The Gambia National Think Tank (TT): Formation, Gaps and the Propositions

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Preamble: According to literature, Think Tanks exist across the globe and are presented in variant forms and shapes. Although government type Think tanks are common, generally TTs emerge spontaneously and often outside government establishments and without government influence or protection. Even if they are within government calls, they are assigned specific tasks in non conflicting roles and their establishment supported by law. Government TTs are often reactive in nature but in the long run become institutionalised drawing on meager government resources after assuming legitimacy.

Question: What were the triggers for setting up the Gambia National Think Tank and under what law/s was it established?

It is not in doubt that even after 5 months of its conception, there is still NO Terms of Reference (TOR) to provide an operational guide and direction for the Think Tankers. As is characteristic of most Gambians, we have already begun measuring the Think tankers against the expected tasks without confirming what their job entails as a body. Of course there are a few who have started asking the fundament questions vis-à-vis what this group should deliver in the interest of the wider (Gambian) society. I’m sure most of us were bewildered and carried by the list of people that constituted the group especially names that were preceded by DR (Doctor) lined up at the top of the listing (Page 2, The Voice of Friday 30th July 2017). We have high regard for these people and the entire group and I am sure they are also asking – “what are people’s expectations of us and how do we respond…”

The same release dotted… “The Think Tank is aimed at facilitating the formulation and national knowledge development processes of the National Development Plan (NDP) which will cover the period 2017 – 2019 (I assume this is the duration for the Barrow and coalition administration)…” and continued with a list of areas for the group’s engagement during this period. Perhaps this list was provided by the group to the paper during their inauguration. This list more or less covers all the sectors and units that the government currently administers and under the guardianship of an established and comprehensive civil service recognised by law (a Constitutional Provision, Chapter XI, and Sections 166-171). Without a clear TOR delineating the two functions, I would conclude that the job of the two certainly will overlap and may become tricky for the newly established TT without a legal anchor. If it persists to exist, I see the TT becoming another Senior Management Team (SMT) within the Civil Service establishment illegitimately. All the ministries have departments/units and the requisite management structures, planning units responsible for research; and what about the Gambia Bureau of Statistics (GBoS)…? – do we want to make these institutions and departments redundant and pay them for opening their offices in the morning and locking them in the afternoon. Obviously, I think government cannot afford this cost and should not. I don’t think we lack data in the country, the problem is with utilisation and how we develop the culture of making data the basis for development planning.

Another conflicting area for this group is their role in advising government in policy areas intimated in Fatoumata Tambajang’s speech during the inauguration. This function is the responsibility of cabinet, the collective of ministers and as provided by law. Each minister gathers such information from her/his team – the permanent secretaries and their staff with the requisite skills sets. Who is better positioned to provide such data and information than these legally established ministries. Are we confused? Also she said the TT will validate the three year national development plan. The plan is a national document and the validation should be a national responsibility and this raises the issues of inclusion and exclusion errors in our planning process.

The Finance Minister, Amadou Sanneh has just presented the revised 2017 budget estimates (showing a declining trend) and the impacts on certain sectors. Development is holistic and integrated. We must not therefore, focus our attention on certain issues no matter how much they appeal to us and forget other areas needed to support the particular issue.

It is my view that Barrow and the coalition government cannot afford creating new structures that will add new demands and put undue pressure on the already dwindling and overstretched budget. Remember, while there is no free money/budget, there is also no free service. The people identified for this function will have to be compensated as they have responsibilities like any other Gambian. If they say they will provide their services for free, I am saying that is flawed and is untenable.

The focus should be on the reforms Barrow promised to undertake soon after his election. And in this case the reform of the civil service – make it better (streamline & save budget), motivated (pay them well and create new opportunities), efficient (capable & professional) and competitive (establish a right choice supermarket) etc. Of course we should not forget the other reform areas – constitutional reform (all encompassing and not piecemeal), institutional reform, judicial reform and overall systems reform (e.g. tax/revenue), etc. This must be conducted by people or bodies independent of the office holders of the various entities. Hence the urgent need for establishing the relevant commissions, committees or task forces as appropriate.

Agenda setting: The launching of the Gambia National Think Tank was held under the theme: “Promoting Nationally Driven Development agenda through Democracy, Good Governance and Rule of Law” could be seen to be timely. At least it is a new agenda for the Barrow administration and perhaps considered in light of its ability to appeal to donors especially the World Bank and International Monetary. However, on reflection I know this is an old agenda and we have created a new “jar” to pour in fresh water. This agenda was in response to Aid Effectiveness and Paris Agenda for development (2005) implementation evaluated, The HIPIC initiative and the construction of the PRSPs with the bank and Fund, even the participatory processes introduced in the 80s/90s aimed at community driven national development plans etc, etc. Or do we want bring back the national planning commission? These are centrally planning processes and rarely impact the periphery and the poor.

Participation and Transparency are key principles of good governance and democracy….

Question 1: How much consultation (spread and depth) was done on the National Think Tank before its actual launch…?

Question 2: The location of the group is still hanging as the office of vice president continues to be vacant without a post holder. Where will this Think Tank be located ultimately and appropriately….? The group needs to be connected if it is an imperative structure for our development process.

I will pause here for now and only engage this issue if it becomes absolutely necessary…