By Jennifer O’Riordan

In anticipation of Cameroon’s 2011 and 2012 presidential and legislative elections, civil society organizations in four regions of the country will be trained to monitor elections and educate voters through a new Counterpart program.

“In keeping with our mission to empower local communities to sustain their own development, this initiative will enhance the skills and knowledge of organizations, so that they can work more effectively to engage Cameroonian citizens in the democratic process,” says Abiosseh Davis, Program Associate with Counterpart.

The Strengthening Civic Engagement program, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, will last approximately 14 months and focus on Central, Littoral, Far North and Southwest Cameroon. It will be implemented by Counterpart in partnership with a member of the Global Civil Society Strengthening Leader with Associates (GCSS-LWA) consortium.

Eighty seven percent of Cameroon’s poorest citizens live in rural areas, they have the greatest need for government assistance and are the most likely to feel disconnected from policymakers, according to the World Bank.

Previous elections have seen high levels of voter apathy, low turnout in elections and boycotts by opposition parties.  All of this threatens the development of democracy in the country.

Through this initiative, civil society organizations will learn get-out-and-vote techniques and messages, as well as how to mobilize community members to participate in the democratic process.

The program’s efforts will not only engage citizens to vote, but also monitor balloting and advocate for improved election administration to ensure an efficient, transparent and participatory electoral system.

In addition to providing partner organizations in Cameroon with vital training and technical assistance, the program will also work with media outlets and independent journalists to improve election standards.

Through an enhanced understanding of electoral processes and implementing best practices in objective election coverage, media can serve as partners with CSOs and electoral institutions to promote peaceful and participatory voting.

“Good media campaigns will engage citizens and open up a space for democratic participation by broadening the understanding of the purpose and possible impacts of voting,” Davis says. “By voting Cameroonian citizens can demonstrate their interests, needs and priorities and choose leaders who will work to address those needs.”

Based on Counterpart’s current civic education and elections program in neighboring Chad, as well as a needs-assessment study carried out in October 2010 by the UN Secretary General, building long-term capacity development of local nongovernmental organizations was rated as a high priority.

The UN Needs Assessment Mission assessed the pre-election needs of Cameroon and was designed to guide relevant support and engagement for successful elections in Cameroon.

The Strengthening Civic Engagement in Cameroon program builds on Counterpart’s partnership with the people of Cameroon to drive and sustain their own development.