Conclusions and Implications
Like government, the local communities where environmental NGOs work have considerable potential to assist or undermine their efforts, both by according or denying them legitimacy and influence and by providing them with funds or other types of concrete assistance. Strong networks of cooperation and mutual assistance among environmental NGOs and local communities and groups within the communities would indicate that the NGOs were well integrated and contributing to the development of civil society at the local level; however, existing literature identifies several obstacles to realizing this ideal. These include ethnic and religious divisions within communities, threats to local livelihoods from NGO nature protection or other projects, NGO interventions that threaten local power structures, conflicts among community factions over who will receive the benefits of projects, and community suspicions that the activities of NGOs are designed mainly to benefit constituencies in developed countries, the leaders of the NGO, or one subgroup within the community. Problems working with local communities are potentially most serious for international environmental NGOs because of their strong connection to “fortress conservation,” which often disrupts communities and local livelihoods, but Cameroonian-based NGOs are far from immune.
The great majority of the NGOs did, in fact, engage with local communities, with the majority reporting they worked in numerous communities, although, in some cases, this involvement may have been minimal. Not surprisingly, international and Type I NGOs, with their greater resources, reported working in more communities.
Most environmental NGOs appear to have found at least a modicum of acceptance of their work. The great majority reported considerable satisfaction with their relationships with the communities where they worked, and very few identified relationships with local communities as one of their major weaknesses. The great majority also reported working with a wide range of partner groups in the communities, including, most frequently, occupational groups touched directly by their projects and women’s groups; however, only two reported working with other groups that could be described as activist SMOs. Most evaluated their relationships with their community partner groups favorably.
These findings suggest a relatively favorable evaluation of the environmental NGOs’ capacity to participate in and strengthen civil society, but there were also some less positive signs. The amount of concrete assistance the NGOs received from local communities proved to be rather limited, with most coming in the form of “in kind” help, such as lodging, meals, or volunteer labor. Financial support from the communities was rarely forthcoming, and a minority of NGOs complained, sometimes vociferously, about lack of community support. Other problems mentioned— dealing with conflicts within the communities where the NGOs worked, including conflicts over who would benefit from NGO projects, and conflicts with occupational groups that saw their livelihoods as threatened by NGO projects—were consistent with previous research. While we did encounter some striking examples of the last named problem, which figures very prominently in past research, their number was not very large. The fact that only a few of our NGOs were international groups working on major nature protection projects may account for this. Finally, some NGOs reported resistance to change from tradition-minded citizens.
Once again there were some important differences between Type I and Type II Cameroonian NGOs. Type II organizations typically worked in many fewer communities and were slightly more likely to complain of lack of help and to report no assistance from their community partners. These results are consistent with the upward spiral in which the better resourced and technically qualified Type I organizations are able to garner greater support based on the broader and more impressive scope of their activities. The better resourced Type I organizations were, not surprisingly, also more apt to find themselves involved in intra- and intercommunity conflicts over who would benefit from their projects.