By Haddy Njie
Raleigh, North Carolina
With three different governments and fifty-three years of political independence from Britain, The Gambia continues to fall behind in its harsh ride to lift its population of nothing more than 2 million out of abject poverty. Currently, close to 60 percent of the population lives below the poverty line and that economic deprivation has severe ramifications for the quality of life of citizens for a country that imports almost all its basic livelihood needs.
Half a century of political independence hasn’t given the country’s leadership the vision and clarity needed to improve the well-being of citizens. President Jawara’s, first president of The Gambia, approach to development was, arguably, minimalist and based on an idea that was restricted by the government to just feeding a nation and remaining content from within, and it was something that government has done quite well for the most part. Yahya Jammeh, the second president of The Gambia, came to power with aggressive policies for economic reforms, but his regime later turned into one of the most virulent dictatorships in Africa.
The failures of the two administrations are setbacks from which The Gambia is still attempting to recover since 2016 after the coming to power of a coalition government, led by President Adama Barrow.
A whole book can be devoted to the political history of a country from 1965 to 2016 and particularly in analyzing the gains and losses of a nation’s development much of which is arguably and hands-down the product of the past, but whose fixing requires the tact of the current administration. That is a project for another time. The ambition that drives this piece seeks to do more than the apportioning of blame. The goal is to focus on the present deplorable state of underdevelopment of the health, economy, agriculture, and education sectors in the country, to snapshot what may, perhaps, be done to improve those sectors and why our urgent intervention should matter.
The appalling, indecent, and inhumane state of our country’s health care is something about which to vehemently condemn. It is not fair to Gambians or to anyone anywhere in the world to lack primary access to health care services. That currently in The Gambia our families who are sick and need blood transfusion will not be able to get medical assistance as our national hospitals are in shortage of blood bags, which costs about $0.10 is a travesty! (Jow, 2018). Also, that our country only has only one X-ray machine for body imaging, currently at the Serekunda hospital according to one Gambian doctor as reported by Njie (2018) adds to the mix of constant frustrations from the health sector.
A desperate situation from the failed health care system accounts for the massive everyday exodus of medical tourists from The Gambia headed to Senegal for medical help, and that is for those who can afford it. Back in the day, and despite being young, I can fully recall that a reverse movement was the case. Pathetically, a clear majority of those who can’t travel to Senegal or access private medical centers are laying down restlessly on their sick beds and others on the floor in our nation’s old hospital as they hopelessly await their death (what injustice!). My biological father was a victim of this gruesome healthcare sector that is disorganized and decapacitated enough to send people to their early graves than save lives. The middle-aged man (RIP) went from a stomach problem, entering surgery in a very healthy state, at least physically, to an operation from which he never recovered. I am sure you know someone from among your families, neighbors, or friends who the health care has woefully failed.
Our healthcare situation is grim, and even if inherited by the Barrow government, it is unacceptable. All efforts must be made to lead us to actionable reform towards a more effective, efficient, and humanistic health care services. There is new leadership under the guidance of, Dr. Iastou Touray to bring to order the crisis of our health care system and that leadership must know that time is against them to fix that broken system. Time is not on our side, and the margins the administration needs to cover for catching up with the current growing health care needs of Gambians are widening each passing day.
The current state of our economy is unacceptable, but the lack of an exit strategy to start hiking on a new trail for combating our financial gap between national revenues, and public investments is worrisome. The country’s current economic hardship as manifested in the sluggish economic growth, low standard of living, debt to GDP which is at 130 percent and massive youth unemployment is a testimony to our failed economic policies. The current government continued applying the traditional solutions to addressing poverty through the foreign aid model of partly meeting present public consumption needs, potentially pocketing the rest in private bank accounts and while hanging the future of our young people and the country’s future in the balance. Gambians continue to be frustrated by the lack of investments in building productive capacities to engineer economic growth that will lift economically struggling Gambians from the bottom-up.
Since we cannot stop borrowing money from other countries, and, in fact, the national consensus is to halt the malignant foreign aid deal that is not serving the interest of Gambians, we can invest in viable, productive sectors that can improve lives in the short term and pay off the loans eventually. Building factories, investing in developing skills set in manufacturing and other secondary production activities will connect Gambians both to local job opportunities and to those that may spill over to emerging economies from the phenomenon of outsourcing taking place in industrialized nations.
Further, how much more knowledge do we need to know that our hard-working women and men in the informal sector can transform small financial assistance into a substantial financial gain if they get a little support to train, organize, and invest in microenterprises adequately? What other evidence do we need to know that the economic benefits of Gambian entrepreneurs and especially women from those ventures will trickle-down to better living conditions of our families in areas of health and education? What more evidence do we need to know that the current devastating unemployment situation of Gambia youth represent a threat to a stable society free from criminals and illegal gang activities, social problems relating to mental health, primarily from drug abuse, and other youth delinquencies?
When government policies indirectly tell our youths that their lives are insignificant by failing to employ them gainfully, they will take it to a step further by demonstrating to the country what that kind of social disorder resembles. Nowhere is that pathetic social revolt more evident than in the mass exodus of Gambian youths via the perilous journey to the Sahara Desert, then crossing the Mediterranean Sea into Europe. For the very many who will survive that journey, they will finally make their way back to The Gambia from forced deportation by the “burdened-countries.” The trauma from that experience is unending and how it will continue to affect the lives of the returnees negatively is yet to be known.
We can build an economic powerhouse that can close the gaps in our country’s economic development if the vision, expertise, courage, and the will are available to actualize a sustainable development. Women are an integral part of the development process, and their current alienation from the bureaucracy of the state is regrettable.
I urge the government of The Gambia to rethink their action of marginalizing half of our country’s population from managing even the ministry that deals with their lived experiences. How primitive is the “HE” profile for a minister of women and children’s affairs? It is satirical!
Our unproductive agricultural sector is another cause for concern. It is not a misnomer to refer to our country as unstable for as long as people remain to be food poor. Food poverty is a threat to human security as a hungry population is a mob ready to unleash itself. In order the maintain lasting peace and stability, it is imperative for all Gambia’s to univocally declare that the sovereignty of our country is tight to our country’s ability to create and sustain the following vital industries: agriculture and the manufacturing of essential goods. With 65 percent of our country’s population under 25 years old, our country has an abundant human capital to train for and incentivize to service those key sectors. The Gambia must be bold enough to move in the direction of large size mechanized farming and agricultural production.
Our country’s failed education system as manifested in the West African Senior Secondary Certificate Examination (WASSCE) 2018 and previous results of less than 20 percent success rates are enough evidence to expose us to the highest agony of our time. It reminds us that the last sector on which all hopes for developing our country through the generation of a productive human capital lie has fallen apart, further casting doubt as to whether the center that industry occupies in our country’s productive capacity will hold over time. The formation of the national consortium of Gambian education researchers and policy analysts to investigate our country’s problems of schooling and how to fix them is long overdue.
More disparaging, however, instead of fixing our education system, President Barrow is comfortable chastising Gambian technocrats as if our country hasn’t suffered enough from the brain drain already. President Barrow has, perhaps, overlooked the fact that it is the same Gambian experts he is confidently and uninformedly lambasting who can bridge the gap in qualification, knowledge, and expertise with which he entered the State House. These are people whom the president should work towards drawing their conscience nearer to home for the service of the nation that sending them away. Prayers, magic, and luck are useful, and our country needs them in abundance, but those assets alone cannot tackle the work that is at stake to move our country forward.
The change and hope for a better Gambia we all are seeking are not right now at the State House, that aspiration is with us the citizens of The Gambia, and it is from us that it can make its way to the State House. It is our right to ask for it, to fight for it, to actualize it and to defend and sustain it when delivered to us for the future generation of Gambia!
The future we are seeking fellow Gambians, it in us. The burden to participate in the democratic processes to bring about this change is lighter than the silence and the compromise. What we should affirm which we already do know is that the lives of our people are at stake, and so is the lives of generations of Gambians yet unborn.
At this point in our country’s history, every Gambian should consider finding a political party one is convinced will bring about a change that will give hope, promise, prosperity, and better living standards to our people. Register today to make a difference by making your voices and your votes count. Now is the time, not during an election! I am myself, on the path to finding that political party. Elections are meant to seal the fates of our politico-economic destinies.
The days that our leaders have wasted by not working on the nation’s development cannot sadly be recovered, but we must work diligently towards recovering whatever glory is buried in our past and use that as our resilience in carving out the future we want for our country and the responsibility we want our young people to step into when it is their turn. The burden of responsibility for creating the world we want our future generation of Gambia’s to live in is on us adults.
We cannot run our country on the failed policies of the past much of which accounts for the colonial experience. In other words, we cannot meet our country’s 21st Century needs by relying solely on the 20th-Century expertise. Moreover, just on that factor, our audacity to embrace our guts that are admonishing us to experiment with new ideas will be our moral arbiter for the future. How we handle that instinct today will dictate how future generations of Gambians will judge our vision, courage, alacrity, tenacity, and robustness in the face of our current despair and frustrations towards the task of building our country.
If we leave behind who we are as a people regarding our social mores, cultures, and values from the formula for national development, we will produce a result that is not congruent with who we are. Every prosperous nation has a brand that distinguishes it from the rest of the world. It is that time to turn the oxymoronic Smiling Coast brand into a country that is smiling!
Now is the time to create the Gambia we want. Some of the required expertise to begin that work is available and should be harnessed by the government.
The opportunity to train more Gambians to fill our knowledge gaps in medicine, science, and technology is enormous. What is, however, crucial and a missing link between our current state of despondency and the hope we seek is the audacity to shake the existing structures and foundations that have not been able to live up to the realities of our expectations. In the place of that, we must be encouraged to experiment with bold, evidence-based, rational, and promising measures that would yield higher returns for all Gambians
We all can agree that our government alone can’t provide all our wants, but it is its responsibility to provide security and protect our country and its citizens from danger. The current state of the health care, economy, agriculture, and education represent a threat from the real risks and harms these failing systems can pose to Gambians.
I want to conclude that each of us has a conviction, a voice, and a role to play in creating a better, more livable and deserving country for our current and future generation. Our promises to the nation must be renewed! Alunta Continua!