Thursday, February 7, 2013

Fórum Económico Bissau ( Bissau Economic Forum)

            Since I have been working with Rotary International I had the opportunity to attend the Bissau Economic Forum. T Institute Benten, Action for Development, and the Amilcar Cabral Institute were the hosts for the forum. The theme was “What would Amilcar Cabral Do?: Laying the Foundation for Guinea Bissau’s Economic Transformation. (Amilcar Cabral was the Revolutionary leader of Guinea-Bissau during the war for independence. )
Rotarac Bissau Crew- Abdu, Edu, and I
            I had just gotten back from Gabu and the tabankas the day before, so the amount of thought I had put in to this event was minimal. I got dressed and met with my friend Abdu to go to the forum. The event was at Hotel Azali, which is probably the nicest hotel in the country. As we walked up to the hotel I noticed there were a lot of really nice cars. As we got closer to more people I noticed everyone dressed in suits, dresses and traditional clothing.  The last straw was when I approached the rest of my crew and saw how everyone was dressed. I realized that I definitely didn’t get the memo. I began to feel very out of place and after several minutes of standing around with my group feeling awkward I said, “I’m going to go home to change. “ The president of our club looked at me and replied, “yeah, that’s probably a good idea.” 
            I caught a cab home, ran an iron over some more professional clothes and headed back to the event.  That was probably one of the best decisions of my life! In attendance at this event was the President of the Republic of Guinea Bissau, the former President of Nigeria, the Prime Minister of Senegal, Bank Presidents, directors of many international non-profits,  CEO’s and entrepreneurs, international consultants,  and professors from European universities, and country ambassadors. 
            The forum was dived into 4 parts. There were 3 panel sessions and a breakout discussion. The 1st panel topic was:  Guinea Bissau in the context of regional integration and Globalization. The second panel topic was Strategies for the economic and social transformation of Guinea Bissau. The last panel topic was  Public-Private engagement and international cooperation.
Panel Discussion
            It was amazing to be in this space and hear the opinions of so many accomplished professionals. It was also amazing because of the diversity of languages being spoken. People hopped from one language to the next like they were playing hopscotch. Each panel was held in a different language to be fair to those in attendance, the languages being Portuguese, French, and English.
             It was pretty funny meeting someone and not knowing what language they spoke. Generally if you started with one, the person you were trying to talk to would give you the nod yes or no. But most people had 2 out of the 3 under their belt, so once you figured out what language to speak it was smooth sailing.  
            For the breakout sessions I attended the one focused on agriculture.  I think agriculture is important because it’s political, social and economic while also being a huge human necessity. We all have to eat regardless if the country you’re in is rich or poor. Anyways, there were also other topics like tourism, energy development, infrastructural development, and political stability. In each session we were asked to identify some of the problems in the sector and come up with a solution ( Not knowing that the President of the Strategic Investment Fund of Gabon, who manages the 2 billion dollar fund, would be offering to fund the groups with the best solutions/projects).
            The session on agriculture was very interesting and had some of Guinea Bissau’s biggest agricultural stakeholders. Guinea Bissau is still very much an Agriculture based country and most GPD is generated from sales and exports in the cashew industry. Given such, much of the conversation was focused on commercial exports of rice, cashews, and mangoes and the possibilities for expansion.
            However, Guinea Bissau is one of the largest receivers of international aid. The rice I eat every day is imported either as aid or for sale.  So the other half of the conversation focused on improving food security with-in the country.
The man on the left is one of the biggest names in agriculture
            The conference hands down was male dominated, and so was the breakout session. There were 4 women in the session, 2 of them being much older and both of them, when given the floor to speak, pleaded that the focus needs to be helping the women in the interior with food production. Having just gotten back from Gabu I had a good sense about what they were talking about. It is Guinean women who feed this country, no question about it. These older women were addressing the fact that for positive long-term development the most important form of agricultural investment will be in the production of food locally.
            But where is the financial benefit of helping women in the interior feed their community? Especially when exports like cashews are so profitable. I got the feeling that the seemingly minimal (and gradual) return on investment in women in the agricultural sector is why the issue wasn’t being as thoroughly addressed as exports.
            I walked away from that session feeling disheartened. The obstacles are huge, and the more I learn and experience here, the more it seems to me that the biggest obstacles are the minds of those in power positions. In speaking with my colleges they expressed a similar feeling of disappointment. In their case, the older folks were not receptive to the ideas of the youth at the table.
            In reflection about the event, two things didn’t get addressed that I felt are pivotal to the development of Guinea Bissau. The first being investment in the youth and the prioritization of sustainable, socially conscious developments and investments. Youth were simply not mentioned at all and most investments and developments being discussed are ones that are know to have negative environmental impacts (drilling for oil, damn building for energy). I didn’t once hear about solar panel investments.
             I mentioned this at the event and someone tried to explain that economic development is the focus of the forum.  If investments in youth and sustainability aren’t included in the conversation of economic development, let alone being considered as remotely related, then there truly is a lot of work to be done.
            Regardless of my critique, I feel very blessed to have been able to attend the forum. Most people watched it on TV or listened to it on the radio. It was a great learning and networking experience and a glimpse at how working professionals work and think.

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