Crisis denied in Cameroon: Government refusal to recognize suffering in NWSW deters donors

Originally published
View original


Cameroon has long been viewed as a model of stability in a region fraught with conflict. Under the surface, however, tensions between its Anglophone and Francophone populations have simmered for decades. The Anglophone minority, mostly concentrated in the North-West and South-West regions (NWSW), has been marginalized, discriminated against, and economically disenfranchised since a referendum ended federalism and joined the two populations in a full political union in 1972.

In late 2016, instability gave way to violence when protests against the government’s imposition of Francophone teachers and lawyers in Anglophone schools and courts were met with military action.(1) The government’s reaction to the protests resulted in the formation of several non-state armed groups and fueled existing separatist sentiment. Armed groups enforced school boycotts,(2) and the subsequent violent confrontations have forced more than half a million people to flee their homes. According to the UN, the conflict has left 1.3 million people in need of assistance.

Cameroonian authorities deny the severity of the displacement and humanitarian need. Making matters worse, both Cameroonian forces and non-state armed groups severely restrict freedom of movement, preventing local populations from accessing their land and basic services. Both also have taken steps to limit the access of humanitarian workers to populations affected by the conflict. However, through sustained engagement with local officials, communities, and armed groups, relief groups have been able to build trust and expand their reach into areas hit hard by the violence. Most of these groups have relied on their own internal funding, not specifically designated for the NWSW, to assess and serve the affected populations because international donors have yet to step up and engage in a meaningful way.

Instead, foreign donor governments and other international stakeholders have focused on supporting a peace process, which clearly deserves international engagement. However, it is unlikely to bear fruit in the near term because the parties involved refuse to engage in meaningful dialogue. This fact raises the question of why donors so far have refused to expand their engagement beyond the peace process to address the humanitarian consequences of the fighting.The humanitarian situation is deteriorating rapidly as aid organizations burn through the last of their resources.

To better understand the issues humanitarian actors face in the NWSW, a team from Refugees International traveled to Cameroon in March and April 2019. Refugees International found that access to affected communities remains a challenge for these organizations. Although aid groups can make changes to improve the effectiveness of their response, increased funding―and specifically, a more cooperative response from the national government―would change the humanitarian landscape most dramatically.Most important, international donor involvement would increase global attention to the crisis and allow UN agencies and humanitarian organizations to overcome obstacles to the humanitarian response and better protect the NWSW’s civilian population.



  • Publicly recognize the severity of the crisis. Cameroonian authorities are responsible for addressing the needs of civilians. Their failure to recognize the extent of displacement and humanitarian need has direct implications for the well-being of people in the NWSW and contributes to the failure of the international community to support the response effectively.


  • Guarantee unrestricted access. The Government of Cameroon and non-state armed groups must ensure safe passage for civilians, health workers, humanitarian organizations, and the diplomatic community throughout the NWSW.

  • Accept that humanitarian organizations must adhere to humanitarian principles. Cameroonian authorities and non-state armed groups must accept the adherence of international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs), local groups, and UN agencies to the humanitarian principles of neutrality and independence. Aid groups need to have contact with all parties to the conflict to negotiate access and cannot side—or be seen to side—with any of the parties, including Cameroon’s military.


  • Increase funding. Donors cannot wait for things to deteriorate further. They must provide flexible funding to reach the $93.5 million the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimates is needed for a thorough response in the NWSW. This immediate action is critical to ensure those organizations that have been using their internal funds are not forced to abandon the populations they have increasingly been able to reach.

  • Echo calls for unrestricted humanitarian access. The international diplomatic community in Yaoundé and political leaders in capitals worldwide must magnify the efforts of humanitarian organizations by echoing their requests for unfettered access to populations in need.


  • Train local NGOs on humanitarian principles and strengthen their implementing capacity. The pre-existing network of local organizations has allowed humanitarian groups to build trust and gain access to populations throughout the NWSW. However, many of these groups have not been trained in humanitarian principles, resulting in occasional violations. It is vital that international humanitarian organizations and UN agencies provide local groups with training to ensure their compliance with humanitarian principles. They must also provide technical training to local actors working on protection issues to strengthen their ability to respond effectively.

  • Expand International NGO Safety Organization’s (INSO’s) operations into the NWSW regions. INSO’s provision of real-time security incident alerts, strategic planning support, crisis assistance, and guidance on improving access is vital in enabling organizations to overcome security obstacles. Cameroonian authorities must permit expansion of their operations.

  • Establish an INGO Forum with donor support. Many INGOs fear reprisals from the Cameroonian authorities for reporting on the crisis and the extensive needs of the affected population. Launching an INGO Forum, which could operate either from within or outside of Cameroon, would allow operational organizations to report collectively on the practical realities and challenges.

  • Uphold the “ground rules” for engagement and information sharing with Cameroonian authorities. Together with OCHA, humanitarian organizations have drafted agreed-upon ground rules for effective and principled engagement with Cameroonian authorities. However, these rules have not been fully respected.Aid organizations must follow these guidelines to work alongside the Government of Cameroon and its armed forces. Given the significant impediments to access, doing so is vital to protect the already-limited humanitarian space.


  • Establish full-time positions within UN agency offices in the NWSW. Despite the ongoing crisis, which shows no signs of waning, UN staff has been appointed to the NWSW on a temporary basis only.UN agencies in these regions, especially OCHA and the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), should create permanent positions for staff in their offices in the main NWSW cities of Bamenda and Buea to ensure continuity and prepare for expanded operations, contingent on donor funding.

  • Increase the visibility of the crisis, mobilize donor support, and call for unfettered humanitarian access. Severe underfunding, lack of international attention, and the stalemate between aid groups and Cameroonian authorities are crippling the humanitarian response. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres must plan a visit to Cameroon to engage with President Paul Biya on these crucial issues.

  • Launch country-based pooled funds for a more nimble humanitarian response in Cameroon. With trend lines only worsening, international humanitarian organizations must explore longer-term funding options.With donor support, OCHA should begin putting in place the mechanisms needed to establish pooled funds in Cameroon. Such funds are flexible and not earmarked, allowing both local and international aid organizations to respond to the most pressing needs in a timely manner.