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Economic Change

Economic development in French Cameroun through World War II was limited. The needs of the French economy in the years immediately after World War I had left few funds to invest in the overseas territories, and the local administration was forced to rely heavily upon local sources of revenue. Budget expansion was limited also during the 1930s as a result of the worldwide economic depression. The French applied the limited investments on infrastructure and the agricultural sector and sought to stretch funds by restricting the use of European personnel on development projects. The reliance upon undertrained, indigenous personnel for supervisory positions, however, sometimes resulted in waste and other abuses. The French have generally received credit for the extent of economic development they were able to achieve under such limitations.

French development policy sought the realistic exploitation of the territory's economic potential along with the displacement of the German commercial presence and related institutions and practices. The holdings of private German firms and the economic operations that had been under German administration were expropriated by the French government. Some were sold at public auction, and others were retained by the French. Increased earnings from the agricultural sector were sought through increased productivity, but the major increase in export revenue came from the introduction of timber and coffee.

The amount of commercial activity and the flow of exports expanded substantially between the early 1920s and the late 1930s. French investment in road construction brought the country a fair network of all-weather roads by the 1930s. Increased efficiency in the plantation and commercial system resulted, and a larger market was opened for imports of manufactured items from France. The French assumed control of the Nordbahn and Mittellandbahn railroads and expanded the latter an additional eighty miles to Makak and Yaounde. Expansion of port facilities at Douala was also undertaken.

The actual cost of French achievement fell heavily on the indigenous peoples. Although the French publicly decried the German use of forced labor, the French system of required labor was, in essence, the very same mechanism. When criticized by the mandate commission of the League of Nations for using forced labor clearly forbidden under the definitions of league mandates the French replied that such labor was allowed for the operation of essential public services. Initially, labor conscription was handled through local chiefs who were given a lump sum for all laborers. The chiefs were, in turn, to distribute the money to the workers. Abuses of this system led the French to assume direct responsibility after 1930. Women and children were reported to have served under the work system, and the death rate of workers on railroad construction was high. Although reforms were instituted, reports of abuses continued until after the end of the mandate period.

Improvements in social services were mainly in the fields of education and medicine. By the late 1930s there were about 100,000 pupils in primary schools, about 90 percent of which were operated by missionary and voluntary agencies. There were some state-supported secondary schools and limited technical and agricultural training programs. Improvement in health facilities during the mandate era reflected a sixfold increase in the medical budget. Public hospitals were constructed in larger towns, and mobile units introduced health services to rural areas. A highly successful campaign under Eugene Janot, a medical doctor, led to the eradication of sleeping sickness in the territory.

After World War II the French placed major emphasis on Cameroun's economic development, and a series of economic plans was prepared. A major industrial step occurred with the construction of a hydroelectric power plant at Edea, and an aluminum smelting center was erected nearby. Between 1946 and 1959 a total of US$500 million was invested. About half of this was supplied by French aid funds channeled principally through the Investment Fund for the Economic and Social Development of Overseas Territories (Fonds d'lnvestissement pour le Developpement Economique et Sociale des Territoires d'Outre-Mer FIDES). Expansion of the transportation and communication sector also occurred.

Increased investment in the social sector as well as increased demand for local products brought improved health and living conditions. Drafts of required labor service were technically outlawed with the end of the prestation system in 1946, but they were not totally eliminated until 1952. Working conditions and welfare benefits as well as women's rights also were advanced. Education was markedly improved, and assimilationist policies set the goal of a primary education for every child. Instruction followed the metropolitan pattern. Enrollment in primary schools by the late 1950s totaled about 331,000, two-thirds of which was in private schools. Official statistics indicated that about 50 percent of the population under the age of forty in the southern portion of French Cameroun was literate. Urbanization advanced rapidly after World War II. Migrations of rural groups, such as the Bamileke, into urban centers resulted in ethnic tensions and new social problems for which the French administration was unprepared.

During World War II the British again expropriated German properties in Southern Cameroons. The operation of these plantations was later transferred to the Cameroon Development Corporation (CDC), a quasi-public corporation established by statute. During the 1950s the CDC operated the only railroad in Southern Cameroons, employed over half of the territory's labor forces, provided major tax revenues, and supplied 30 to 50 percent of export earnings.

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Page last modified: 26-09-2016 19:07:18 ZULU