewee complained rather bitterly that some of the communities where they had worked were simply “lazy” and wanted the NGO to do everything for them without making any contribution. Another reported that conflict ensued when local residents were asked to pay even for their own transportation costs to attend a training session put on by the NGO in a nearby city. Several interviewees complained that it was difficult to motivate local citizens to do the necessary follow-up work for projects such as tree planting, and another recounted an incident in which his NGO had provided the local community with a sawmill to help them lumber responsibly and support themselves. Rather than do this, the community almost immediately rented the equipment to another village. Still another interviewee complained that local residents in an urban neighborhood signed up for training to work in a revenue-producing recycling project but then failed to appear, claiming that they were too busy. Although the small number of cases involved calls for caution, it is very interesting to note that 38 percent of Type II NGOs, compared to only 14 percent of Type I NGOs, reported this problem. This suggests that Type II NGOs are more likely to lack the legitimacy and influence needed to successfully elicit assistance or are especially resource poor and therefore more in need of community support.

One-fifth of the interviewees complained that their NGO had become entangled in irrelevant intra-community conflicts, such as conflicts between pastoralists, whose animals competed for scarce water and land, destroyed crops, and, in one case, even collapsed the banks of fish ponds, and other community residents. Another interviewee said that his NGO had been unable to work successfully in a village that was riven by tribal conflict. These issues are not surprising in view of previous literature. A related problem, mentioned by 17 percent of interviewees, was that local communities wanted their NGO to help with problems that are outside its competence.

Seventeen percent of our interviewees reported problems involving local citizens who resist NGO projects that they see as a threat to their livelihoods. This topic figures very prominently in the literature reviewed above, so it might seem surprising to find it so infrequently mentioned by our interviewees; however, most of the existing literature focuses on international NGOs that work with the governments of developing countries to create large-scale nature reserves. The table includes only three international NGOs, so the results reflect mainly the experiences of the Cameroonian NGOs. Not surprisingly, neither the Type I nor Type II NGOs often experience such conflicts.

We did, however, encounter enough striking examples of such conflicts that suggest that they can have serious implications when they do occur. The leader of one international NGO provided an almost textbook case of conflict with residents of communities near a nature reserve that his NGO had helped to establish. He noted that the area surrounding the reserve was very poor and that the financial crisis that began in 2008 had hurt the logging industry and caused the logging companies to reduce the services they had formerly provided to the population near their concessions. The population wanted his NGO to pick up the slack, but they are primarily a nature protection organization, not a development NGO and lacked the resources to do so. Unfortunately, the people in the area where the NGO worked had been promised compensation and relocation by the government when their land became a nature reserve, but this assistance had not materialized, so the citizens complained that they were being denied their livelihoods and sometimes continued to farm and hunt in the reserve. At times, they even undertook symbolic protests, such as killing elephants. According to him, his NGO had sympathy for the communities’ plight, but “the law is the law,” and the NGO does help the government protect the nature reserve with financial and other support. Local residents thus came to associate the NGO with the police and rangers and greatly resented them. There had been some threats, and one employee’s house was encircled by people who burned tires and shouted all night; however, so far there had been no damage. Later in the interview the interviewee was surprisingly frank in telling us that his organization did do development work in local communities, but that it was really only out of necessity and that they would avoid it if they could.

Along the same lines, the manager of an ape rescue organization based in Cameroon, but with strong support from the United States, reported resistance to her NGO’s work from communities that had depended on chimpanzees for food. She noted with regret that the NGO lacked the means to provide the communities with an alternative source of livelihood. An interviewee from another ape rescue group recounted an even more dramatic story concerning villages near his organization’s wildlife sanctuary. The government had promised to relocate these villages and provide compensation when it provided the land for the sanctuary, but this had not happened, so the villagers were unhappy, resulting in outbreaks of hostility that required police intervention to subdue. Finally, the leader of an urban NGO focused on urban beautification and community gardening recounted a story about problems with the neighbors of their five-acre demonstration garden project. Some of the neighbors saw the garden as encroaching on their land, and others wanted money from the NGO. The NGO had built barriers to protect the area from flooding, but the neighbors destroyed these, and flooding ensued. The authorities had to be called in to calm things down.

Most of the remaining problems cited (rows six to ten in Table 9.1) involved conflicts over who is to gain from the benefits that the NGOs bring to communities. The existence of such conflicts is well known from previous research. They seem most likely to occur when significant benefits are in play, so it is hardly surprising that they are reported almost twice as often by Type I NGOs (57 percent) as by Type II groups (31 percent). Reports of conflict among factions within the community over who would benefit from NGO resources included several disagreements over which areas would receive the limited number of saplings available for tree planting projects. In one case, residents of areas that were left out became so angry that they allowed their animals to eat the newly planted saplings, prompting the NGO to call in the local prefect. Another case involved conflict over who would receive free food and T-shirts distributed at a project event. Several interviewees also reported conflicts over what areas would be included in community forests and how the forests would be used.

We also heard several accounts of problems and conflicts involving local elites. For example, an interviewee whose NGO drilled water wells explained that, while some village leaders are dedicated to meeting the needs of their communities, others just want benefits, such as having wells drilled in their personal compounds so that they can control and sell the water. An NGO leader whose organization worked to set up community forests complained that, when successful former residents who had moved to the city but retained ties to a village learned that the village was forming a community forest, they re-entered the picture and sought to occupy the top posts. The community forest program calls for local residents to manage the forests, but the elites saw the program as a source of revenue. Another NGO ran into problems when it exposed and tried to change the way in which elites had gained control over administration of a local community forest and were appropriating most of the benefits for themselves. Several respondents also mentioned corrupt local officials and requests for bribes, a problem discussed earlier in this chapter.

Other problems mentioned by small numbers of interviewees included suspicions that the NGO was working as an agent of government or a business firm, communities with unreasonable expectations about how quickly projects could be implemented or what could be accomplished with limited funds, and leaderless or disorganized communities that were difficult to work with. Yet despite this long recitation of problems encountered by some NGOs, it is important to remember that most NGOs saw the problems as isolated and generally reported positive relationships with the communities where they worked.

 
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