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Friday, August 19, 2022

Ending rice importation in three years: GAF overstepping the diving board

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Suruwa B. Wawa Jaiteh

The New Gambia is, first of all, a community of equals. In two-and-a-half years of coalition government, we have realised civil equality – that equality which we mean by “equal treatment.” To be poor in this society is no longer to be underprivileged. It is true that there is some element of coercion behind this achievement, at least for those who cling to or who wish to revive the privileged treatment of the old society. But there is also an imperative necessity to the enforcement of civil equality, for as the basis of the new political bond, it is also the precondition for the attainment of a greater equality, which is social equality.

A society in which the majority of the people are illiterate, poor, unemployed is, as we have experienced, in constant danger of having its political authority corrupted, manipulated and dominated by an influential, manipulative minority. This was the essential point of my analysis of the past dictatorial regime, with special emphasis on agro-rural development programmes.

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In these revolutionary times, powered by the unbeatable “freedom of expression,” such a society cannot long endure. That society will endure whose members enjoy social equality, in other words, a society which has eliminated economic inequality and deceit.
The standard response to economic inequality is economic development. According to conventional wisdom and real life experience, economic development reduces mass poverty and enriches human life. This is one of the fundamental reasons for the creation of the coalition team. But the crucial question is , “how is economic development achieved?” As an agrarian society, we somehow end up debating “models”, “strategies” of economic development, and the usual options are an agriculture-led growth that is “smallholder farmer-determined,” on the other hand, and commercial agriculture-led growth that is public/private sector determined, on the other.

Unfortunately, we do not seem to quite understand that, we are saying the same thing over and over. The inevitable conclusion is that we should try to avoid the excesses of either, except we are told that this is impossible. That is the risk of trying to solve our agro-rural development problems according to “systems” that are, in reality, the same. The greater risk is the assignment of such problems to a foreign transnational company by GAF whose knowledge of the “issues of concern” is almost zero.

An agriculture-led growth for sustained, national economic development is formulated in terms of capital accumulation and full use of resources at one end and increasing gross national product (GNP) and per capita income at the other. Smallholder farmer determined and/or public/private sector determined present themselves as the same thing pointing to the same road to agriculture-led economic development. If we take the ideological versions of these development strategies on their face value – that is smallholder farmer and public/private sector (these are the same because farmers are the biggest private sector in any agrarian society) – it does not really matter which way we go: for economic development will be attained and mass poverty will be reduced, if not eliminated, and human life will be enriched. This is the essential mandate of all agrarian societies. But there is no perfection on this Gambian planet.

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The rice sector’s role in employment creation and pro-poor growth
A fundamental reason for building a new society has to do, in fact, with the outstanding characteristic of our age: the rebellion of the poor. This is a rebellion over which the might of government must be seen to prevail for improvement, for the poor are, in many ways, the people for which government exist. To be told that the Gambia Armed Forces (GAF) will be participating in the rice sub-sector with a foreign transnational corporation (TNC) is, in deed, deceitfully flabbergasting.

In considering future strategies for increasing rice production, policy-makers and the development agencies with whom they partner would be well advised to heed the lessons of the past. Efforts to promote rice production in the country have a long and varied history, and there is much to be learned from what has already been done. Much of what has been done in the country, by donors and lending institutions, have failed to perform as expected, because the beneficiary farmers have been basically de-funded.
It is important to note that the food basket is about 50% of family expenditures. And so, we need to do more in the rice sub-sector because it is absolutely essential for economic growth over the longer term. This is important because rice is our staple food and the price index of the food basket.

The renewed commitment to reinvest in the rice sub-sector must be on a supervised targets-based production system geared to:
on-farm production employment creation – through Self Employment Assistance Programme (SEAP) adequate employment at the production level could be provided to returnees from the diaspora, in-country unemployed youth, women farmers, and so forth;
on-farm service production – for land preparation, input provision (fertilizers, seeds, chemicals, bags);
provision of storage facilities for paddy, rice milling operations as well as storage for milled rice;
marketing of milled rice, rice bran, and so forth.

It is unfortunate that GAF has solicited the partnership of a profit-oriented transnational company to do what is the mandate of the Ministry of Agriculture. This is an academic insult and, is professionally unacceptable. A similar scenario, is the presence of Nigerian soldiers prompted GAF to destabilise a democratically-elected government. We seem to have short memories or may be our intelligence and ambition seem to mislead us. The Ministry of Agriculture should condemn this in the strongest term, as it belittles its authority and mandate.

It is the Ministry of Agriculture as a public supported institution with the mandate for crop production that will constantly be evaluated by other systems in the task environment. This type of evaluation will help MoA, because it will serve as a feedback of the work done. This feedback will serve as a basis for decisions, actions, and innovations in developing agro-rural programmes. This is a very serious lapse in governance and GAF must be warned very seriously not to overstep the diving board. Furthermore, GAF must learn that they can neither negotiate nor teach what they don’t know, therefore, they must always consult.

The writer is a former international civil servant and a permanent secretary at the Ministry of Agriculture.

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