PROGRAM FOR ACCELERATED GROWTH AND EMPLOYMENT(PAGE) , A RESOUNDING FAILURE!
The Government of The Gambia has long been claiming it is committed to reducing poverty and improving the well-being of its population. Thus the regime’s claim of being committed to its long-term strategy of Vision2020, that it had been trumpeting since 1994 though with lower amplification now as we go nearer the target date.The vision was supposed to be realized through a series of programs, Poverty Alleviation Program, Poverty Eradication Program I, Poverty Eradication Program II, which came to conclusions at the end of 2011 and its successor program, the Program for Accelerated Growth and Employment, PAGE which came to a conclusion in December 2015. But it was a conclusion that raised eyebrows among many observers. It is for the first time in more than twenty years that a three to four-year Gambian government economic program expired without its successor program being named, drafted, reviewed by stakeholders, approved and launched.
Yes, it raised eyebrows indeed, but it didn’t surprise many. The government of The Gambia had never been as internationally isolated as now. Since September 2012 when it suddenly executed twelve prisoners at the Mile Two Central Prisons outside Banjul, the government of the country, under the stranglehold of its mercurial autocrat, Yahya Jammeh, had managed to isolate himself and the country almost completely, close to a pariah status. Months before the executions Jammeh announced he was cutting ties with his friends in Taipei. Taiwan had for almost two decades held Gambia on a checkbook diplomacy-string that made the Gambian leader Taiwan’s most loyal backer in world diplomacy. Several months later, when voices were raised in the international community vehemently condemning the illegal executions, President Jammeh reacted by withdrawing Gambian membership to the Commonwealth. His rhetoric against so-called Western interference and against homosexual practice further estranged The Gambia, creating negative international publicity, severely harming the country’s tourism sector and reducing arrivals.
So at the time of its launching the Program for Accelerated Growth and Employment (PAGE) was largely left without any support from the country’s traditional donor partners and was thus left orphaned and without any support from any of the country’s traditional donors. A year earlier the Gambian mercurial leader had refused to defend his governance record in a dialogue that the European Union had tried to engage his government with. In accord with a standard part of an EU-APC protocol that The Gambia is a party to the EU sent a thirteen point query that it expected the Gambia government to reply to. Jammeh refused to answer to those questions calling the exercise a meddling into Gambia’s sovereignty and had said that the European Union, the country’s biggest donor-source, “could keep their chicken change.” Because PAGE was left orphaned and ignored by the donor partners, it went on only in name and almost totally unimplemented during its lifespan period of 2012 to 2015. When its implementation cycle was supposed to have ended in December 2015, it was accordingly marked as a non-event and there is still no talk of a successor program three months into 2016. In fact during the whole second half of 2015 the regime was engaged in a deeply unfriendly tussle with the IMF over a May 4th 2015 presidential directive that dumped the country’s traditional floating foreign currency policy to artificially appreciate the value of the dalasi against other major foreign currencies. Despite repeated and even undiplomatic IMF urgings President Jammeh refused to withdraw his directive until the middle of January 2016. By then all those foreign institutions and partners concerned about The Gambia’s economic and financial health had stopped caring. How ironic! The high-note of its launching and the muffled lassitude of its conclusion.
At the time of its launching the Jammeh-regime was running its oft-used two-tier method of dealing with the foreign donor-community: harsh words by the president but the meek, begging- bowl-in-hand method by Vice President, Isatou Njie Saidy and the rest of government officials.
While President Jammeh was denouncing the West and making it clear to them that he would not let “Gambia to be colonized twice,” his underlings at the ministry of finance and economic affairs were explaining that PAGE“ is the main interface between the
Government and The Gambia’s development partners and is fully aligned with the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and is a medium term strategic plan leading to a developed and prosperous Gambia.” They tried to reassure the partners that PAGE “will build upon the gains of the PRSP II and learn lessons from the challenges experienced therein.” Actually meaning that it is just a continuation of the series of PSRP programs that the West had supported and now assures the donors that it would be without the flaws and mistakes of the previous programs that had been source of donor irritation. “Furthermore,” ministry officials continued, “…as implied by its title, the main thrust of the PAGE is mainly to “improve – inter alia- employment levels, per capita income, social services, gender equity and The Gambia’s economic competitiveness,” as donor experts had always been saying, they mean. As a balancing act, so as not to provoke Jammeh’s manic wrath they would add in a touch of his style, “It is our fervent desire to work collectively as proud Gambians and responsible members of the human family to achieve these development goals through honesty, patriotism, self -reliance and a strong divine faith.”
The launching document of 2012 read: “We therefore envisage that by the end of 2015, the gains accrued from our noble efforts will serve as a springboard for The Gambia’s “take-off” into a prosperous post MDGs era guaranteeing prosperity for all.” In fact by the end of 2014, the mercurial President Jammeh, who is the sole policy-maker, and lacks the mental stability needed for sustaining even medium term plans, had started to forget all about PAGE and was conjuring up another vision, Vision 2016, which was to make The Gambia self-sufficient in rice and even all other agricultural products by the end of 2016, a vision more rooted in the world of dreams than in the real world.
The prospect of the real world of almost all Gambians is far from the fancy world of their mercurial leader. More and more Gambians are finding it hard to make ends meet for self and families. Unemployment is over 65% of those able and willing to work and is growing daily. Agriculture is being ruined forcing many who used to be active in that sector now fleeing to the urban and peri-urban areas. Many come over together with draught animals they had before used for farming. Instead of being used to till the land, donkeys and mules, and helped congest the traffic in the urban centers carrying cement, household goods and garbage. The last trade and marketing season for groundnuts was actually a non-event and the state-owned buyer of the nuts, the biggest, was able to so far buy only about 12 000 tons instead of the more than 100 000 tons earlier envisaged. Nobody who works in the sector can tell you why it went that way. True, the erratic rains, last year, reduced the size of the national farmers’ crop, but everyone expected that the GGC would be able to buy at least 40 000 tons. But Jammeh helped destabilized the leadership of the state-owned corporation by suddenly expanding their mandate into the fish and other food items when they were the least ready for it. After having cut the state’s partnership with the association of private stakeholders in groundnut marketing without coming up with any suitable substitute. Without such substitute and the minister of Agriculture under detention of the heavy weight of one-man rule, President Jammeh must have forgotten to announce the announcement of the official price for the nuts and the date for starting the marketing season. The official minimum prices for nuts and the dates for starting and closing the marketing season, are always, as most other things decided by the one-man ruler but passed through the ministry of Agriculture the first week of December but this one was not announced till 17th January. Gambian groundnut cultivators, almost all of them almost always cash-broke must have taken their nuts across the border to Senegal.
This was what hit the groundnut sector, but similar mishaps hit all the other sectors of the Gambian economy be it the tourism, construction, trade and commerce, fisheries, horticulture, banking and foreign exchange, haulage, petty trade in and outside markets, you name it. But it was not only these sectors.
The Government’s revenue outturn weakened during the first half of 2015, resulting in a higher than budgeted deficit in the basic fiscal balance (by 0.5% of GDP). Revenues from fuel and company income taxes were particularly hard hit. Expenditures were prioritized according to a 3-tier system; included in the highest priority expenditures were non-discretionary and most PAGE expenditures. Fiscal policy for 2015 was anchored in achieving a significant reduction in domestic debt relative to GDP this failed dismally. It was envisaged that net domestic financing would be reduced to near zero in 2015 and beyond, which would allow the stock of debt to fall relative to GDP, this failed woefully as admitted by the minister of Finance. The current account deficit (including official transfers) is estimated to have declined to 15 per cent of GDP in 2015.
FDI declined by an estimated 16 per cent in 2015 due many self-inflicted wounds caused by the mercurial autocrat of a national leader. To put it briefly, Gambians had it less difficult in making ends meet in 2011, before PAGE was launched, than in December 2015, at the supposed conclusion of the so called program. Growth is now negated instead of being accelerated, unemployment and underemployment is more now than it was in 2011, PAGE was not only orphaned it is without a successor program. So it can be said, PAGE was a resounding failure.