Empty beaches, empty pockets

Empty beaches, empty pockets - the impact of COVID in The Gambia.

The global tourism sector has been hit hard by COVID, standing to lose an estimated $3.3 trillion from the restrictions imposed by the pandemic. For countries like the Gambia, where tourism counts for 20% of their GDP, the effects are felt even more harshly, putting huge numbers of Gambians automatically out of work with no clear indication of return. The sudden standstill has emphasised, firstly, how much the Gambia depends on consistent tourism to bolster their economy, and secondly, the lack of security net for the thousands of individuals who make up the tourism supply chain.

A recently published report by the International Labour Organisation suggests that one positive is that the pandemic presents a unique opportunity to facilitate a period of transition,  from the informal economy of the tourism sector to a more formal system. Workers in hotels and other tourist businesses are often employed on a casual basis, working very long hours for modest pay checks. While implementing national laws and regulations to protect workers is of course valuable in the long-term, in the Gambia, with over 48% of people living in poverty, at the moment people are simply desperate for any work that will put food on the table.

"Throughout my business life, this is the darkest time I can remember."

– Lamin Jawala, Hotel Manager, Rainbow Beach Resort

Community value of tourism

Despite the Gambia being the smallest country on the African continent, its white sand beaches and diverse wildlife makes it a top tourist destination for sun seekers from all over the world. To serve the swathes of tourists, resorts, hotels and thousands of small businesses provide employment to nearly 1 in 5 Gambians. In the Sanyang Paradise beach area, Lamin Jawala, 52, works as the manager of the Rainbow Beach Resort. During peak season, when the resort is bustling with tourists, Lamin can earn up to $3,000 a month. Now, the resort is deserted, Lamin is surviving on overdrafts and his staff are suffering without wages. With a return to normalcy still a way off, Lamin’s mental health is deteriorating, he comments ‘this is the darkest time I can remember throughout my entire business’.

Lamin’s growing anxiety is understandable. As the manager of a resort like Rainbow Beach, he is responsible for many people’s livelihoods in the area. Along the Gambia’s coastline, resorts are at the epicentre of communities, providing income not just to resort staff, but to the tourism supply chain as a whole. For example, taxi drivers ferry guests to and from the airport, beach boys serve drinks to thirsty guests from stalls, and many small shops make a living selling souvenirs. Without the resort providing guests to the area, everyone’s incomes are compromised.

Lamin Jawala, manager of Rainbow Beach Resort.

Gambia’s struggling economy

COVID has certainly escalated the unstable economic situation in the Gambia, however, things were far from rosy before the pandemic hit. In December 2019, a boat headed for Europe capsized, resulting in the death of 62 Gambians. Those who lost their lives were just some of the thousands of Gambians who are willing to risk the arduous journey to Europe, in the hope of finding more prosperous opportunities. With youth unemployment in the Gambia above 40%, and the cost of living having skyrocketed in recent years, it’s not surprising that many are opting to up sticks, however dangerous the journey may be.

The tourism industry has also suffered a number of setbacks in recent years. The Ebola outbreak, the collapse of Thomas Cook and the political unrest have all had an impact. Additionally, the Gambia now operates on a seasonal system, with tourists predominately being served from a select few operators that sell winter-sun holidays. This dramatically limits the earning potential of businesses outside of peak season, keeping tourism staff on low wages. Ousman Bojang, 41, has worked in the tourism industry for 14 years, currently employed at the African Princess hotel in Banjul as senior waiter. Before COVID stripped him of his wages entirely, Ousman was earning just $100 per month, with 40% of his income going towards supporting family members in his home village in Jinak. Ousman’ situation is not uncommon in the Gambia, making the impact of COVID even tougher. Despite Ousman’s meagre salary in Banjul, it is preferable to agricultural work in his village, where Ousman has been forced to move back to whilst he waits out the pandemic. Ousman comments, “the whole pandemic has made me feel frustrated and hopeless”.

Rainbow Beach Resort’s empty reception area.

No safety net

With the tourist sector now on its knees, both business owners and workers are desperate for the Gambian government to offer some support. Lamin at Rainbow Beach states “We are not approached by the government during this trying time. We are the most affected and I want the government to talk to us. At least if they can talk to us, that will give us hope.” So far, the government has not been forthcoming with any support mechanisms. Frustratingly for Lamin and others, on June 10th the government announced that lockdown was to be extended for a further 21 days, making the hope of international tourism returning to the Gambia anytime soon unlikely.

Across the African continent as a whole, the pandemic has exposed the lack of social security mechanisms in place for citizens. The reality is that countries like the Gambia do not have the funds available to support the thousands of citizens now out of work. In March, the World Economic Forum urged central banks to initiate a system of re-circulating money back to developing countries via a process of quantitative easing – buying countries debt. Unfortunately, this has not happened. Cash Transfer schemes do offer some relief, however, such schemes are often targeted at specific groups, for example in the Gambia the scheme is aimed at single mothers, making it irrelevant to people like Lamin and Ousman. Clearly, more needs to be done to support developing countries through the pandemic, both by their governments and the wider global community.

Deserted stalls on the beach in Sanyang Paradise.

Is sustainable tourism the answer?

In many countries, there have been some positive environmental impacts  from the pandemic keeping tourists away. For example, the transformation of Venice’s canals from murky to clear has been widely reported on. In Africa however, the impact of no tourism on the environment is more complicated. In recent years, eco-tourism has transformed the nature of conservation in Africa, engaging communities in conservation and channelling resources from wealthier countries to support conservation efforts. Tourism still poses challenges to the environment, such as the carbon emissions from international travel and simply too many tourists, but without it, conservation areas risk becoming another casualty of the pandemic.

The Minister of Tourism and Culture has declared that the Gambia plans to use this opportunity to develop a more sustainable approach to tourism. In February 2020, the Ninki Nanka Trail was set up to help expand the tourist track out to more rural areas, creating community-based tourism and extending the peak season. There are also plans to develop regional and domestic tourism to try and alleviate the reliance on international visitors. These plans may be well intentioned, but in the short-term individuals like Lamin and Ousman are struggling to survive. Lamin is also fearful of what effect unemployment will have on the youth, who may be forced into more nefarious means of making money without steady employment. Whether considering the impacts on businesses, individuals or the environment, the fallout from the rapid decline of the tourism industry in the Gambia is likely to be far reaching.


Living without water

A people pushed to breaking point: living without water in the West Bank.

On the brink of survival

In Area C of the West Bank, Occupied Palestinian Territories, Israeli and Palestinian communities are living distinctly different realities. Area C covers 61% of the West Bank and is under near full control of the Israeli authorities, affecting 300,000 Palestinians access to water. Sitting within the Jordan Valley, the land in Area C is rich and fertile, fed from underground aquifers. Whilst Israeli settlers are able to exploit all of the potential of the land, maintaining vast and lucrative agricultural businesses, Palestinian communities are living in a state of permanent poverty.

The settlements in Area C are deemed illegal by international law, however, Israel’s de facto control of the area has enabled them to develop an extensive water infrastructure. Their state-owned water company, Mekerot, provides the settlements with thousands of litres of water daily. In contrast, the Israeli authorities restrict Palestinian’s access to water, forcing them to either purchase water from trucks at a much higher price, or resort to more clandestine methods of water collection. After decades of resilience by Palestinian farmers in Area C, life is about to get even harder. Israel has recently announced they will be moving forward with plans to annex large sections of the West Bank, meaning that they will formally claim the land as part of the state of Israel. Alongside the potential for this igniting a considerable escalation in conflict, the ability of Palestinian communities to continue to resist the occupation is in serious doubt.

“The Palestinian is targeted through water, which is the pillar of life and he will stay here resisting until the last drop.”

– Abu Saqer.

A history of division

The current situation is as a result of over 50 years of land seizures in the West Bank by Israel. Since 1967, Israeli policy has been to occupy land by building settlements. It is estimated that between 600,000 – 750,000 Jewish Israeli’s now live in settlements across the West Bank and East Jerusalem. In the early 1990’s, the Oslo Accords divided the West Bank into three areas, A, B and C. The majority of Palestinians live crowded into areas A and B, however, it is within the largest section, Area C, where most of the water resources and fertile land exists, and therefore where the majority of Israeli settlements are. The control of Area C was supposed to be handed over to the Palestinian Authority in 1999, as per the Oslo Accords, however this failed to happen, leaving Israel in full military control of the area.

In the present day, Israeli settlements and Palestinian communities sit side by side, sharing the same stretch of land, yet their experiences are entirely disparate. Israel wields its control of the area in unconcealed favour of the settlers, and at the detriment of Palestinian communities, severely limiting their access to water and therefore their ability to build infrastructure. Abu Saqer, a Palestinian from the Al Hadiddya community, comes from a long line of farmers who have called Area C of the West Bank their home for generations. Despite his ancestral ties to the land, Abu’s access to water is precarious at best, barely managing to support food production to feed his family. In stark contrast, living just north of Abu is Eli Gilad, an Israeli farmer from the Masua community. Eli maintains a date plantation of thousands of water-thirsty trees, with crop yields so abundant that he exports his dates internationally. This is just one of many examples of how the division and inequality between Palestinian and Israeli communities can be seen in practice in the West Bank.

Abu Saqer, Palestinian farmer, at his home in Area C, West Bank.

Punitive water policies

Palestinian’s living in Area C are in desperate need of a solution to address water security, with the lack of water access leaving their communities thirsty and impoverished. According to OCHA, some Palestinians in the West Bank are surviving on only 20 litres of water per person per day, the recommended daily minimum is 100 litres, and the average consumption by Israeli’s is 300 litres. The reason for this glaring disparity is due to the punitive water policies imposed on Palestinians by the Israeli authorities, depriving and restricting their access to reliable water sources.

Historically, Palestinian farmers have accessed water through wells on their land. The wells providing enough water for farmers to maintain healthy harvests, take care of animals and support their families. Under Israel’s control, this is no longer the case. The Israeli authorities have now sunk so many wells to divert water to the settlements, that many wells now supply extremely limited water to Palestinian communities, or they have dried up all together. Israel also blocks Palestinians from building any new water infrastructure. Palestinians are required to gain a permit for construction from the Israeli military, these permits are near impossible to obtain.  B’tselem views Israel’s treatment of water as a way of dispossessing and controlling Palestinians, in the hope of forcing them permanently out of the area. When comparing the two communities’ ability to access water, it’s hard to argue otherwise.

Eli Gilad, Israei farmer, on his date plantation in Area C, West Bank.

Inequality of resources

Israeli settlements in the West Bank enjoy unlimited access to water. Settlers in these communities can farm the land on a commercial scale, with their communities sporting lush green lawns and even swimming pools in some cases. Unlike their Palestinian counterparts, who are often forced to live in ramshackle encampments as a result of Israel’s policy of house demolitions, the settlements are made up of permanent concrete buildings. The largest settler community, Modi’in Illit, has a population of over 70,000 and has schools, shopping malls and medical centres inside its compound.

Whilst settler communities are thriving, Palestinians are struggling to meet their basic daily needs, let alone sustain businesses. In Area C, directly opposite Abu and the Al Haddidya community, lies the settlement of Ro’i. Ro’i produces a vast array of produce for international export, and even breeds exotic fish in an on-site aquarium. Compare this to Abu, whose farm sits on the same land – last year he was only able to produce three gallons of olive oil from his trees that are so weak from lack of water. Taking this example as representative of many others, the inequality of opportunity and resources between Palestinian and Israeli communities in the West Bank cannot be understated.

Abu’s son collecting water.

The future under annexation

At the end of May this year, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that Israel, with coordination from the US, plans to move ahead with the formal annexation of the illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Annexation will mean that Israel permanently claims sovereignty over the land, denying Palestinians citizenship, and therefore equality of rights. In practice, Israel already denies Palestinians citizenship in the occupied territories, however, annexation will mark an end to the idea that the situation is in any way temporary. For Palestinian communities, the announcement is the final devastating blow at the end of decades of struggle for self-determination under the Israeli authorities. Many Palestinians will likely be ejected from the annexed territories, the Palestinian Authority could collapse, and what remains of the Oslo Agreement will become obsolete.

In terms of the global response to the plans, the international community is ‘discouraging’ Israel from the annexation, but tougher penalties, such as sanctions, seem to have gained little support. At the time of writing, the planned commencement of annexation for July 1st seems to have been stalled temporarily, but the threat is still very real, with many Palestinians of the view that if it goes ahead, it will destroy any hope for a viable future state. In the meantime, life for Palestinians in Area C looks more precarious than ever.


Disrupting the status quo

Is it time to decolonise the humanitarian aid sector?

COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement are disrupting the status quo, and whilst doing so highlighting the paradoxical nature of the humanitarian aid sector. Organisations are queuing up to pledge their solidarity to the Black Lives Matter movement on social media alongside the appropriate hashtags. However, as advocacy director Angela Bruce-Raeburn highlights, whilst making such pledges, aid organisations are complicit in playing the dual role of “white saviours abroad and patriotic champions of democracy at home”.

In response to this age of extreme vulnerability, the way we define humanitarian aid and the concepts that underpin modern philanthropy is being questioned, with opportunities for fundamental change in the sector arising. Many activists, aid workers, and analysts are calling for taking a sledgehammer to the system, moving away from the traditional humanitarian principle of neutrality to ‘decolonise’ the aid sector.

“it is impossible to talk about philanthropy in Africa without talking about colonialism.”

– Uzodinma Iweala, CEO, Ventures Africa magazine

Re-defining the concept of a humanitarian crisis

With developed countries like the US reporting the highest COVID death rate in the world, coupled with the Black Lives Matter movement stressing the systematic inequality imposed on black communities, the face of vulnerability is changing. President and CEO of Oxfam America, Abby Maxman, has commented that Oxfam is “now looking at the situation in the US as a human rights and humanitarian crisis”. Such a phrase is something that we in the West are comfortable and practiced in applying to countries far away, however, when being applied closer to home it suddenly becomes far more unsettling.

Patrick Gathara, a cartoonist and political commentator, highlights the resistance that is present in the West to accepting a change of role from aid givers to aid recipients by posing the question “can we imagine the deployment of an African peacekeeping force to the US?”. When considering the answer to this question, the entrenched nature of our perception of what a humanitarian crisis looks like becomes highly apparent. Bruce- Raeburn also highlights how both the Black Lives Matter movement and the COVID pandemic have exposed the fundamental hypocrisy of the aid sector; white people traveling to Africa to offer aid whilst racial and social inequalities are rampant at home.

Black Lives Matter protest, Chicago, USA.

The legacy of colonialism in philanthropy

Uzodinma Iweala, an author and CEO of Ventures Africa magazine,  stated in his opening address at the ‘Rethinking Philanthropy’ conference that “it is impossible to talk about philanthropy in Africa without talking about colonialism”. Iweala argues that, as currently practiced, philanthropy preserves existing power structures and dynamics that cause much of the suffering it seeks to eliminate. Iwaela unpacks his position by explaining how our modern-day interpretation of philanthropy has been fundamentally shaped by colonialism. He states that for Europeans to justify the extraction of resources from Africa, the concept of colonialism as a ‘civilising mission’ was thought up. Under colonialism, Europeans positioned themselves as custodians of Africa’s resources until Africans developed the ability to manage them themselves. “This is the root of modern-day philanthropy in Africa” states Iweala.

In a 2015 article in The Guardian titled ‘Enough about aid – let’s talk reparations’ Jason Hickel estimates that around $97 trillion in labour was extracted by Europeans from African slaves between 1619 and 1865. Keeping this figure in mind, the mainstream accepted narrative of developing countries being poor because of internal problems, and western countries being rich because of hard work and good values seems absurd. Hickel argues that instead of talking about ‘aid’ and ‘charity’ we should start talking about the debt that the West owes to the rest of the world. This argument mirrors Bruce-Raeburn who uses the metaphor of “a band-aid on a gunshot wound” to describe the current application of humanitarian aid. Fixing the immediate emergencies does not address the underlying issues that were caused by colonialism, nor does it pay back the suffering inflicted. Iweala argues “if philanthropy is really about the love of humanity and changing structural dynamics that prevent the full expression of that love, we cannot hope to change the structural dynamics between Africa and Europe without acknowledging and righting the wrongs of the past”.

Portugese slaver ship.

An opportunity for change

Bruce-Raeburn states that “this should be a watershed moment for development professionals and international do-gooders”. She, and many others, are urging international organisations to move beyond what she labels “the hashtag engagement with black people” and instead make tangible actions that show them to be real allies against racism and inequality. She suggests that addressing the language used by aid organisations is one step in the right direction, for example, the elimination of using words such as ‘resilient’ when describing people. These words perpetuate inequality by telling vulnerable people how strong they are, whilst changing nothing in their lives. She also emphasises the desperate need for diversity in aid organisations if they are to work effectively and successfully, stating “no international organisation should have all-white leadership”.

There have been some positive examples of aid organisation’s reimagining their role in the face of the current climate. Oxfam has announced a 10-year strategic plan that will phase out the organisation’s presence in 18 out of their 66 country offices. This decision was made in recognition of moving from a confederation where power is held by its northern members, to a global network of organisations and local partners, shifting power closer to those they exist to serve. Whilst it’s encouraging to see that this period of reflection is instigating recognition to some of the structural problems of the aid sector, many have voiced concerns that it will not ultimately lead to meaningful change without disruptive tactics. Garatha states “rather than trying to create change in a rubbish system, let’s take a sledgehammer to the whole thing”. Whether we agree with Garatha’s radical approach or not, acknowledgment of the colonial roots of philanthropy that underpins modern humanitarian aid is an uncomfortable but wholly necessary first step towards progress.

UNHRC convoy, Dollo Ado, Ethiopia.