You may never have come across MTEF, and when I first heard it, all I could think of was MDF, that compressed board of which so many shelves and kitchen units are made. I’m a little wiser now having spent two days a couple of weeks ago observing a workshop organised by MOFEA (the Ministry of Finance and Economic Affairs – I’m beginning to learn to decipher some of these abbreviations) to educate representatives of the Department of Agriculture and the Ministry of Health about a new system of budget planning which comes into force in a couple of months time. In previous years the Budget for the Gambia has been compiled by reference to historic costs, but in future each Ministry has to put forward their budget call using MTEF – a Medium Term Expenditure Framework.

To put it simply MTEF is a planning process to produce a three year rolling budget which is updated annually, at which stage the year just ending is removed from the calculations and another third year is added to the future. Each Ministry must now prepare their own plan based on setting a series of Strategic Objectives and Sub Objectives (falling in line with previously declared government policies). Each of these then leads to a series of Activities intended to achieve the objectives, and the objectives, sub objectives and activities are then ranked in order of priority. Of course all these Activities have to be costed as accurately as possible, and each one has to be SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timely – don’t you just love these acronyms!), so decisions have also to be made on what targets are to be set for each of the three years including in the framework and what measure is to be used to gauge progress. An example in the case of our Department might be the number of hectares brought under irrigation during the period, or the number of new boreholes completed, so that part is relatively straightforward.

The most difficult part it seems to me is setting the Strategic Objectives representing broad thematic groups of programmes linked to policy which aim to deliver the Ministry’s overall goals; and the Sub Objectives representing areas of intervention. They need careful and precise drafting to cover all the main functions of the relevant Ministry yet need to be kept to a manageable number, and it was suggested to us that this should be between five and nine. Also the various different sub objectives should not overlap so this led to long discussions around the conference table.

At the end of two days our representatives had the bare bones of a plan for agriculture but there now needs to be more discussion, and a lot more flesh put on those bones before the next meeting with the Permanent Secretary – and with about 30 senior decision makers involved, it takes quite some time to achieve consensus of opinion as many different priorities are represented.

The day following this workshop was Worker’s Day and another national holiday with a kind of Sports Day in Banjul, and more celebrations at the National Stadium about fifteen minutes walk from our compound. We did talk about going to the latter to show our solidarity (!), but in the event I spent much of the day servicing my laptop which had been behaving oddly while at the MTEF workshop. For a time I wondered whether a virus had managed to evade my security measures but all seemed fine with firewall and antivirus up to date, and after much checking and housekeeping I finally decided the machine was like me – getting older and slowing down in the heat!

Another day in the office followed, but apart from my colleague Alimou and myself, and three secretaries, nobody else seemed to be present – there was another workshop being held at Somita and most of the senior staff had gone there or were out in the field, and as the report I am preparing had reached a stage where I need to consult with some of those who were absent, it had to be shelved for a few days. Fortunately we have plenty of other work to do so we fell back on our reserve activity – databases and training my colleague in the dark arts of Microsoft Access! Previously his data files were held in a number of spreadsheets but construction of a regional agricultural database should enable him to produce all sorts of reports at the push of a button and will give him more time to concentrate on his core planning function rather than having to spend hours finding and extracting facts and figures manually. So far we’ve built a basic database for staff records – and in the process I’m finding out how many staff we have, what they all do, and where they are based; and agricultural inputs – seed and fertiliser supplied to farmers through the national government or the FAO. (Even if you’re not agricultural you’ll probably still know this one – “The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations” who are heavily involved in development of the Gambia.) Last year, following a disastrous harvest in some areas in 2011, the FAO provided farmers in those areas with supplies of groundnut seed – on loan – to enable them to plant their major crop. Following harvest those loans should have been repaid, but of course, just like farmers at home many of them don’t seem to rank this particularly high on their priority list, so much of the seed loan is still outstanding! As a result our VLADP’s (Village Level Agricultural Development Promoters – i.e the staff at the sharp end) now have to chase some in their district, like a sheepdog rounding up stragglers, to ensure the books are balanced. I don’t envy them that job as apparently some of those who benefitted seem to view the seed as a gift, not a loan so I understand some of our staff are encountering a little difficulty!

While from a comfortable Western perspective it is easy to say that the seed was given as a loan and must be repaid, over here food security is a major issue and it is possible that in some cases the over-riding problem of providing sufficient food for the family to survive until next harvest means that the crop has been consumed instead. Of course, it is also entirely possible that some producers have sold the surplus viewing the bonus as a windfall from Allah……..…

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