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Wednesday, October 21, 2020

The Gambia National Think Tank – Is it really necessary?

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Finally we have the Gambia National Think Tank (GAMNATT) inaugurated, with responsibility “….to facilitate the formulation and dissemination of a national development blueprint, introduce a people-centered National Vision 2030 and a research agenda to influence public policy that impacts positively on all Gambians.” But are we not giving it too many roles and responsibilities that may subsequently conflict with those of established government institutions? It is clear, as others have already mentioned, more information is needed on the terms of reference and funding of the think tank. Other issues that also need clarification are:

1) Will the GAMNATT be formulating a new development plan? Already it is said a draft national development plan exists, so it will be interesting to know what the GAMNATT will be facilitating;
2) Vision 2030 has not yet been formulated. Will GAMNATT be responsible for its formulation?
3) GAMNATT is given different roles of facilitating, dissemination, introducing, advocating and redressing in different contexts, but how do these roles relate to the core functions of the government ministries/departments?
Just as an example, two important areas have been considered below.
The planning function

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Formulating a development plan poses challenges that need to be overcome to make it realistic and responsive to the country’s needs. First, it needs to be participative and inclusive. Development planning is an iterative process that starts from the bottom up and not a one-off exercise from top to bottom. It is not an elitist exercise either. As an input into the present draft national plan there were extensive countrywide consultations at regional and sub-regional levels and village levels to collect the views of the various actors. Will the think tank have the time to do these baseline studies? Unless, I assume, they use the existing background studies. But even with this documentation, the think tank will still have to commission some baseline studies to address emerging priorities that may be identified by the government with the risk of repeating what has already been done.
With all the meetings, studies, report reviews and drafting of the actual development plan, how much time will there be to implement the plan in the remaining two and half years bearing in mind the need to engage development partners to raise funds?
Personnel matters

As a strategy the GAMNATT proposes to redress the brain drain in the public and private sectors by making maximum use of Gambian expertise and the youth. How will that be done and under what circumstances? First, it is important to state that it is not the responsibility of the Government to redress brain drain in the private sector and the CSO but rather to create the space for them to operate without undue Government interference. Government should concentrate on addressing its manpower challenges which is the responsibility of the Personnel Management office. I do not think establishing a data bank of Gambian professionals would be a sufficient justification especially in this era of modern communications. What is required is a fully operational websites for the ministries where information can be posted and accessed. If a data bank of Gambian professionals is required then the Personnel Management Office should set up such database for the very simple reason that it falls within their core responsibility of identifying and recruiting Government personnel and we are certain that the Office is here to stay.

Against the above background I believe we really need to move forward. Already we have lost a lot of valuable time in trying to set up the Think Tank and I do not think either the Government or the people can afford to delay the country’s reform process. This Government is full of educated people, so please let them be pragmatic and proactive in addressing the challenges facing the transition. Already with the information available to the public some sectors are doing remarkable work. One such act is upholding the freedom of expression for the press and the public at large which has created the environment for the rich exchanges now taking place. President Barrow’s Government must be commended for this.

A Transition Programme
The role of President Barrow and his Coalition Government has been clearly defined by the historic forces that brought them to power. The people voted Yahya Jammeh out because of the poor governance, the abysmal human rights records, and the lack of opportunities for citizens to raise themselves out of poverty. In my view, these are the main challenges the Coalition should address during this transition. There will be other important actions in other sectors but there are key areas that will define the Barrow Administration and these relate to cleaning up the mess of the past and laying the bases for a just and equitable society. A proposed mission statement not a vision statement is presented below in recognition of the urgency of time, the reality of implementation:

“Remove the legal, social and economic constraints that have prevented the Gambian people from enjoying their rights (legal, social, economic, cultural etc.) without fear; ensure that all abuses and excesses of power are thoroughly investigated and satisfactorily addressed to restore justice and accountability in order to lay the foundation for a free democratic society whose members are equal before the law and have equal opportunity to pursue their dreams and ambitions in line with the laws and the opportunities of the republic; and finally strengthen the capacity of the security forces to ensure that the country is able to defend itself against all forms of threats both internal and external.”

Some recommended actions include:
I. All the actions currently taking place as well as those planned to reform the judicial system and security services (police, army, NIA etc.) as well as review the constitution in order to re-establish good governance- democracy, human rights and the rule of law;
ii. Review and remove all the draconian laws and measures put in place to prevent the freedom of the press and the citizen’s right of access to information and institute measures that would prevent or at least minimise the recurrence of similar situations in future;
iii. Restoration of macroeconomic stability and improve investment climate to promote greater private sector participation in the development process;
iv. Reform and strengthen the civil service as the machinery to support Government in policy formulation and implementation;

v. Restructure and develop the agriculture sector which had partly become an implementation agency for Jammeh farms by improving agricultural production and productivity to reduce food insecurity and malnutrition and fight poverty in the rural areas. This sector also offers great opportunity for youth employment through the various sections of its value chain whilst providing a lot of opportunities for green jobs;
vi. Implement policy measures and actions to improve climate resilience and improved adaptation to the impacts of climate variability and climate change in order to protect current and future investments against climate change.

 

I have deliberately limited myself to these sectors because successful interventions in these key areas will lay the foundation for the socioeconomic development of a society that is more at peace with itself and its aspirations and will constitute a useful starting point for the next Government. Furthermore, the limited time available requires a more focused attention on key areas that can be successfully implemented in the next two and half years and make a difference in the lives of Gambians. On-going programmes and projects as well as new ones can benefit greatly from a reformed and strengthened civil service and improved governance that seriously addresses corruption. The draft National Development Plan should provide the framework for the actions proposed above.
With a clear idea of what the Coalition Government considers important, I am confident that these issues together with others that may be raised by other people can be adequately handled by the existing Government

institutions. In fact since the Government has expressed the need for a Think Tank from the onset, the Ministry of Finance and Economic Affairs and its Planning Directorate should have been tasked as far back as February to formulate a transition programme based on the priorities of the Government and in consonance with the overall development objectives. This would give an opportunity to engage Gambians everywhere on the content of the transition programme and also send a very strong and positive message to the development partners on the transition agenda. By now, perhaps a realistic and responsive document would have been produced on what the Government considers as its priorities during the transition for discussion with development partners.

The civil service may be weak and until such time that the reform process starts then specific sectors requiring urgent assistance should be supported with experts as Mr. Yusupha Crookes is now doing in the Ministry of Finance. UNDP and other UN agencies can assist in their respective areas of expertise and at no cost to the tax payer. The knowledge and expertise of the Think Tank members are also very valuable which needs to be judiciously used rather than risk wasting their time in interminable meetings at the tax payers’ expense.
Before concluding it would be interesting to know:
a) The detail terms of reference for the GAMNATT. Unless this is clear the risk of confusion and conflict in roles could be high;

b) The estimated cost of the GAMNATT to the tax payer since it is Government created organisation;
c) The mechanism for performance assessment to ensure GAMNATT gives value for money?
It is neither necessary nor desirable that every new government sets up a Think Tank to develop a national development plan or a vision statement. In fact the basic role of Think Tanks is research and advocacy and not preparing national development plans. In the case of GAMNATT we risk adding more bureaucracy, confusion and delays which is not in the interest of the Government and The Gambian people and should therefore be avoided.
The Gambia has decided! The Government now has two and a half years left to rise up to our expectations.

Bolong L Sonko is a retired civil servant and development consultant.

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