Fanny Bessem Etong, sitting at a desk.

Special mention: Collective innovation

Fanny Bessem Etong, FALCOH / COVID 19 Community Emergency Response and Preparedness Programme / Cameroon

You have received a Special Mention in the category of Collective Innovation. Can you tell us more about your work in this area?

After serving as a volunteer, and a full-time staff member, in both national and international organisations, I did not feel fulfilled in what I was doing. I was not responding to the needs of the “furthest behind” in my community. My husband and I both lost our mothers due to unsafe and untimely health services, in a system in which unemployment is about 70% and out-of-pocket expenditure for healthcare is 71%.

The lack of access to healthcare in Cameroon is a huge challenge for the poor and vulnerable, like our parents. So we decided to start a foundation – Favour Low-Cost Healthcare (FALCOH) – to help underprivileged people to access quality health services at affordable cost. No child deserves to lose a parent like we did.

With my partner’s support as a medical doctor, I mobilised other physicians, nurses and laboratory technicians and began community health outreach and campaigns.

What challenges have you faced? Have there been any solutions that worked particularly well?

Raising funds and getting the needed resources has been our major challenge. We had community resources like well-wishers and community health taskforces to roll out some of our activities. We hope to get more international partners and volunteers to enhance the scope of our coverage in the future.

Second, engaging with other civil society organisations (CSOs), especially the old and established ones, has been challenging. They always claim that small CSOs don’t have the capacity to implement projects that would get support from donors. We have been able to invest and build our capacity to the point we are now but are also helping other start-ups attain requisite capacity by organising capacity-building workshops for female CEOs.

Where do you see your work going next?

We have grown in a very short period thanks to support from local and some international partners. FALCOH has set up a health facility in Batoke, one of the rural communities hosting people displaced by the ongoing Anglophone crisis. We see our work expanding to other regions in the country with similar access challenges. FALCOH has now acquired a piece of land for a permanent health facility and office space. It is also investing in public health research in quality and patient safety, to build a knowledge base for its work.

Why is this work so important to you?

Compassion is the keyword in all I do. I see myself in every single client or patient we have attended to. This gives me a reason to look for more ways to support my community and country. Access to healthcare (and quality health services at that) is a fundamental human right, not just for a privileged few. I feel elated when I put smiles on the faces of orphans, , pregnant women and girls, and homeless or neglected elderly people.

What changes to the humanitarian sector are needed in the next 10 years? What are the main obstacles to achieving this?

There is a need for a strong governance structure for local and international NGOs in Cameroon, to better coordinate assistance. This has been a huge challenge even among local NGOs due to the pursuit of individual interests.

There is a need to support humanitarian activities in communities that have been hit by the ongoing socio-political crisis, especially to rehabilitate individuals and families whose livelihoods have been disrupted.

Resources for humanitarian activities have been greatly reduced compared to about a decade ago. This has been partly due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which disrupted supply chain networks.

Donors and partners should review the conditions to be fulfilled by local NGOs before receiving aid. Although community-based organisations may not have the technological know-how and infrastructure of national NGOs, some of these local organisations do have the requisite experience and track record of supporting grass-roots activities, especially in crisis-stricken areas. The best way is to empower these civil society and community-based organisations with the necessary technological and material support.

The sector also needs to seek ways to prevent or halt socio-political crisis and the devastating impact to human life and infrastructure (like the one affecting the North and South West Regions of Cameroon), rather than watch and wait for social issues to escalate to levels we don’t have the resources to handle. We can then start building the capacity of local NGOs for conflict prevention, mitigation and resolution.

2020 has presented multiple challenges globally. What are the key lessons for the humanitarian sector this year?

The sector must be dynamic and proactive in its approach and in the implementation of its activities. With COVID-19, life cannot be the same again. Most importantly, the humanitarian sector needs to explore avenues for self-reliance and sustainability. The disruptions in global supply chain networks and resource constraints imposed in donor countries by the growing burden of the pandemic in the West has taught us to look within.

Why do you think that in an era when we have more access and communications, crises have increased in numbers and gravity?

Crises have become more visible because there are more avenues for communication. Information that used to be covered and concealed, today circulates on social media. Easy access to information has also helped mobilise the population for protest and other forms of political demands.

I also think that the humanitarian sector and partners are slow to act, waiting for things to escalate before they intervene. Acting fast should be our watchword, and the humanitarian sector should start trying to prevent crises.

Why is important to transform the sector and if there is one thing that you would encourage your fellow humanitarians to do, what would it be?

Work in solidarity. Form a unified front to advocate for policy change with statistics and facts from the grass roots. This is a sure way for the government to take us seriously.