Suruwa B. Wawa Jaiteh

Your Excellency President Barrow, the recent signing of an agreement/contract with AGCO (America-based agricultural equipment manufacturer) for The Gambia Armed Forces (GAF) to be engaged in large-scale agriculture/The Army Rice Project is a classic example of a misguided policy within the context of democratic governance.

We dared not entrust our economic future to the hospitable play of GAF in a hidden partnership agenda with economic forces at home and abroad. We see in a transnational corporation like AGCO, a vital agent in development effort, but we recognised that government, through the Ministry of Agriculture and the Department of Agriculture must take command and lead.

All the problems The Gambia is experiencing now: i) the Janneh Commission; ii) the Constitutional Review Commission; iii) the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparation Commission and, iv) the current build-up of tribalism, have been the dismal failure of GAF to measure itself, adequately, to the defence of the country.

After failing the country, how can GAF be trusted in a sector that is alien to their training, mandate and ability?

The Gambia Armed Forces cannot reform agriculture
Once this is grasped, it becomes absurd to suppose that – in theory and in practice – GAF is or can be the rational agency to “revolutionise or reform” Gambian agriculture.

It is absurd, because the social, political and economic problems in agriculture, the rice sub-sector in particular, have been made so grave and so deeply rooted during the past 25 years by GAF leadership, that the same agency cannot be deemed wise enough to solve them or good enough to be entrusted with unlimited mandate to do so.

Furthermore, it is the leadership of GAF that kept our Constitution in a state of anaesthesia, that is causing the country so much embarrassment.

It is absurd, further, because GAF has managed to allocate itself 50,000 hectares of prime agricultural land, belonging to resource-poor farmers, with the intent to partner with a profit-oriented transnational corporation (TNC).

This is absurd, because it contradicts the role of the Ministry of Agriculture, the concept of the so-called National Development Plan (NDP).

How can we successfully implement and sustain an NDP without the required indigenous capacity? How can we trust GAF when they are being reformed and when most of the saints in the set-up are sidelined?
What can be done to overcome the low level of domestic rice production on the one hand and the inadequate supply on the other? In considering possible entry points for public interventions, it is important to adopt a medium-to-long-term perspective.

Past efforts (the half-a-century of Chinese/Taiwan/Peking and ADB/IFAD/World Bank interventions) to promote rice self-sufficiency all too often focused narrowly on stimulating immediate increases in production without sufficient support to the resource-poor farmer to reduce his/her on-farm production burden.

This approach has been very limited, however, because the government can do many things to promote increased rice production at the resource-poor farmer level through strategic on-farm support and, in fact, the use of other measures that can be much more cost-effective and financially sustainable.

Public interventions can be used to help the resource-poor farmers, plus other innovative measures that can also be used to ensure stable income-earning through sustainable employment for the unemployed youth, the returnees from the diaspora, the women folk through i) on-farm production; ii) service provision: land preparation, input supplies; iii) value addition through provision of storage and processing facilities; and iv) marketing.

Need for proper feasibility study
In general, Mr President, notwithstanding the unwelcome nature of the proposed programme, it is important to note that, before any investment decision is made (especially, one reduced to the signing of an agreement/contract) concerning the implementation of an agro-rural development scheme, the socio-economic merits of the programme proposal must be subjected to what is known in the “art and science” of agro-rural development programming as, an analysis.

Ideally, Mr President, such an analysis must include the socio-economic impact of the proposed programme on the national level as a whole, on the intended direct beneficiaries (the farmers but in this specially manipulated case, the soldiers), and on the managing agency (if any/may be AGCO).

Today an extensive framework for such an analysis exists. Unfortunately, the analysis has to be based on estimates of the proposed programme’s future costs and benefits.

The reliability of the preparatory study thus depends on the extent to which the existing situation is known and on the correctness of the estimates.

Although projections of future developments (as pronounced in the dailies) seem to have a high degree of uncertainty, it is still possible to arrive at reasonable estimates, but this requires a thorough programme preparation.

The lack of basic data – in particular about the socio-economic situation of the intended beneficiaries – generally necessitates in-depth investigations into the constraints and possibilities of the agricultural innovations being proposed.

At present, multi-million-dollar programmes are being prepared, hastily preceded by a simplified blueprint schedule of investigations.

Neither donors, lending institutions nor recipient countries seem to be willing to allocate enough time for adequate programme preparation, including an assuring “pilot scheme.

” As a consequence, Your Excellency, feasibility studies are mostly incomplete, lacking sound time-series data and being limited to those technical variables that can easily be measured, forged and/or observed in the limited time available.

Moreover, there is hardly any time allocated for consultations with the intended programme farmers in other to secure their active involvement and to prepare for their training. This is in glaring contrast to the preparation of many government programmes in developed countries, where all who are directly and indirectly involved can have their say, and where the entire preparation process is allowed to take many years and/or adequate time.

Apart from being incomplete, the underlying assumptions on costs and benefits are often unrealistic. Invariably, the costs turn out to be much higher than had been expected, while the benefits (agricultural production) are assessed at unrealistically high levels, ignoring farmers’ abilities and constraints, as well as the time it takes to build up the necessary expertise and institutional framework.

Ignorance about the socio-economic situation and the inherent constraints on an increase in production generally leads to an over-estimation of programme/project’s productivity. This resulted in the implementation of programmes that could not be kept operational by the proposed beneficiaries.

The Gambia, like many in sub-Saharan Africa, is undergoing profound social changes in social structure, governance and worldview.

The new dispensation itself is formally dedicated to achieving these revolutionary changes in a peaceful and orderly fashion. However, the current commitment of the administration to political order and economic growth at the expense of popular information, social equity, human rights and good governance only assures that social changes, when they do inevitably occur and demand political accommodation, could be violent.

The current GAF proposal is an outright contradiction to the National Development Plan. At present, there are simply no institutions to provide for the peaceful accommodation of new and diverse interests and opinions. A coalition government in transition, popularly installed to achieve political order, is seen to contain its own inherent tendencies to disorder.