Saving the Environment in Sub-Saharan Africa provides much needed insight into the landscape of environmental nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in a context where data and information are not yet readily available. William T. Markham and Lotsmart Fonjong undertook the laborious task of surveying fifty-two environmental NGOs in Cameroon to conduct an organizational analysis, provide a comparative overview, and illustrate the vast internal diversity of that country’s NGO sector. This book offers a direct challenge to a literature that has tended to portray NGOs as “ideal types,” and in so doing it offers a comprehensive summary of the heterogeneous goals, structures, strategies, and activities of the NGOs in their sample.
Given that many of Africa’s environmental challenges have global ramifications and affect development outcomes in ways that increasingly draw the attention of nonstate actors, this book is both timely and relevant. The authors define environmental NGOs as “nonprofit organizations pursuing environmental goals that are formed voluntarily, are not agencies of government, and are at least somewhat formalized; that is, they have established goals, rules, and procedures and formally established leadership roles” (p. 41). Because the authors lacked access to an official list of active NGOs in Cameroon, they note that their sampling methodology had inevitable imperfections. As a compromise to shed light on the range of environmental NGOs in Cameroon, they ensured that the organizations they sampled were diverse in terms of their legal status, size, resources, environmental goals, and geographical locations. While acknowledging that no single country can be considered “typical” for sub-Saharan Africa, they chose Cameroon as a case for this study because it is a country that is arguably “as typical as it gets.” Known as “Africa in miniature,” Cameroon hosts an array of biodiverse ecosystems. It also features a vast rural population and large urban centers, and it experienced a turbulent colonial history that continues to percolate today in the legacies of French, British, and German rule.
The authors relied on in-depth interviews and a review of relevant documents to conduct a classical organizational analysis. The core questions they set out to answer about NGOs were straightforward: What goals do they choose? What strategies, activities, and structures do they select to pursue their goals? What factors affect their choices? How successful are they in reaching their goals? And what factors affect their success? Markham and Fonjong assert that this empirical approach is the most suitable for the analysis of Cameroonian NGOs. Its focus on the day-to-day real world of these organizations avoids the scattershot generalizations that overly theoretical orientations on this topic have produced. The book is rooted in an understanding that the academic literature originating in the Global North tends to emphasize liberal democracy and the contributions that NGOs make to democratization processes as part of civil society, or alternatively, to social movements and the politically contentious repertoires of environmental organizations. The authors argue that these perspectives can hardly be applied to the Cameroonian context, where the formation of NGOs was banned until 1990 and confrontational campaigns continue to be rare. Markham and Fonjong address the complex interrelations among the country’s colonial legacy, vast internal diversity, economic challenges, and inefficient political system, to present a comprehensive picture of the context that has complicated the development of a vibrant NGO landscape.
This book ultimately elaborates an NGO typology that stands as its most important conceptual and theoretical contribution. Instead of focusing on goal orientation, this categorization homes in on financial resources, staff size, facilities, and levels of expertise. Markham and Fonjong distinguish international NGOs from Cameroonian organizations, and subdivide the latter into two types. International NGOs have headquarters abroad and are comparatively well-funded and well-equipped, due to an international mass-membership base. Cameroonian NGOs, in turn, are funded, led, and staffed by Cameroonians. Type I NGOs can rely on relatively stable levels of funding and several paid employees, including expert staff. Type II NGOs, in contrast, are characterized by unstable funding, inadequate office facilities, and small staff size; at times, an entire organization may be based exclusively on volunteer work. In describing the goals and challenges of these environmental organizations, and their relationships with government, their local communities, and each other, the authors successfully strike a balance between academic theory and development practice. They provide an insightful overview and do not hide the fact that some NGO actors have been coopted by the country’s prevailing system of corruption and clientelism, whereas many others have adopted a hands-off approach to avoid government interaction altogether. Environmental NGOs in Cameroon are not necessarily a widespread democratizing force, but they fulfill key roles in local contexts to combat pollution, soil erosion, biodiversity loss, and numerous other challenges.
Saving the Environment in Sub-Saharan Africa leaves as many questions open as it answers. As an entry point for future comparative work on this topic across countries, the book offers a useful guide for others keen to research the environmental NGO landscape. That said, the study does lack an informative index of the specific organizations, and is devoid of rich descriptions of individual profiles or cases. Readers are inevitably left thirsting for a thicker analysis after being presented with keyword-filled summary tables in the results chapters. The authors could also have offered more illustrative case studies of concrete NGO activities to elucidate their key findings.
Beyond those minor stylistic points, the book was purposefully written to be accessible to both academics and development practitioners. Those looking for a well-structured overview of NGO-related theories will find it in chapter 2. For a comprehensive snapshot of the political, social, economic, and environmental contexts that have shaped and that characterize contemporary Cameroon, turn to chapter 5, which presents a gold mine of quality research for comparative studies. Each chapter is usefully summarized at the end for easy reference, and the final chapter is separated into two sections: one addressing academic readers interested in theory development, and the other outlining research-based recommendations for practitioners. Readers in the academy and beyond will appreciate the book’s jargon-free style and clarity. It is worth checking out.