By Madi Jobarteh
The idea of a think tank emanates from the civil society where a group of professionals or experts would constitute themselves into an institute or an organization to engage in research and advocacy. Such research and advocacy are geared towards generating or focusing on ideas, knowledge, policy and development. Through studies or policy research or development evaluation, think tanks therefore identify new trends, highlight gaps and proffer solutions which are then used by governments, the private sector and indeed any other stakeholder to address challenges and grow. The United States is one country that has made great use of think tanks in building their country into one of the most advanced places on earth.
The Gambia National Think Tank (GNTT) is not a private or civil society initiative. Rather it is constituted by the government. In its membership, there are public servants as well as private individuals most of who have had longstanding engagement with the public sector in both the PPP and APRC administrations in various capacities. For example the GNTT Chair Sering Falu Njie once headed the National Planning Commission in 2008/2009 as well as headed the national initiative against poverty, SPACO in 2003 to 2007. Some had served as consultants for various public sector institutions under both the PPP and APRC regimes, while others were former ministers and senior public officeholders. Still others have been active in the private and civil society sectors locally and internationally. This means they have all been active with the Gambia even though we could not produce a free and developed society.
That notwithstanding, the members of the think tank are indeed well known and well qualified Gambian experts that can deliver. Their profiles tell us that there is no Gambian who knows the Gambia better or more than these people. Hence they cannot and must not fail the Gambia. They were there when the First Republic failed the people, and they were there when the Second Republic was being built into a regime of blood and tears for Gambians. Therefore Sering Falu Njie and his fellow think tankers must know that Gambians also know them and we are watching.
It is important to note that the 19-member group has only four women and one youth, with no professionals from the academia, media, clergy, NGO and farming communities. The terms of reference of the think tank appear not being public yet. But citizens do need to know the terms of GNTT in order to empower the people to know how and on what issues to engage GNTT and above all to hold the think tank to account. In the launching speeches and messages reference was consistently made to national development and good governance. But what do they mean?
In light of the above and knowing from where the Gambia has come, it is an understatement to say that this think tank has a huge job on their hands. Not just professionally, but also politically and morally. The making or the breaking of the Gambia has now been placed squarely on the head of Falu Njie and his colleagues. Therefore as adult Gambians who have seen and engaged in the yester years of the Gambia, they have no excuse for not providing the necessary, urgent and unpleasant advice that this country needs. This is a huge opportunity placed on their hands. It is a personal issue as well because they now have the chance to either repair their own individual shortcomings or excesses, if any they have caused the Gambia in the past or make that contribution they could not have been able to do before. Will they live up to expectation? That is the question.
In my view the think tank must dedicate itself to the reconstruction of our statecraft into a modern democratic dispensation. The Barrow Administration is a transitional instrument hence it cannot hope to fix all of the myriad social, economic and political challenges the Gambia faces. This administration has taken over from a 22 year regime which practically either undermined or weakened or dismantled each and every national institution hence the broken system we have now. No Gambian must honestly therefore expect that water and electricity supply could be fixed in just three years. No Gambian must think that farmers’ plight could be addressed within three years. No Gambian must think that Barrow can make the prisons top standard immediately or solve waste collection or fix all the roads in Banjul right now.
Hence this think tank must think deeply to advise Barrow realistically on what he must focus on and how. It must identify what needs to change and when. This is why I think the best thing this think tank can do is to review our entire legal, policy and institutional environment in terms of the very structure, function and management of the state in order to ensure good governance and sustainable development. In other words, GNTT must be the vehicle for bringing about system change that the country badly needs if it is to survive well into the future.
For example, in terms of agriculture, we must bear in mind that since independence the Gambia has been unable to ensure food security and food self-sufficiency. Meantime we had the most intellectuals within the Ministry of Agriculture for decades. They had multiple projects and millions of dollars of funding. Yet since the First Republic, the Gambia imports more food than we produce despite the fact that we have a largely flat and fertile land with incredible amount of water as rain, underground water and River Gambia with adequate labour.
Therefore why was it that we could not feed ourselves? This answer lies nowhere but in the kind of policies, laws, personnel and institutions and the kind of political leadership we always had since independence. Just as it is in agriculture, one can find the same explanation for the poor performance in sports, education, community development or energy among other sectors. They all reflect that there was something fundamentally wrong with our state system for which we could not just deliver as we should despite the presence of all the necessary resources.
This means therefore that GNTT must be able to identify our challenges as a nation and offer policy solutions. The think tank must realize that it is not the government and it has no partisan political base or objectives. Hence its role must be to offer policy ideas to restructure our management, governance and development systems in terms of ideas, tools, laws and institutions. Policy is a roadmap that leads to a destination. Hence I do not expect the GNTT and Barrow will take the Gambia to its rightful destination or develop this country within three years. Rather I expect that they must establish the right roadmap so that future governments would find in place a structure or system that if they follow will get the country to that desired destination. This, I think should be the fundamental role and contribution of the think tank.
In this regard, it is important that the think tank understand the state of affairs in the country and the expectations of the masses. They must exercise clear genuineness and commitment to the country. They must realize that they are not a political action group for Barrow or any other party or individual. They must guard their integrity, independence and credibility and understand that they are now the crafters of a new Gambia. This means the think tank must be ready to produce the right ideas and policies even if unpleasant. They must be prepared to stand their ground against any attempts by Barrow and the government to coerce or compromise them into political expediency in any form. To protect their credibility, the think tank must therefore share its finalized policy solutions and ideas with the general public knowing that ultimately their legitimacy comes from the people of the Gambia.
Similarly Barrow and his government must demonstrate to Gambians that they did not form this think tank only for selfish political reasons. They must realize that this think tank is not for the purpose of political expediency intended to secure their future political objectives. Barrow must demonstrate to us that he conceived this think tank out of a deep and genuine concern to build a new Gambia never seen before since independence. This means Barrow must be honest and fair to the think tank to give them the necessary space, resources and respect to do their job. He must be prepared to receive their solutions and demonstrate political will and commitment to implement those solutions. Where he cannot implement any solution he must tell us publicly what are his reasons. He must not allow the government to spend resources on such an initiative only to ignore the product of that initiative.
Finally Gambians deserve to know the structure, functions, powers and focus areas of the think tank. The think tank must inform citizens about how to access them. They must create a platform to engage citizens in order to obtain necessary data and ideas. Therefore we expect GNTT to create a website and social media platforms as well as engage in community meetings, organize policy forums and create other places of interactions so that Gambians can share their views and desires for a new Gambia. The business of building the Gambia is the responsibility of all citizens. The good thing about such initiatives is that they create the avenues to have a conversation with all stakeholders. Thus the think tank is an opportunity available to all citizens to contribute their quota to national development. Hence let the think tank open up to the people immediately so that the conversations can start.
Kudos to the Barrow Administration! Good luck to GNTT!!