Bolong Sonko’s masterpiece on the Gambia National Think Tank – Is It Really Necessary? is a gold mine of important issues for consideration that lays the groundwork for considering a national debate on the necessity. I find myself in agreement with much of his thrust and hope to see further development on a number of his insights.
It is difficult to comment on a paper with which one is fundamentally in sympathy. In part this is because commentators cannot reiterate those ideas with which they agree. In part, however, it is because there is so much that deserves attention and can stimulate further thought.
We should bear in mind that transforming a country is a long term process that cannot be achieved in just four or five years. Evidence from other parts of the world, showed that transformation processes of this kind, especially after 22-years of a designed, destructive reign of terror, may take decades or even generations. In the case of our resource poor agrarian Gambia (where agriculture must be the starting point and, must have the transformation issues hinged upon and revolve around agricultural development’s main frame of reference, that is, yield/income factor. This forms the main thrust of my contribution) this is an even more complex task, given that it is a country of small-scale, resource-poor, subsistence, hand-to-mouth-rainfed farmers that have to be transformed as well. Let us keep this at the back of our minds as we examine the country’s progress during the first Republic and gloss over the destructive phase of the second Republic and, then decide on the rationality/necessity of the Think Tank.
We first of all, have to thank Allah (SWT) for making the “New Gambia” possible and that, the new Gambia is taking its mandate and responsibilities very seriously as a number of African, world leaders, donors and lending institutions are helping to make it a performing country, not only by providing it with additional resources, but by ensuring that it conducts its affairs efficiently, procedurally, and transparently.
Generally, our economy is faced with inadequate knowledge of policy and an ineffective administration of development, which has resulted in our failure to identify and utilize what is called the “growth-producing forces” of an agrarian economy. Any agenda for reform must both recognize the difference between the three and address them in different ways. The impossibility – indeed the danger – of attempting to address such a complex issue as “….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” in a manner that will capture the above three in one swoop must be recognized. If a more rational national development blueprint is to be achieved, it must be predicated on an authoritative base-line information within the context of a purposely designed consolidation cum consultation phase.
We may wish to know that, The Gambia is an agrarian society. As an agrarian society, agriculture occupies a strategic place in our national economy, being the dominant industry and generally the only industry of any major significance to the economic growth and development of this nation. This can be viewed in terms of its contribution as a sector to the gross national product (GDP), of its being a principal source of foreign exchange earnings, and of the proportion of the total population dependent on it for livelihood. Under these conditions, the attainment of a sustained level of production and productivity in agriculture becomes a matter of vital concern to all.
Furthermore, agriculture must be seen as the “engine of growth” at this stage of our economic development. Agriculture plays this role because the sector typically accounts for a high share of economic activity in the country and also because agricultural activities have powerful growth linkages with the rest of the economy. Unless we “first and foremost” generate productivity growth in agriculture, the necessary growth linkages leading to economic take-off may evade us.
The average farmer in rural Gambia is operating below subsistence level. This farmer is the person who must improve productivity and therefore should be party to the formulation of technologies aimed at improving his or her lot. First, constraints that prevent farmers from food self-sufficiency (household and surplus for the market) should be identified. Only when these constraints are removed can farmers be outward looking – and produce a surplus for the growing mass of urban dwellers. Furthermore, everyone living in the rural areas is not a farmer. Development projects/interventions should create other forms of employment for the non-farmer – agriculture could be used as a development tool in generating industry and commerce. Farmers must be provided with supporting services essential for growth of production and should be able to see tangible benefits of their efforts.
The problem at hand, therefore, is how to design a targets-based production strategy that will induce a rise in agricultural production and productivity at a rate faster than that of our population growth. Unless we achieve this goal, any plans for further economic and social development of our country would tend to be seriously jeopardized and the greater number of our people cannot thus be supported at higher levels of living.
We have the potential to use our agriculture as the basis for sustainable and stabilized employment creation (especially for the youth), import substitution, development of agro-industries, export promotion for sustained economic growth and development, given our immense agricultural resource base, a naturally endowed comparative advantage, a large and potentially competitive production capacity, and a relatively well developed human resource base, albeit inadequately managed and challenged.
The infrastructure of growth
What is most significant, and may serve as a connecting point for New Gambia is our national performance against international economic crises during the first Republic. The important lesson to learn and adopt is that, as a government we were not merely confined to mere holding action. At the same time that we were holding our own against inflation and pressures on our trade and payments, the building of capabilities in the national economy continued unabated and production continued to exhibit impressive growth trends.
While other countries in the sub-region were content to hold the line during the period, implementation of our national development plan was not arrested. And this proceeded at a pace that by the time the height of the crisis ebbed, the national economy was in an impressive position to effect a rapid turnaround.
This more than anything else constituted the real achievements of the national economy during the period, and this is why the economic climate in the country has retained so much confidence and optimism about its prospects here in our country and abroad.
No other programme underlines this orientation more clearly than the First Republic’s commitment to the reinforcement of the needed infrastructures for a sustainable development phase.
The thrust of this policy was to lay the physical foundations for national development. This included the development of rural networks, expansion of telecommunication services, irrigation and water resources management and in cooperation with ActionAid, the building of school buildings.
The fruits of these long and painstaking socio-economic development buildup was just beginning to be realised and integrated into the national development process in 1994, when the suddenness of the “power and material hungry” military criminals hit and put a damper on the momentum of these unique successes.
Prior to the military take-over in July 1994, The Gambia was one of 13 countries in the world that achieved major success in attaining the goals of the first world food summit. Out of these 13 countries, 5 are in Africa (Burkina Faso, Ghana, Mali, Nigeria, The Gambia), that had the largest reduction in the proportion of people undernourished between 1980 and 1996. During that time, which coincided with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank’s structural adjustment programme (SAP), the Overseas Development Administration’s support to PMO’s ‘efficiency strategy through small is beautiful’, the Primary Heath Care project that reinforced the health of our farmers for regular farm work, the Freedom From Hunger Campaign’s (FFHC) Swamp rice development programme, ActionAid’s support for Tidal Irrigation promotion, we were as a country 25% self-sufficient in rice and 80% in coarse grains. As a result of good governance and institutional commitment, the country graduated to the programme for sustainable development phase at the envy of most African countries. As a matter of fact, our civil service and our governance system were rated as one of the best in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA).
In spite of these achievements and the institutional commitment that made them possible, a continuous decline in the civil service performance as well as the agricultural gross domestic product (AGDP) took centre stage after the 1994 military take over. This unfortunate scenario and the poor governance that was its unspeakable modus operandi, gave birth to an increased incidence of absolute poverty, malnutrition, worsened income distribution, destabilized civil service, unique type of corruption and frustrated efforts at poverty reduction. The existing economic situation in the country is one of the cumulative effects of a downward economic spiral that has its major roots in the decline in agricultural output.
Meanwhile, our population growth rate has accelerated, the number of people actively engaged in agriculture has declined significantly, food production growth rate has decelerated due, among other things, to the accelerated rural-to-urban migration and the overall poor performance of the food production sub-sector. Food production growth rate depended more on growth in crop area, nutrient mining, human labour-use and much less on yield increase and modern inputs compared to other parts of the world. Thus, Gambian agriculture during the second Republic was characterized by poor and deteriorating performance.
Issues for the future
In looking at the past and current situation of our national development scenario, certain issues require particular attention.
As a starting point, the National Think Tank is not necessary. Instituting it cannot be justified. The nation’s main problem is the 22-years of Yahya Jammeh and the APRC, which period can be isolated to enable us connect from where the first Republic stopped to continue performing as usual. In this regard, it is imperative that we put a moratorium on all new donor and lending institution funded agricultural development projects in favour of a consolidation and consultation phase.
Let us be very clear about this, work should not be done for the present alone but for the future as well. We, therefore, also have to access our fitness for the future by looking at where we have been, where we are now, and where we are heading.
As a starting point, government must clarify and incorporate in policy and legislation what they expect agriculture to contribute to the nation’s socio-economic development. Is it enough to facilitate technology transfer to achieve vitally needed increases in production and income? Does agriculture also have a human resources development and education function for poorly educated, resource poor, and poverty stricken rural majority? Should agriculture help develop self-reliance in resource poor farmers so that they can seek and apply means for improving productivity and the quality of family living? Should programme intervention content include management of total household resources in the pursuit of maximum income and its use to better the conditions of the family? Should education in on-farm management, environment, family planning, and nutrition be incorporated in agriculture and rural development interventions to benefit present and future generations?
Lack of clarity about what is expected from agriculture and failure to match resources with designated functions have undoubtedly limited achievement of agriculture’s full potential contribution to the nation’s socio-economic development.
The author, Mr Suruwa Jaiteh, a native of Bakau, is a former international civil servant, permanent secretary at the Ministry of Agriculture. He is now a development consultant.