In two short decades, Cameroonians will be enjoying the trappings and quality of life that go with living in an emerging economy – at least, that is, according to President Paul Biya’s 2035 vision.
But is Biya’s vision more fantasy than prophecy? The status of ‘emerging nation’ is defined as one having achieved industrial capacity, and on the path to becoming a fully industrialised state. For Cameroon to do this in little over two decades would be miraculous – even more so because this Cameroonian miracle has not shown any sign of emerging during the last 30 years of Biya’s presidency.
If anything, the country has regressed. Biya has blamed recent poor economic performance on the global economic downturn. Yet by Biya’s own admission, “developing countries were least affected due to their minimal involvement in the global economy”. Furthermore, many emerging markets were in fact quite resilient and experienced growth.
The real reasons behind Cameroon’s faltering economy are sadly much more systemic, entrenched and the result of long-term failures.
One significant difference between Cameroon and successful Asian tigers is that the latter are better governed, have invested in the appropriate infrastructure, and have created a positive environment for economic growth.
In fact what Cameroon needs is not that different to what the average Cameroonian wants: the ability to travel easily and cheaply; have dependable clean water; enough food; accessible and affordable healthcare; and a job or means of income.
Good transport infrastructure (roads, bridges, rails, rivers and canals) is essential to development. Roads move goods, people and technology. Even with the potential for hydropower, investors are not going to flock to Cameroon while it lacks a viable transportation network. They understand that without infrastructure they cannot move their raw materials and finished products.
Reliable clean water is another essential need. Water shortages in urban areas have become grimly notorious across the country – and rural areas are even worse affected. Cholera outbreaks have been linked to poor or contaminated water supplies. During dry season, more than half the country (especially the northern part) is starved of water. The situation seems unlikely to change in the next 22 years, especially in light of the government’s track record.
The next great need in Cameroon is healthcare, alongside better sanitation and hygiene. Healthcare is unavailable to many, while medical facilities are few and far between and ill-equipped. Many deaths are preventable, and are the result of poor hygiene and sanitation, exacerbated by contaminated water supplies. On a positive note, there has been a concerted effort to train medical personnel – but this is little use without the tools and facilities for them to do their jobs.
Cameroonians also want to be able to educate their children, enabling them to secure employment and take care of the rest of the (often significantly extended) family. Over the past several decades, education has failed to provide that pathway. Part of the problem, which the president admits, is that the current educational system is no longer relevant in today’s competitive global economy. Meanwhile emerging economies are increasingly emphasising science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM).
Cameroon’s food security is a myth. A sizable proportion of the population goes hungry during the dry season. Moreover, true food security requires a variety (as well as an adequate quantity) of food. Given the rich volcanic soils, Cameroon certainly has the capacity to be food sufficient – but like most things in the country, this capacity has been mismanaged.
All these things are urgent needs for Cameroonians and necessary for economic and social development.
But in his New Year address, Biya talked specifically of energy being the sine qua non for development. His argument was sadly rather flawed. In the Cameroonian context, good roads and reliable water take precedent. On the pecking order of needs, energy is a poor third. Although plausibly valid, his argument for energy as a prerequisite for development seems more of a justification for concentrating the most impactful development projects along the Kribi-Ebolowa axis.
During the 1960s, the Bonaberi-Mutengene corridor was a hub of manufacturing. People across Cameroon used soap, sugar, umbrellas and footwear made in this industrial belt. Today, frustratingly, Cameroon imports the goods it consumes – even toothpicks and fish.
As usual, Biya’s New Year’s address was full of empty promises. He may be an astute orator, telling his audience what they want to hear, but he has been doing it for 30 years now. And for the majority of Cameroonians, the massive construction sites, power plants, factories and roads alluded to in his speeches remain little more than rhetoric.
The government needs is to facilitate the transition process from a largely subsistence economy to one of light manufacturing, which defines an ‘emerging economy’. The government will only achieve this by providing the right infrastructure and by nurturing entrepreneurs within a positive economic environment.
Lastly, Biya and the other architects of his 2035 vision must realise that no nation ascends to ‘emerging’ status while development (and the attendant improved quality of life) are restricted to certain pockets of the country. There has to be a balanced approach incorporating all Cameroon’s regions. Restricting development to the Ebolowa-Kribi-Douala-Yaoundé axis at the exclusion of the rest of the country will never lead to Biya’s proclaimed goal.
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For further reading around the subject see:
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