January 20 was an important day in world history. Not because of events in Washington, DC. But because the Economic Community of West African States banded together to remove Gambian strongman Yahya Jammeh from office.
Although he had lost the Presidential election in December, Jammeh had refused to step down, and the other States in the region were having none of it. On Inauguration Day, President-elect Adama Barrow was sworn in, but for his safety, he did so at the Gambian Embassy in Dakar, Senegal. Then, after the UN Security Council gave its blessing, the Senegalese army, joined by troops from Nigeria, Ghana, and others, marched across the Gambian borders from the north, east, and south. They were met with no resistance from Gambian troops or police, and were welcomed by the few Gambians who ventured onto the street. But the end of the next day, January 20, Jammeh had agreed not only to step down, but to leave the country. He flew out on January 21, to Equatorial Guinea (selected because it does not recognize the International Criminal Court). A second plane containing Rolls
Royces, Bentleys, and other treasure left as well. Five days later, after extensive security sweeps by Senegalese troops, President Barrow returned to The Gambia.
This was a truly momentous day in African history: the democracies of a region enforcing the results of a democratic election when a strongman would not step down. How many times have we seen that before?
Hopes are high. But here is also what is certain. When President Adama Barrow walks into the State House,
The country's GDP will be $1,700 per person. which is 214th of 230 countries for which measures are reported; that's right between war-ravaged South Sudan and ebola-ravaged Sierra Leone. (Source: CIA)
Primary school attendance hovers around 63%. but is 10 % points lower in rural areas, and is just 47% among the poorest 20% of families. Nationwide, school enrollment also drops to 35% by secondary school. (Source: UNICEF)
36% of girls in the country were married by age 18, and 7% by age 15. (Source: UNICEF)
Youth unemployment approaches 40%, and under-employment is probably double that. (Source: UNDP)
The tourism industry, once 20% of the economy, and already hard-hit by the recent ebola crisis, was decimated this year by the post-electoral turmoil, which came during the peak holiday season.
So yes, hopes are sky high. But how quickly will those hopes turn to bitterness, if life on the ground does not improve? If the lessons of the last year have taught us anything, it is that living conditions of the average citizen is what ultimately determines the success or failure of a government.
What might cause things to improve? A more transparent on honest government will help. Having rule of law will certainly improve the investment climate. Ex-pats returning will also be a positive.
But short-term, what will drive economic improvement? Will Great Britain, dealing with Brexit, open its coffers? Does anyone believe that the U.S. now pledged to "America First", will open its wallet?
Let's face it, The Gambia is going to have to pull itself up by its bootstraps.
With a little help from their friends.
As a small non-profit made up of and supported by returned Peace Corps volunteers and former staff, their friends and families, and with fewer than 200 donors and an all-volunteer staff, GambiaRising has been cautious about having too-broad a mission, focusing narrowly on scholarships and in several cases, building schools in rural regions where there were no schools for students to attend. We are clearly in no position to play a big role in the economy. But from the start, we have focused on specific, tangible things that we can do, that change the lives of individual Gambian students. And for this moment, we are broadening our focus, and creating a 2017 Project Fund,
to immediately implement a series of small projects that will create jobs and have lasting benefit. Maybe not shovel-ready, but pretty close.
Our team is developing proposals, and in four weeks and I will be in The Gambia, to meet with them, with Peace Corps and perhaps with the new government to begin to implement those plans. On the agenda already are these projects:
install solar lighting in a classroom at two to five rural village schools, so that students in those villages will have a place to study after dark
build toilets for two to five rural schools that have currently have none
build teachers' housing for a rural school that has none
support an agricultural self-sufficiency program for one or more rural schools that will lose its World Food Programme-funded lunch program in 2020.
How much we can do ultimately depends, of course, on how much we can raise.
Here's the great news: to kickstart this fund, two donors have pledged to match the first $5,000 in donations we receive. So let's make sure that we take full advantage of that.
I want to stress that we are not deviating from our core mission of supporting young Gambians, especially girls, to get an education. These are long-term commitments and we must keep our promises to them. We also try very hard not to be one of those non-profits that starts asking for more right after you donate. We only campaign for funds in the Fall, at back-to-school time, when we need to know how many students we can say "Yes" to. So please consider this an exception, in exceptional times.
Let's band together at this extraordinary time, and do our part, in tangible ways, to get things moving in The [new] Gambia. Please support the GambiaRising 2017 Project Fund. Any amount helps. And the first $5,000 will be matched dollar for dollar, doubling your impact. You can donate any amount HERE.
GambiaRising Charitable Trust
1500 Park Ave., Apt PH503
Emeryville, CA 94608-3578