A short-term work opportunity was all it took to turn Muhamed Ceesay’s life around. Unemployed and heading into middle age, Mr Ceesay would stay awake at night fretting over how to provide an income for his family. He came close to selling his father’s land and joining the untold thousands that each year take ‘the backway’, leaving The Gambia in the hopes of finding work and opportunities in Europe. He knew the journey could cost him his life, but, back then, he saw no other option.
“I was thinking of taking the backway,” said Mr Ceesay, a 40-year-old father of five with two wives and ambitions to build a secure future for them and his ageing father. “But I was just struggling without working! A family man! I wanted to sell my family’s land and take ‘the back way’.”
The UN Capital Development Fund entered The Gambia in 2018, with the launch of The Jobs, Skills and Finance for Women and Youth in The Gambia Programme. A joint programme with the International Trade Centre and funding from the European Union, the JSF Programme sought to bring stability, jobs and prospects to the people of The Gambia, focusing on the most vulnerable: women and youth.
Gambians have been leaving the country for opportunities abroad for generations, but as legal routes and access to visas has become more difficult, ‘the back way’ has flourished. Talk to any Gambian and you’ll find that they know someone, a friend, a family member or schoolmate that took an irregular route to Europe – or died trying, like Mr Ceesay’s childhood friend Sarjoba who left Brikamaba and died in Libya while trying to reach Europe.
Brikamaba is a place where people are on the move. A trading town in the centre of the country, Brikamaba is a sprawl of low-rise buildings with a bustling central road lined with traders buying and selling, and busy with honking trucks heading for the nearby boarder with Senegal. Yet for all the movement in Brikamaba, there’s a dearth of economic opportunity that is frustrating younger generations. It’s a situation that is repeated time and again in communities across this West African country.
The Gambia is a small country of some 2.6 million people, the majority of whom are youths (under the age of 35) and without regular paid employment. After years of oppressive rule by Yahya Jammeh, a former president that regularly ‘disappeared’ opponents and critics, the country’s once burgeoning agricultural sector cannot meet national food needs and the majority of the national staple, rice, that is consumed locally, is imported. During the same period, rural development ground to a standstill – vast swathes of the country’s rural areas have never been connected to an electrical grid. Facing limited prospects at home, many young Gambians have been tempted to seek opportunities abroad.
Personal remittances from overseas make a growing contribution to family incomes, especially in rural areas, according to the Government of The Gambia, while the World Bank estimates around 26% of total GDP comes from family members sending money ‘home’. Transfers of capital in the form of remittances has increased from under US$ 50 per capita in 2002 to US$100 per capita by 2017, according to CGIAR.
“We have lost a lot of our sons and daughters [to irregular migration] – that impact is one that can never be neglected or downplayed,” said Landing B Sanneh, Chairman (Mayor) for Mansakonko Area Council in The Gambia and President of the Gambia Association of Local Government Authorities.
The JSF Programme leveraged all of UNCDF’s expertise to deliver a whole of society approach to development and address the route causes of economic migration in The Gambia, one of the world’s 46 least developed countries. Activities focused on job creation, skills development – including entrepreneurial skills – and a variety of actions to equip individuals and small businesses with access to banking and financial literacy training, often for the first time. Cross-cutting all these activities was a strong focus on resilience-building to address the impacts of climate change that are devastating the country’s fragile economy and rural livelihoods.
The Gambia’s application of the Local Climate Adaptive Living Facility for adaptation to the impacts of climate change has proved particularly successful and the government is committed to maintaining activities using the LoCAL approach, including by using limited national resources if necessary. LoCAL draws on UNCDF’s long-standing expertise in support for decentralisation and inclusive action through local government engagement and capacity building. In The Gambia, where local government authorities had been left to flounder through the Jammeh years, LoCAL has delivered results beyond its climate brief. Local government offers receive capacity building and practical experience with LoCAL that enables them to take a leading role in local development and the creation of opportunities in their communities and hopefully turn the tide on the impetus to leave via ‘the backway’.
It’s not just local government officers that have benefitted from skills development and training with LoCAL. Mr Ceesay took part in the JSF Programme when it came to Brikamaba some years ago, taking a job as a mason as part of a community construction project creating a livestock and breeding centre to improve access to affordable protein in the region and incubate small businesses. Earning some US$4 a day as a cash for work volunteer on the project, Mr Ceesay saved up enough money to provide a boost for his family and start a small business trading in school and stationery supplies on the bustling local market.
“With the money I earned through the [construction] project, half went to my family and half I invested in a stationery business,” he said, explaining that he buys materials wholesale and sells them individually with a 50% mark-up on the Saturday market. The trading provides a vital cash income to supplement his rice farm and the animals he rears on his homestead.
“My father is happy that I am not selling his land, I am now working and bringing in money for my family,” said Mr Ceesay.
“We are young, we want to work so we can stay [with our families] and not go the backway,” added Mr Ceesay. “This [JSF Programme] encouraged me to stay and learn skills and not think of going to Europe.”
Distributed by APO Group on behalf of United Nations Capital Development Fund (UNCDF).