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Blast from the past - The Gambia and I

27 January 2017 Author: Richard Blyth

The Gambia #1

One of the smallest countries in the world has been in the news a lot lately because it (appears now) to have undergone its first ever democratic peaceful transfer of power in its 50-year history. I am talking about The Gambia where, following winning a presidential election last month and a tense period of stand-off, President Adama Barrow has just returned to the country to take over State House from the former president Yahya Jammeh.

Places such as Farafenni, Barra and Banjul are now briefly world news entries. This is fascinating to me because I spent two of my immediately pre-Chartership years of work in Farafenni and Banjul. This was also where I was, staying in a Muslim country, when Operation Desert Storm began, roughly 26 years ago this month.

How did this come about? Having studied Planning in Developing Countries at planning school in Liverpool, and worked in England for three years, I was keen to see for myself how planning works in Africa.

Working in another country helps you to build your confidence, broaden your knowledge, and find other solutions to common issues. It also helps you become a better problem-solver and establish more international relationships and connections.

Besides climate change, many countries in Africa face challenges such as rapid urbanisation and population growth, scare resources, extreme poverty and inequality. In addition, many planning systems are outdated or inappropriate and have not adequately planned for example for rapidly expanding urban populations, resulting in many expanding informal settlements.

However, during the past decade or more this has been changing with new, more local African planning systems now emerging such as integrated development planning. But as was the case when I worked in The Gambia over 20 years ago, there is still a severe lack of professionally trained planners and adequately resourced professional institutes.

Working in another country helps you to build your confidence, broaden your knowledge, and find other solutions to common issues. It also helps you become a better problem-solver and establish more international relationships and connections.

VSO, one of the world's leading independent international development organisations offering volunteers the chance to work in countries to help alleviate poverty, arranged a posting for me with the Government of The Gambia. This was part of their drive to establish planning departments outside the capital in the three provincial towns which were the fastest growing settlements in the country at the time. This involved working with two excellent national counterparts who had completed an outstanding post O-Level (post-GSCE) training course organised by German aid and who were now working in the provincial town of Farafenni.

I had the most amazing two years there, learning loads about a different culture. However (as I wrote at the time for The Planner magazine), one of the interesting things about it was that despite very different outward conditions, the challenges faced by professional planners were strikingly similar to those in the UK: silo thinking in the government, very high degrees of centralisation and lack of resources (especially when compared to other parts of the public sector), and so on. What was also similar was despite this, there was a high degree of professional commitment and enthusiasm.

I wish all the professional planners of The Gambia very well under the new presidency.

VSO still occasionally posts planners to other countries – see: https://www.vsointernational.org/

The RTPI is developing a Guide to Working Internationally and our website has further information on volunteering at: http://bit.ly/1MRv7Ve

Richard Blyth

Richard Blyth

Head of Policy, Practice and Research, RTPI - @RichardBlyth7