The Gambian business community is a leading responder and advocate for public health during the COVID-19 pandemic. In March of 2020, the Gambia Chamber of Commerce and Industry (GCCI) organized a telethon to mobilize businesses across the country to donate funds for COVID relief efforts led by the private sector. The project raised 15 million dalasi ($300,000) in pledges to fund direct health assistance to Gambian communities, a public health awareness campaign, and the renovation of a forty-bed treatment ward for critical COVID patients.
Such civic engagement is not new for the Gambian business community. When former Gambian President Yahya Jammeh refused to honor the results of the 2016 election, GCCI chose to speak up, calling for the President to step down after 22 years in power. Following the democratic transition, GCCI led the way to establish the country’s first National Business Council, an institution that formalizes the process of economic dialogue, transparency, and accountability.
The Beginnings of a Public-Private Collaboration
A strong business council at the national level, with representation from the private sector and the government, systematizes a process for private sector input on policy and makes political participation more accessible to the business community. National business councils seek to establish relationships among private sector leaders at all levels, as well as between the private sector and government stakeholders. They can bring important on-the-ground perspectives from small- and medium-business owners to the table. National business councils also serve as an institutional pathway for the daily concerns of business owners to inform economic policy and reform at the highest levels of government.
“This is the first time that the Gambia has had a mandated body that brings together senior members of the government and a more or less representative group of private sector people to talk about policy in a way that is not differential, that’s about a group of people seeing eye-to-eye.”
In the months following the democratic transition, GCCI partnered with the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE) to develop and codify a plan for the management of a National Business Council (NBC), a platform for collaboration and exchange between the Gambian government and members of the business community. With support from Vice President Isatou Touray, then the Minister of Trade and now the government’s official champion of the Council, the team developed a memorandum of understanding to outline the institutional structure and responsibilities of the council in line with international best practices. The Council is structured to include the President and five ministers of the government as well as the president of GCCI and seven representatives from the business community. On January 9, 2019, former Vice President of the Gambia Ousainou ANM Darboe and former GCCI president Muhammad Jagana signed the memorandum at a ceremony officiated by President Barrow, and the Gambian National Business Council was established.
Government and Business: People Seeing Eye to Eye
The Gambian National Business Council provides a unique, representative form for dialogue between private sector representatives and government ministers. Two of the eight private sector members of the NBC represent SMEs, and the group is also inclusive of women entrepreneurs, young entrepreneurs, and Gambia’s main industries. Currently chaired by Gambian President Adama Barrow, the Council holds a strong potential to bring relevant information for inclusive and effective development to the forefront of policymaking.
Sarata Conateh, GCCI’s Director of Business Development, says that representative, diverse public-private dialogue is key to opening the business environment to revitalize the Gambian economy. “Through the NBC,” Conateh says, “we were able to select, in an objective manner, members that spoke for everybody within the community.”
Under Jammeh’s twenty-two years of authoritarian rule, the business environment in the Gambia had become largely defined by his administration. “This is the first time that the Gambia has had a mandated body that brings together senior members of the government and a more or less representative group of private sector people to talk about policy in a way that is not differential, that’s about a group of people seeing eye-to-eye,” says Toni Weis, the former CIPE Program Officer who initiated the partnership with GCCI that led to the establishment of the NBC.
“If you have a democratic transition in a country where the private sector has been organized around one person,” says Weis, “you need to break up those networks and replace them with the people who actually want to do business and invest in the country.” Weis describes the partnership as an important tool for economic policy decisions informed by the real concerns of the business owners who experience the effects of those policies firsthand.
“We can do wonders in the community.”
Gambian Vice President Isatou Touray has taken on the role of Champion of the NBC, an official appointment made at the Council’s December 2019 meeting. She recognizes that there have been barriers to moving the Council’s mission forward in the year since its founding, including inadequate urgency and responsiveness from the side of the government. “The government is still recovering from the 22 years of social and economic failures of the previous government,” she said, “but we are committed to work with the private sector in pursuing the reforms necessary for a functional business environment.”
In December of 2019, the NBC introduced a task force to implement reforms targeted to improve the Gambia’s Ease of Doing Business (EODB) score, as measured annually by the World Bank. This approach centers on increasing efficiency and transparency in the processes of registering and managing businesses, informed by the on-the-ground experience brought to the table by the Council’s private sector representatives. The priority reform areas were initially identified as part of a reform agenda process informed by a series of focus groups with over a hundred businesses in four regions in Banjul and Basse, as well as an additional survey of 164 GCCI member businesses throughout the Gambia. During this process, GCCI identified the energy sector and tax system, areas for reform. Through the production of the EODB report, which built on this research and the EODB’s indicators, GCCI created an evidence-based, measurable list of areas for collaboration between the private sector and the government to improve the business environment in the Gambia.
Oumie Sise-Sallah, an entrepreneur in the tourism industry and a member of the NBC since its founding, notes that the business community is looking to the government to “start from the basics and improve on the little things” to lay the foundation for major improvements to the country’s business environment. “If the government is committed,” she says, “we can do wonders in the community.”
As the public and private sector face the challenges of supporting the Gambia through the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic effects, as well as the ordinary day-to-day work of building the new Gambia, the NBC is poised to be a key tool for moving forward with a broad and democratic perspective informing a strong team of engaged public servants and citizens alike.