In Crisis and Beyond: Local Governments are Critical to Building Functional States - Keynote Speech of Kah Walla

How can local governments play a role in times of crisis and beyond? Kah Walla, a political activist from Cameroon, highlights the power of citizens in her keynote speech and shows that functional states are key in facing global challenges and crises.

The DeLoG Knowledge and Dialogue Days started on the 28th November 2022 with a keynote speech by Kah Walla, a political leader, and activist from Cameroon on the role of local governments and development cooperation. Today the world is facing multiple crises: The three C’s, COVID, climate and conflict, as well as security, food and energy conflicts. ‘It can be a moment, where the crises are so huge, that we forget about local governance’, explains Kah Walla who has over 27 years of experience in providing technical support to local governments to improve municipal and economic development, and mainstream gender into local government policies.

‘It’s how well you learn from your failure and how quickly your recover from it that will build your success’ – with this quote from Kah Walla, the moderator of the session Neila Akrimi-Kemperman, Regional Manager and Director of CILG-VNGi, and former lawyer, diplomat and researcher, started to introduce the speaker. Kah Walla is the founder of a consulting firm specialised in leadership and management, delivering services to multi-national firms and development organizations. In 2011, she became the first woman to ever run for the presidential election in Cameroon, as the president of the Cameroon People’s Party (CPP). She has been recognized with several awards, for instance the Vital Voices Global Leadership Award in public Life (2012) and the Vital Voices Vanguard Award (2015). 

The Sandaga Market Women: The Power of Citizens  

Kah Walla started the session with an example of the Sandaga Market Women to show how the power of citizens can change the status quo in local governments and improve access to economic and political rights as well increase the representation of women within municipalities. In 2007, when Kah Walla was elected as a municipal councilor in Douala, the largest city in Cameroon, she started working with Women of the Sandaga Market, which is the largest fruit and vegetable market in Central Africa. It serves the City of Douala as well seven other cities in Cameroon and the neighboring countries Gabon, the Central African Republic and Chad. Kah Walla discovered that the Sandaga Market had around 1300 market traders and over 10 000 daily buyers. 80 % of the traders and buyers in total, were women. However, the Market Trader’s Association had only one female representative. The market women were also affected by economic and physical violence, for instance they were being harassed to have access to market stores that they had paid for.  

As a municipal councilor Kah Walla figured out that the law for municipalities in Cameroon states that local governments sessions should be open to the public and organised that the Sandaga Market Women joined the municipal session and made decisions about the market. The Women decided to found a Market Women’s Association to being seen as economic and political actors within the market and the municipality as well as to create a dialogue platform with the men on the market and with the City Mayor. They also completed leadership and business trainings. Within two years the Sandaga Market Women stepped into their power as citizens and reduced physical and economic abuse by over 80%. They carried out free and fair elections as an association and built effective representation for themselves with all key decision-makers and became effective participants in local governance. This process lasted for about seven years and ended after elections when the municipality changed. The case of the Sandaga Market Women shows the success and failure of local governments which are key to build democracy from the ground up and to integrate women and other marginalised groups into political spaces. However, the example also shows that local governments do not stand alone and are integrated into a national democratic framework. 

> Click here to watch the video. 

Functional States are Key to Face Global Challenges 

Starting from this local example, Kah Walla points out to the crisis which the African continent is facing currently: Conflict continues to drive Africa’s record levels of population displacement. Africa’s 36 million forcibly displaced persons represent 44 percent of the global total. Millions of people in Africa face acute food insecurity and are affected by extreme weather events. ‘We are only able to face these challenges with functional states’, explains Kah Walla. However, there are no functional states without local governments. The key ingredients for local governments to play a key role in building democracy, gender equality and equity are resources, competence, strategy and political will like the example of the Sandaga Market Women shows. In this regard, Kah Walla highlights the importance of development cooperation, which should aim to strengthen the functional state at national and local level and should be a part of every single development program. Decentralization and local governance should be a pillar for development cooperation in every single sector. Especially, humanitarian and crisis responses should integrate strengthening local and national governments.

> Click here to watch the video and the input about the Do's and Dont's of Development Cooperation

The follow-up discussion focused on the role of development cooperation in the dialogue between actors from the state and society and the question of legitimacy when working with ‘informal organisations’. One of the problems is that ‘development cooperation is working with people who have no legitimacy, who are formal but who do not represent anybody and are even not in touch with the grassroots groups. However, the role of development cooperation is especially important in tight political spaces: ‘Bringing government around the table with civil society, with private sector is fundamental’, explains Kah Walla. 

Click here to access the presentation.