About the pangs of development.

ludoLudovic Langlois-Therien

Après m’être relu, je ne peux que constater la maladresse, voire l’inexactitude des propos que je m’apprête à tenir. Néanmoins, il s’agit d’une réaction “à chaud”, écrite d’un seul jet, et j’ai tenu à la préserver ainsi.

In one of her posts, Kelly mentioned the frustration she felt about the very limited impact of community oriented NGOs, that it had been one of the reasons for her to pursue legal studies, to gain a more effective tool to help the people. Being currently an intern in the same NGO where Kelly once worked, I understand her frustration.

Since I have been here, I have not only witnessed the limited impact of community NGOs, but also of the general framework of human rights when applied to people that are so poor that they have trouble affording their bare necessities.

One aspect of my work consists of educating people in the slums about their tenure rights, about what they can do to be “in the law” and how they can have local recourses against the authorities that want to evict them. Walking in the slums and interviewing potential victims of forced evictions, I have come to realize that often, these people are fully conscious of their rights, of how they are currently trespassing the law; but also, how they did not give a damn about it because they had more urgent preoccupations, like finding food for their children. Before coming here, I knew the situation was not going to be all black or all white, but I would not have suspected to be in the position of sympathizing with the authorities, at least not in a strictly legal point of view.

It is true that the local law concerning tenure rights is not the most sensitive one (especially when you compare it to Quebec law…), but it is still far from what the “kafka-ian” nightmare that I had come to expect. For instance, people receive a “notice of eviction” one entire year before they are actually evicted. Given that they are occupying lands that aren’t theirs and the city need to urbanize new spaces for a growing population, one year seems a fair delay. In other words, I could not see the problem as a proper legal one.

When local law is deficient in terms of human rights, international law of human rights can be a useful joker, most notably for advocacy. But at its current stage in Africa, and when it is a question of social rights in a place as deprived as Cameroon, international law of human rights itself is a very limited tool. While social rights are not a “luxury” per se, they remain somewhat “utopist” when considered in a society that is struggling with corruption and tons of other pressing issues. In fact, most people here have no expectations from neither their government nor from the international order, they just do their best to live and improve their situation. “L’Afrique, c’est d’abord la débrouille”, as I have heard many say.

In this situation, I think that the main problem is not the law, nor its application, but the fact that slum dwellers first need a decent job. We are not talking big amounts of money, just enough resources to satisfy bare necessities. If that would happen, people would be able to cope more easily with their situation, like finding a new home in less than one year. In a place where institutions are so flawed, where the government is so corrupted, I have come to believe that social-economic self-determination is often the most efficient way to protect oneself.

In a bit less than two months of work, I have interacted with many NGOs and local UN departments. I have encountered so many gender/international development/social sciences students from all over the world (including Africa) doing every sort of morally valuable work you can think of that I could fill up many planes. While I highly regard all these efforts, I also wish there could be more business people with enough balls to invest here and employ local people.

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