The Gambia: Smallest In Africa But Biggest in the World

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By Karamo N.M. Sonko, Ph.D

Heeno Occasional Postings, No.22, June 15, 2018

On Tuesday, May 22nd, 2018, I was fortunate to witness The Gambia’s historic achievement in Brussels, Belgium, where an International Conference for The Gambia, organized by the European Union (EU), amassed €1.45 billion (US$1.7 billion) in support of the government’s National Development Plan for the period, 2018 – 2021. Congratulations, Mr President and your team! Congratulations, The Gambia and your citizens!

Together with Mr Amadou Sanneh, Minister of Finance and Economic Affairs, and representatives of the European Commission, the World Bank and the International Trade Centre, I spoke in the panel that captured what the centrepiece of The Gambia’s future economy should be about: that is, “Building the social contract: promoting inclusive and sustainable economic growth and productivity”. I had two reasons to be pleased.

Firstly, the panel was about productivity, and the outcome of the donor conference clearly showed that The Gambia has fully maximized the value of its minimal time in Brussels, by boosting the outputs of its inputs. Secondly, I landed in Brussels on a Brussels Airlines flight and discovered, to my dismay, that the airline had lost my luggage.  With the news of the €1.45 billion however, I felt that the EU had more than compensated for my loss and inconvenience!

“The outcome of the donor conference clearly showed that The Gambia has fully maximized the value of its minimal time in Brussels, by boosting the outputs of its inputs.”

Why The Gambia must not fail

In thanking the EU and all the donors who contributed to the success of this epoch-making event, I also politely urged them: “Please let this meeting not be another donor conference where huge sums are committed, but little is disbursed”! I posed and answered the question: “Why The Gambia must not fail and why the commitments and disbursements must be conjoined and identical twins?”:

  • IF The Gambia fails, the EU fails, because in 2016, when former President Jammeh refused to accept the will of the Gambian electorate in a free, fair and transparent election, the EU stood up with The Gambia and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to say “Yes to Democracy and Development” and won
  • The Gambian youth are unemployed and determined to travel and that is why, unfortunately, The Gambia has become one of the biggest sources of trans-Mediterranean migrants
  • The Gambia is a land of tolerance, diversity and hospitality – the smallest country on the continental mainland of Africa, but the biggest in the world because of the hearts of its people! That is why it is dubbed the “Smiling Coast of Africa”. That is also why its neighbours love the country and it is one of the biggest hosts of European tourists in West Africa (as a percentage of its population)
  • The Gambia is in a strategic location in the world, the full potential of which is yet to be assessed
  • The country has the potential of becoming another Mauritius, Singapore, South Korea or Dubai, IF (I repeat, IF) its Government and citizens can successfully push the agenda of our panel at the conference; that is, the social contract (both national and international) to promote “inclusive and sustainable economic growth and productivity” through agriculture, infrastructure and the private sector, in addition to education and health.

In the first of the two panels that took place after the pledging session on the 22nd (that is, the panel before ours), Mr Aboubacarr Tambadou, the Attorney General and Minister of Justice, eloquently asserted that “failure is not an option!” It is the exact attitude that Gambians and their government must adopt. The Gambia must not be another African failure, it must be another African success story, in spite of the challenges it faces (economic, environmental, social, etc). Several of these challenges were elaborated on by the Minister of Finance, and representatives of the World Bank and the International Trade Centre and by participants from the floor. (I have provided a longer and balanced list in my speech at “TafCon 2017”, copies of which can be obtained through lmamasanneh@yahoo.com, with ajawo2002@gmail.com in copy).

The Smiling Coast of Africa is an African pride in peace making and rescued democracy and a showcase of the successful transition from the threat of war to peace. The Gambia should in fact be a pride for the world, because of the global “unanimity” across the United Nations, African Union and ECOWAS during the December 2016-January 2017 political impasse. The country was the object of a unified voice across the world which echoed the rule of law, democracy and good governance.

But that was in 2016 and it was just the beginning! Now, the people of The Gambia must celebrate this historic achievement, through the success of the government of President Barrow and the fulfilment of the development aspirations of Gambians. If the Barrow administration fails, all its supporters (past and present) fail, and the hopes that were born in 2016 would be shattered and Gambians would crave for the very past that they once so greatly detested.

If the Barrow administration fails, all its supporters (past and present) fail. ”

Efforts and aspirations

I pointed out to the donors in Brussels that the Gambians did not go to the “Capital of Europe” with empty bowls for the Europeans to fill with rice – the staple diet of Gambians.  From home and abroad, they went there with bowls partially filled with the efforts and aspirations of the citizenry.

It was a mini-coalition in Brussels, but this time an economic one, including critical voices, such as that of a compatriot from the World Bank, who came in his private capacity, and asked: “I’m sorry to be blunt, but how do we know that all this money won’t end up in the pockets of some people?”  In addition to the government officials, there were Gambians from the private sector, civil society, international civil service and diaspora.

“How do we know that all this money won’t end up in the pockets of some people? ”

Heeno International

For the first time since its founding in 2011, I decided to attend a public event as a representative of the foundation my family and I set up, Heeno International. Heeno is one of the very rare privately-funded African international foundations, which focuses on the pursuit of peace and the economic empowerment of the poor, needy and vulnerable. Heeno has touched lives across The Gambia and in at least seven other African countries.

“A meaningful life requires sacrifice.”

We set up Heeno (motivated by the legendary generosity and hospitality of my late father) to stretch our hands to others, because we strongly believe that privilege goes with obligations, wealth goes with sharing, and, more importantly, that sharing goes with the heart more than with the pocket. We are far from being the multi-millionaire family that many think we are! In fact, sometimes I struggle at the end of the month to share my earnings with others and pay my personal bills at the same time. In addition, sometimes even the people you help can make the process very difficult and discouraging for you. Some of those who come to you but get nothing can also be complicated, because they  come caring only about themselves or their problems and do not care if you help a million others as far as they are not included. Therefore, the irony is that a person who helps is more likely to upset others  and even make enemies than one who does not. However, a meaningful life requires sacrifice and a sentence I once heard from my father has provided me with the lifelong inspiration to never give up helping when I can. I also emphasize this to my family! I sometimes wish I can help the whole world, but even Superman cannot!

“The irony is that a person who helps is more likely to upset others and even make enemies than one who does not.”

With modest resources and very little operational costs, Heeno has made its presence felt in countries as diverse as Mauritania and Ghana, Sierra Leone and the Sudan, Morocco and the United Kingdom, and Swaziland and Saudi Arabia. It has financed activities as diverse as the replanting of mangrove trees, reclaiming flooded paddy fields, donkey protection, setting up micro enterprises for war amputees, supporting one of the biggest traditional orthopaedic practices in the world, fetal heart dopplers and “kangaroo” wraps to mothers and babies, assisting Gambian students in a number of African universities, educating girls, and repatriating young migrants back home.  I have discovered from the outcomes of the little grants Heeno provides that, sometimes, little goes a very long way in positively touching people’s lives. Therefore, little can mean big, if properly targeted and utilized, as Heeno does.

Credit: www.aljazeera.com

We at Heeno strongly believe in a reality that I promulgated as an academic in the early 1990’s: that we live in a state of global interconnectedness. Even more so now! Our world has become more than the famed “Global Village”, because it functions like “One Engine” – a breakdown in one part affects the functioning of the engine as a whole. Today, more than ever before, this has become a frightening reality because of poverty in the face of opulence and insecurity in the face of ignorance, injustice and deadly weapons. Therefore, Heeno pays particular attention to the education and care of vulnerable children from poor families in different academic environments, especially those with the least privileges.

Sometimes, little goes a very long way in positively touching people’s lives. Therefore, little can mean big, if properly targeted and utilized.”

Heeno and its sister company, Jula Consultancy, have recently embarked on three historic initiatives that target the world’s three greatest challenges – poverty, the elusive peace and disease. One of them is national (The Gambia Disability Impact Trust Fund) and is about to be launched. The others are international and are at early stages of conception.

Heeno was established with strong faith and commitment, without flags, flagships, flagstaffs or flagpoles! In short, we try to avoid the limelight as much as possible, because we are not helping others for business, politics or publicity. Our decision, recently, to be more visible is in response to the pressures for many years of friends who believed that in pronouncing what Heeno did publicly, others might be motivated to do the same or even more.

We are not helping others for business, politics or publicity.”

The Gambia Capacity Reinforcement Institute (GCRI)

“The diaspora has many essential matadors!

In addition to my call to the donors in Brussels to make sure that there is no disparity between commitments and disbursements, I also called for two other things directly relevant to the topic of our panel that afternoon:

  • Concerted efforts to speedily execute the Gambia’s landmark GIEPA Business Park Project in order to provide the required infrastructure for attracting private (local and foreign) investment. This project can be crucial in promoting The Gambia as a regional economic and financial hub of West Africa, by providing investors with The Gambian hospitality and West Africa’s much bigger regional market
  • The establishment of a Gambia Capacity Reinforcement Institute (GCRI), not in the traditional sense of capacity building, but with the triple objectives of assisting the public and private sectors and attaining the “brain gain”, through The Gambia’s large reservoir of skilled diasporans, longing to go home. An effective GCRI can identify capacity gaps in the public and private sectors and fill them. It can motivate the public service and mobilize and help resettle skilled diasporans and experienced Gambian experts from international organizations.

As international statistics on legal and skilled migrants to the developed countries reveal, capacity is not only a Gambian issue, it is universal, although the extents are different from country to country. So Gambians must not be shy in dealing with it, but must boldly take the bull by its horns. The diaspora has many essential matadors!

The requirements of development

Development requires the knowledge, the will and the way. Nations have proven that it requires (almost always) the movement from the orthodox to the unorthodox. Economic history has shown many times how small nations (most of whom were in the hall with us in Brussels) conquered the world, not because of the number of square kilometres/miles they had, but because of their knowledge, their will and their way. There are overwhelming factors in our world today, compared to the days that these small nations became big, but there are also examples from the 20th century of small and successful nations (Singapore, South Korea, Mauritius, the UAE, etc), which should give hope to The Gambia.

“Development requires the knowledge, the will and the way.”

What next?

I was honoured to join “Team Gambia” in Brussels in my attempt to help, in a very small way, our people to achieve the dreams that have made our world one, where shared prosperity has become obligatory because of shared challenges. I would be pleased, in a very big way, if The Gambia can reinforce the unity that led to the emergence of the Barrow government and “sign” the social contract (national and international) envisaged in our panel in Brussels. I, wholeheartedly, call for a sustainable political and social “coalition” across the Smiling Coast of Africa!

I hope that the donors, on their part, will now ensure that all the financial commitments are disbursed. The Gambia government, on its part, must ensure that all the funds benefit The Gambia and its people.

The Europeans did not give The Gambia money simply because of love, but did so largely out of self interest, on the basis of which the advanced/developed nations function. This truth should encourage rather than discourage Gambians, because it should make them also pursue the interest of their people with what the Europeans have made available to them.

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© Heeno International, June 2017. This publication or any part of it, except third party photographs, may be reproduced for educational purposes without the permission of the author, but must cite source.

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