OPINION: Development is People

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Arecent news report indicates that The Gambia government has just secured a $50 million grant from the Chinese government to build an international conference center. The question that immediately came to mind was who suggested the nature of the project for which this money will be spent? Did the Gambia government ask for $50 million dollars to build a conference center? Or was the project suggested and funded by the Chinese government? The underlying rationale for my question is whether this money could not be better used funding the education or training of Gambian youths in skills that would bring prosperity to themselves, their families and our country.

Surely, a conference center is important. But it is certainly not Gambia’s most urgent need at the moment. It is true that the center will provide employment for some Gambians and that it could serve as a tourist attraction. However, I think if the Barrow administration has any say in the matter, they should indicate that while important, building an international conference center is not one of our top priorities at the moment and that the grant money could be more usefully spent on other areas, especially on the education and training of young Gambians. In the New Gambia we need our governments both present and future to be more discerning about our national priorities and avoid spending scarce resources on projects that, while important, will only add to our national expenses. Once this conference hall is built, it becomes another expensive structure to maintain and will hardly generate any significant revenue for the country. 

On the other hand, let us consider how many full five-year scholarships even $10 million can pay for Gambian students in any university, especially the UTG? Just $10 million can transform the lives of hundreds of Gambian citizens and their families. Should our government therefore spend all $50 million on a building rather than use it to build Gambian lives? Can another $10 million not be spent on improving facilities at the University of The Gambia, buying adequate furniture, or equipping university classrooms with overhead projectors and labs and computer rooms with state of the art technology that will facilitate research and learning of the highest order? How about yet another $10 million dollars on the procurement of vital medical equipment, beds, and drugs for our hospitals and health centers? That would still leave $20 million dollars which is enough to build a decent conference center worthy of The Gambia. With all due respect, one cannot help but argue that spending $50 million on building an international conference center in The Gambia is unjustifiably wasteful.

We do not doubt the Barrow administration’s good intentions. But good intentions must be backed by good thinking and planning. We suggest that at this crucial and potential-rich moment of our national history, there is an urgent need for more discerning consideration of our national priorities. Things have been done this way since independence and we have not seen much improvement in terms of general development of and for the Gambian people. There is a need to start thinking of new and more creative ways of going about achieving our national development objectives. Old ways of doing things have proven infective and if the Barrow administration or any future Gambian government does not take the time to carefully think about our national order of priorities and how to do things better, they will not be able to leave much of a mark in terms of developmental achievements.

The key point we want to make here is that development is about people. While building expensive infrastructure will give our country some semblance of modernity, developing the human person through effective education and training will yield more significant results for our national economy and community. Investing in people is the key to African development and so far, African governments have not given this crucially important issue the attention it deserves. Who knows how many hundreds of millions of dollars in development aid have gone down the drain in our small Gambia alone since independence? And what do we have to show for it? The reason for this is not hard to find. It is simply that hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on the wrong projects rather than on developing our precious human resources.  Development and prosperity have been elusive for our country because hundreds of millions of dollars are invested in projects that cannot bring about development and prosperity but take away from the meager resources we have. It is way past time to rethink our national developmental priorities which demand that we put the human person at the front and center of public investment.

It is safe to assume that a Chinese company will be given the contract to build the $50 million international conference center from the Chinese grant money. This means that while we will end up with a beautiful structure, the immediate fruits of the grant money will benefit the Chinese economy and Chinese nationals more than it will benefit the Gambian economy and Gambian nationals. Needless to say, the project will create employment for many Gambians during the construction phase, and it will continue to provide a few jobs here and there afterwards. But these benefits are nothing compared to what hundreds of scholarships for Gambian students will yield. Why not consider sending at least 20 Gambian students to China or a country of China’s choice for training using at least a million dollars of this grant money? Chinese institutions will still benefit but the benefits for us will be more tangible and long-lasting. Yes, the Chinese government is giving some Gambian students scholarships and the conference project might be a tourist attraction. Still, just one million dollars set aside for more scholarships for Gambian students will be extremely useful to our country in the short, medium and long term. Again, suffice it to say that development is about people and the more we invest in our people, the closer we will get to whatever developmental goals we seek.

At this moment in our history, there is an abundance of international goodwill for the New Gambia. The Barrow administration is in a position to benefit from hundreds of millions of dollars in loans or grants from well-meaning members of the international community. However, it will be helpful for the Gambia government to pause and reconsider how best these monies may be invested for the direct improvement of the lives of the Gambia people. In particular, the government should try to make it possible for a part of every single aid package to be invested directly on the education and training of Gambian citizens, and on other projects that directly impact the lives of Gambian citizens. Develop the people and the people will develop their country.

Author: Baba Galleh Jallow
Source: Picture: Baba Galleh Jallow