Building Social Capital

A third hope for NGOs in civil society is that they might contribute to the development of social capital, the network of mutually supportive relationships among citizens and voluntary associations that strengthens mutual trust and respect and the ability to cooperate constructively. Despite its prominence in writings about civil society, the topic appears to have been almost completely neglected in existing research about NGOs in sub-Saharan Africa.

The record of the Cameroonian environmental NGOs in terms of building social capital among citizens at the local level is mixed. Some NGOs, especially international ones, make little or no use of volunteers. Many Cameroonian NGOs, on the other hand, are sustained by a core of committed volunteers, who are tightly networked with one another and no doubt enjoy both the “warm glow” of making a contribution and the social rewards of working closely together; however, these networks are seldom large. Some NGOs also rely heavily on larger numbers of volunteers to execute projects such as tree planting, and many draw significant numbers of local citizens into their environmental education efforts. The majority of these contacts are, however, sporadic and ephemeral. Cameroonian-based environmental NGOs also typically develop and maintain relationships with other environmental NGOs in the areas where they operate. The NGOs generally characterized these relationships as positive and constructive, and it is likely that the relationships help to build solidarity and morale among NGO staff and supporters. On the other hand, some instances of competition, distrust, and discord were also reported, and stiff competition for available funds sometimes led to envy and bitter complaints from the less successful. Moreover, the majority of the inter-NGO relationships appeared to be relatively superficial—more likely to involve exchanges of information at occasional meetings or casual encounters than long-term, substantial patterns of mutual assistance or project collaboration. Cooperation appears to have been impeded not only by competition for resources, but also by the low expertise and effectiveness of some NGOs.

Cameroonian-based environmental NGOs also formed connections with many other types of organizations and groups in the communities where they worked, and most evaluated the majority of these relationships positively. Yet, here again, most of the relationships were apparently relatively superficial, and few appeared to result in enough unity of purpose and mutual commitment to generate strong, continuing flows of reciprocal assistance. Moreover, there were a good many reports of lack of local community support for the NGOs, intra-community squabbling over resources, NGOs being drawn into community conflicts, communication difficulties, and conflicts involving NGO goals. The social and power structures of many Cameroonian communities include numerous overlapping and competing groups—traditional chiefs, political officials appointed from the capital, men’s and women’s groups, economic elites, and farmers and graziers, and many communities have considerable ethnic and linguistic diversity (see chapter 5). Models of civil society that expect NGOs to easily bridge these divides clearly expect more of them than they have been able to deliver. Existing literature is also replete with examples of community resistance to environmental NGO nature protection projects in Cameroon and beyond (see chapter 9), most of it centered around perceived threats to local livelihoods.

Another dimension of building social capital involves developing networks that extend beyond the local context. Environmental NGOs in local areas might, for example, be branches of a single national-level NGO. Such organizations are rare in Cameroon and appear to also be uncommon in sub-Saharan Africa (see chapter 1). Alternatively, local environmental groups might belong to regional or national associations or networks designed to link environmental NGOs. Such associations are widespread in Africa, and most of the NGOs we studied did belong to one or more such group. These organizations and networks clearly provide the opportunity for leaders of environmental NGOs around the country to come to know one another and share experiences. On the other hand, they did not often lead to substantial flows of mutual assistance or to joint projects. Also, the ties they generate do not extend far beyond NGO leaders.

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