About 15 years ago, I read a very touching book entitled, “Voices of the poor, can anybody hear us”, that recorded the voices of poor people around the world. Since then and in my travels in The Gambia and around the world, I have heard these voices with my own ears and seen these faces with my own eyes, often eyeball to eyeball. I have looked into the eyes of the children and seen my own children. Sometimes, I wake up in the dead of night in a cold sweat, thinking about some of the poor people, especially the children that I have met, knowing too well the risks that befall them on a daily basis and how their governments continue to fail them.
The latest figures I have for The Gambia are from 2015, which estimates the number of people living at or below the poverty line of US$2/day at 0.93million, which is equivalent to nearly 50% of the population. When you add those who live just above this line but are just one disaster or one pay day away from falling below this line again, the numbers could rise to as high as 70% by my own estimates. This is shocking and unconscionable and needs a concerted effort led by President Barrow himself, if these numbers are to be lowered anytime soon, but more importantly, if these lives are to be saved and are to accomplish their full potential. Our country needs all of its citizens contributing their full potential for it to develop.
The poor don’t want charity. They want a hand up. They want you, Mr. President to hear their voices and to do something now, anything, that will help me. They sit day-in and day-out, not knowing where their next meal is coming from. They wake up in the morning, not knowing what the day will bring. They wake up in the morning hoping and praying for some relief. They wake up in the morning saying “ Yallah Bahna”. Now that the rains are here, we know traditionally that this is the “poor season” when economic activities are at their slowest and also their “malaria season” when their children are most at risk from this dreadful disease.
President Barrow – here is a snap shot of the voices of the country’s poor. Frankly,I hope these voices haunt you at night into action in the morning, as they haunt me to write this open message to you;
• “I do not need your charity or your sympathy. I need you to see me. Then I need your empathy.
• My assets are insecure. Please don’t take my land. As precarious and unsafe as my shelter is, that is all I have.
• My income is too low. When will my job pay me a living wage.?
• My health and safety at my work place and where I live must be as important to you as yours is important to you.
• My vulnerability is unending. Whether I live in a rural area or an urban area, I live in areas that are prone to natural and manmade disasters including environmental disasters. I am unable to prevent these disasters from happening to me. And when they happen, I am least able to mitigate or manage these effects and to bounce back on my feet. I am exposed to excessive corruption and rent seeking by the authorities who are supposed to be helping me. I disproportionately suffer from discrimination, marginalization and disenfranchisement.
• I am constantly exposed to violence of all sorts from all sorts. I have no access to justice when I am wronged and no one will defend or fight for me.
• I don’t have access to services. I cannot access acceptable quality education and health care, affordable potable water and electricity, and safe transportation. Close proximity to services does not mean I have access to them.
• I am food insecure, my nutrition and that of my family is poor and is leading to increased stunting in my children, adversely impacting their cognitive skills with lifelong implications.
• I do not want to come and sit in your offices all day begging for charity or for assistance from you in your personal capacity.
• All I want is to be heard. I want a chance for my children to grow up safely and to reach their full potential in life. “
Mr President, those saying you need more time… that the six months you have had so far is too short, and that you should be given more time. Those saying that, are ok. They are doing just fine. They have a roof over their heads, a wardrobe full of clothes on their backs and shoes on their feet, they know where their next meals are coming from for they have stockpiles of meat, fish, rice, sugar, onions etc in their stores at home, generators loaded with gas oil and water tanks and boreholes ready to start pumping the moment Nawec goes off and they are probably about to board SN Brussels airlines with their families for their annual summer holidays to the UK, USA or where ever else their bank accounts will take them. So, for them, you can take all the time you need. For them, now that Jammeh has gone and they have their freedom from persecution, all is well and dandy. This is the same mentality that said, so long as I can buy a Pajero, it does not matter if the road does not get fixed.
For the poor, whose voices I can hear, because I have visited their homes, schools, health centers and their communities and slept in their homes in over 50 towns and villages in The Gambia in the past, from Farato to Fatoto, I know they cannot wait another day, let alone another 6months or however long it takes. For them, 1 day is even too long. Their hope is in you. You are their President now. You have the power and the means to bring some relief to the poor, without waiting for any donor or outside help to come in. It is a matter of only your political will to lead.
Gladly, addressing the needs of the poor, is not rocket science. There are plenty of lessons from around the world to draw from to develop our own solutions to poverty alleviation at home. All that is required is for you, President Barrow to lead to make this happen.
Here is what you can do now.
• Declare a war on poverty.
• Chair a national conference on poverty. Do not delegate this to anyone. You must chair it yourself. Bring in national and diaspora experts, and the poor themselves, together, to design programs specifically targeted at addressing the needs of poor, such as social safety nets, conditional cash transfers, social action funds, cash for work schemes and vocational training programs.
• Fund these programs from the national budget. Offset the costs from elsewhere in the budget, e.g. from cuts in military and defense spending, streamline the civil service, clamp down on corruption and wasteful spending, re-structure the governments contingent liabilities, transparency in public procurement etc.
• Set up a Task Force that will work on designing and implementing these programs and will report directly to you and regularly too, and that you will report back on progress directly to the targeted beneficiaries.
• Donors will jump on board once they see that you are serious about this and that you are going ahead with or without them. Ndimbal na cha feka lohor borom as they say in the local parlance.
• These are short term plans that will bring some relief to the poor while the other plans you are working on take root in the medium to long term.
This is not about “them” verses “us” whoever them and us are. Mr President, this is a cry, their cry, my cry, the tearful cries of a nation recently traumatized but still full of goodness and hope and optimism in each other and for each other. It is the cry of a people, who want to be their brother’s keeper and their sisters’ keeper. It is a cry from a people whose time has come. It is a cry from a people who will rise together from the ashes of despair from whence we have just come, ready to march in tandem and locked arm in arm in solidarity with each other to the promise land of equal opportunity and shared prosperity for all. It is a cry from your people, asking you to lead us to this promised land.
Mr President, be a president not only for the rich and the famous, be a president not only for the powerful and the elite. But, be a president for the poor, the powerless, the voiceless, the downtrodden and the forgotten many.
Mr President, in you we place our trust and our hope.
Be a president for everyone.
And if you must prioritize, first, be a president for the POOR!