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The Road to Prosperity — or Madness

Gambians can choose to start doing things differently — or accept that we are mad.

British Colonial officials supervising tractor teams plowing a rice swamp in The Gambia in April 1959. Source: Wikimedia Commons; License: Open Government License Version 1.0
Several years ago, during former President Yahya Jammeh’s dictatorial rule, I had a conversation with a Gambian friend of mine. One of the two lanes of highway out of the Gambian Capital, Banjul, had a deep depression right by the big baobab tree at Mile 2 Prison. I called my friend, who was then the Director of Technical Services, and responsible for the maintenance of the road network of the country, and told him that something should be done about the depression because it was a hazard which can cause accidents, and even deaths.
After listening to my complaint, my friend said: “Let me tell you this: that depression will only be fixed if President Jammeh says we should fix it, or if there is a project to fix it.” In the end, the depression got fixed, although I didn’t bother to find out under what circumstances.
My conversation with my friend reminds me of the monster that the phenomenon of development projects has become in The Gambia, and indeed in many other African countries. Development projects now drive our national development agenda, cripple the capacity of the public sector, and fuel corruption and graft in the country. Despite this, we continue to have more and more of them, almost daily.
Development planning has been an integral part of our national development efforts, dating back to the 1964/67 Gambia Government Development Programme, all the way through to the first Five Year Plan for Economic and Social Development (1975/76–1979/80), Vision 2020, the two Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSP; I [2003–2005] and II [2007–2011]), as well as their successors, the Program for Accelerated Growth and Employment (PAGE; 2013–2015), and the National Development Plan (NDP; 2018–2021).
Over the past few years, however, we have seen a mushrooming of development projects across the entire length and breadth of the country, and in all sectors of our economy. Since its first project in 1970, the number of World Bank projects in the country increased from 8 between 1970 and 1980, to 29 between 2010 and 2020.
In the same vein, the GOTG has relied on donor agencies to provide significant funding for its development efforts. For example, donor agencies provided 86.7 percent of funding for PRSP II, and 65 percent of funding for its successor, the PAGE. Similarly, the African Development Bank (AfDB) has spent $456 million since 1974, when it started operations in The Gambia.
Although many projects, especially those funded by international development agencies and bilateral donors often refer to national development plans and policies, their implementation often leaves a lot to be desired. For a start, many donor agencies want some visibility for their projects, and buy fancy and rugged four-wheel drive vehicles for the projects they fund. The fashion in The Gambia now is for these vehicles to have tinted windows, making me wonder how tinted windows can contribute to our national development.
These flashy vehicles are a highly sought-after and prestigious fringe benefit of working for donor-funded development projects. Senior project staff are provided expensive vehicles for their official work, but they also use these vehicles for their personal needs and errands.
Furthermore, project employees are provided free fuel and maintenance for their vehicles, which is why these vehicles are as busy (if not more so) during weekends than during workdays. Thus, the Quadrangle (the heart of government), is full of (mostly) project vehicles during workdays, but empty on weekends, as shown by Google Earth.

Google Earth imagery of The Quadrangle, Banjul (on Thursday, Oct. 14, 2021 (left), and on Saturday, Jan. 9, 2021)
Donor-funded development projects pay higher salaries than the Government of the Gambia (GOTG), and sometimes provide health insurance for project staff, a facility that government officials do not enjoy. In the same vein, many development projects pay staff relatively high daily subsistence allowances (called “night allowances”) when they travel to visit project sites.
Many Gambians would thus rather spend their entire professional lives working for development projects that the GOTG. And this is not difficult to do, because projects come as they go, and people can move from project to project until they retire.
Development projects can cause and nurture corruption, especially with regards to the procurement of goods and services. By their very nature, projects are short- (under 3 years) to medium-term (3 to five years). This, coupled with the fact that projects often have tens of millions of dollars to spend, means that it is quite tempting for many to make as much money as is possible to build their houses on the back of projects that are supposed to serve poor people.
In view of the meagre salaries paid government officials, it is no wonder that projects deprive the GOTG of qualified people. Those left in government service, especially senior officials who oversee projects, often curry favors from project staff. Some, on the other hand, jockey for positions on Project Steering Committees which provide overall leadership for project implementation.
Finally, development projects often overshadow the GOTG because many projects provide more visibility to donors than the GOTG. Similarly, people who directly benefit from projects often associate these benefits (e.g. payments for attending workshops) with the project and donor agencies, and not the GOTG. It is easy to see how this can, over time, weaken government’s influence on people.
Despite all these shortcomings, development projects can and do have a positive role in our national development efforts. There is no doubt that a borehole here, and a causeway to rice fields there can impact the lives of individuals and communities. However, the problem is that the money spent seldom justifies the benefits that accrue from projects, especially when these are considered alongside some of the disadvantages outlined earlier.
The Gambia is not an island on its own. We are a part of a global community of nations which is committed to international development objectives called the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In addition, we do not have all the resources we need to develop our country. For this reason, we have no choice but to work with the international community in general, and our development partners especially, to better the lives of our people.
What we need to change, though, is the place and role of projects in our national development efforts. Development projects should support, not supplant our national development agenda, as they often do now. Toward this end, we should prepare detailed (down to project activity level) implementation plans for our National Development Plans or Programs. This way, our development partners will be presented, every five years, with a menu of interventions to choose from and implement.
Second, we should stop running projects as stand-alone entities. The practice of projects being run by relatively well-paid staff outside the regular civil service scheme should be stopped. Rather, government development projects should be run by government agencies and adequately compensated government employees. Public servants should also be weaned off their addiction to expensive vehicles, and a sensible vehicles policy and management system put in place to avoid waste of valuable resources.
Third, government should create a National Development Planning Agency (NDPA) to prepare an NDP every five years, in the first year after every presidential elections. Government should also set up an Independent National Evaluation Agency (INEA) to monitor and evaluate the implementation of our NDPs, and report on the implementation of the NDP at the end of its fifth year of implementation.
We also need a paradigm shift in our governance system. With the NDPA preparing our 5-year development plans consultatively, what we would be looking for in a President would not be so much as someone with a vision, because the aspirations of the Gambian people would have already been articulated in the NDP. What we would be looking for in a President would be someone who can implement the NDP by putting together the right team and provide strong leadership and management to mobilize resources to implement it. We would also need a President who would stand up to our development partners and tell them to either help us do what our people want or take their money somewhere else.
A mad person has been defined as someone who keeps doing the same thing over and over again, and keeps expecting different results. We can keep doing what we have been doing for the past 50 years and keep thinking it is going to make us a developed nation. Such a strategy, however, has not worked because 46 years after The Gambia was classified as a Least Developed Country, we still are on that list. The choice Gambians face is clear: we either choose to start doing things differently — or we accept that we are mad.

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