THE GAMBIA: On the road to Vision 2020
Thomas Cromwell

Sam Vaknin

Surrounded by Senegal except for about 80 kilometers of coast on the Atlantic Ocean, The Gambia penetrates the African continent for approximately 200 miles like a narrow finger, following the path of the Gambia River. Since gaining independence from Britain in 1965, The Gambia has made several starts at finding a successful path towards national development, including for a while as the smaller partner in Senegambia. Now, with such experiments behind it, The Gambia is moving forward at a steady pace of development.

In 1995 the government rolled out Vision 2020, an ambitious 25-year plan to move from a low income to a middle income country. Diplomatic Traffic had the opportunity to speak with Ambassador Dodou Bammy Jagne, The Gambia's envoy to Washington, to discuss his country's development agenda and its success in implementing Vision 2020.

"Vision 2020 is the overarching philosophy for growth," the ambassador explained. To achieve it, there are the building blocks such as a poverty reduction strategy, export development, and direct investment."

The Gambia's poverty reduction strategy is a medium-term development blueprint and is supported by the World Bank, the IMF and bilateral donors, he said. The strategy aims to address the different ways in which poverty manifests itself: lack of food, shelter, education and health care. "With respect to health and education there is tremendous progress," he said.

As an example of progress, Ambassador Jagne mentioned a special program to keep girls in school. "That not only means that there is a higher enrollment ratio, but also a higher completion ratio," he said. He also pointed to a dramatic increase in education infrastructure. "More schools have been built in the last ten years than in the previous 30 years," he said.

The ambassador said his government has made significant progress in health care. Additional health infrastructure has provided people greater access to primary health care across the country, he noted. "Before 1994 we had only one referral hospital in Banjul, which was a colonial legacy," he said. "So if people were critically ill in upcountry villages they [might] not make it to Banjul because of road conditions." Additional hospitals have been built in strategic locations across the country to give upcountry communities easier and quicker access to health care, he explained. "Now even people from neighboring countries come to those facilities for treatment."

To generate additional trade and investment The Gambia is implementing a Gateway initiative to increase business with the United States, he said.

The airport has been designated as a free zone area and the sea port will soon be designated as an export processing zone, he explained. Near the airport The Gambia is also establishing teleport facilities, owned by the Gambia Telecommunications Company, for mass data transfer. "We are hoping that this will provide an attraction for investors," he said.

To facilitate trade and investment, The Gambia Investment Promotion and Free Zone Agency (GIPFZA) was established by an act of parliament. It provides a one-stop-shop to facilitate business registration, ambassador Jagne said. "Through GIPFZA [business registration] can be achieved in less than a week," he said. "We hope once investors start exploiting the incentives it will accelerate growth as well."

The ambassador ticked off reasons why foreign investors should feel comfortable putting money into business in his country. The Gambia is a member of the Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency (World Bank Group), the International Center for Investment Disputes, and the World Bank. It has an agreement with the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC). Banjul imposes no restrictions on the inflow or outflow of profits or assets, it does not limit foreign ownership and it does not oblige investors to work with Gambians.

Tourism, horticulture, telecommunications and airlines are particularly interesting areas for investment, he said.

The government is also proceeding with partial privatization by divesting from non-core activities of state-owned enterprises, he said. Although he said government policy was "more interested in public-private partnership and not just privatization."

The caution stems from a negative African experience with privatization in the early 1990s, the ambassador explained. "So-called investors would buy out enterprises, run them down and then leave," he explained. According to the ambassador, unscrupulous investors would start with massive layoffs for an immediate windfall, and then proceed to run down the assets to take advantage of tax concessions. "In our own particular case, all the major enterprises that had been privatized failed eventually," In the new model, "State ownership is broadened so the risk of running down the assets is minimized," he noted.

Several airlines are looking at The Gambia as a possible hub, the ambassador said, because of the country's strategic location at the Western edge of Africa. "As we speak, [an official from an airline] is in The Gambia finalizing an agreement," he said.

Trade development is another area of interest to The Gambia, the ambassador emphasized. He noted a flight time of only 6 hours to the United States, one of the shortest from sub-Saharan Africa.

Key products for export include organic produce and fisheries. "Americans are particular about what they consume, and produce from The Gambia is free of chemicals, fertilizers and pesticides," Ambassador Jagne said. "Organic foods are a way of life for us. . . . We think that is an area that has a huge potential that has yet to be exploited." As a coastal country, The Gambia has a rich marine life and fisheries. And it has refused to sign a fisheries agreement with the European Union to avoid depleting its fish stock.

Although The Gambia has a sound relationship with the United States, two of Washington's main sources of development support have not yet been of particular benefit to the country.

According to the ambassador, because The Gambia only recently became eligible for AGOA (Africa Growth and Opportunity Act) preferences, it has not yet benefited very much from the agreement. "We are not a textile country and we have not yet made attempts to attract textile companies that are looking to relocate," he said. "In other areas of general trade there are some benefits, but it is minimal."

The Gambia's attempts to qualify for the Millennium Challenge have been a disappointing experience, the ambassador said. The country did not qualify for either 2004 or 2005.

However, Ambassador Jagne vigorously defends his country's qualifications, pointing out that according to the World Economic Forum The Gambia has ranked in the top five least corrupt countries in Africa. "But that is not the ranking we have enjoyed with the Millennium Challenge Corporation," he lamented.

According to the World Economic Forum's 2004 Growth Competitiveness Index, The Gambia ranked number six in Africa, ahead of Morocco, Ghana and Kenya, among others, and ranked number five in the Macroeconomic Environment Index, behind Botswana, Tunisia, South Africa and Morocco.

In the WEF 2003 Public Institutions Index it ranked number three, ahead of South Africa, and in the important Corruption Subindex it ranked number five.

"We know countries that [are eligible for Millennium Challenge Account assistance] rank behind Gambia in these rankings," the ambassador said. "I do not understand with all those good points that we are not able to make the MCC."

Difficulties getting accurate data might be one source of the problem, the ambassador suggested. "They are using old information," he said, speaking of officials with the MCC. "I do not want to talk them down, but I believe that there are technical difficulties."

He suggested that the MCC should consider using World Bank data, which is generally considered objective. "We think that in terms of experience the World Bank is most eminently qualified to talk about any, particularly African, countries with respect to all the data they would need," he said. He expressed doubt about the reliability of some data sources used by the MCC. "I have seen some of the sources they use, like The Heritage Foundation and other groups. These groups perhaps have their own networks in The Gambia and other places, but how authoritative can they be on country issues," he asked? "They obviously need to gather experience as they go along," he quipped.

Ambassador Jagne also suggested that the U.S. administration should stay close to the whole West Africa sub-region and stay engaged. "When you are engaged it helps prevent problems in the first place, not to come after the fact when [intervention] takes more effort, lasts longer and costs more," he said. "Engagement helps these countries develop their ability to fight terrorism. It also helps avoid conflicts and displacements."

"I know that American intelligence believes that the sub-region will be in conflict for the next 20 years," he said. "So I ask, knowing that: 'What are you doing in an impactful way to shorten that, to avoid loss of life and property, displacements and making sure that aid and assistance will go to more meaningful uses?"'

"I am looking for some leapfrogging measures; much greater involvement and engagement," he emphasized. "So, yes, there is a significant initial investment that America has to make."