Maudo Jallow On Policy, Progress and His Journey Back to The Gambia.
For this young, gifted and determined Gambian, the road to public policy and governance hasn’t been linear. He wanted to be a businessman and was well on his way to getting a degree in international business until he took one class on development economics that changed everything. He hasn’t looked back since.
Since leaving graduate school, he has worked at the United Nations, the Tony Blair Institute, co-founded a youth-led development organization in the Gambia and remains attuned to global policy, governance and politics. He’s also focused on networking and building bridges among generations of young and old leaders in Africa, with the sole aim of fostering development and sharing intergenerational knowledge.
He’s well known among friends and colleagues as a policy expert and political leadership nerd. I recently had a chat with him about his life, career and future plans. It’s the first in the series of interviews with young doers and shapers across the world.
For someone who started out studying international business, what led you into public policy?
Ever since I can remember, I’ve been interested in the public sector — policy, governance and politics. This is probably due to the fact that I grew up in a household where both parents were public servants — my father worked for the Ministry of Fisheries in The Gambia and then became an international civil servant with the United Nations, while my mother devoted about two decades of her life to the Central Bank of The Gambia. With this strong influence growing up, I guess I was predisposed to a life in public policy. The real turning point though was when I took a class on development economics while studying at Solvay Brussels School of Economics and Management in Belgium. After ending up in the class by chance, it quickly became the one I enjoyed the most and felt most passionate about. From that point, I never looked back!
Both of your parents have worked in the civil service. How much of your worldview has been shaped by their experiences?
I think we are all strongly influenced by our environments, especially when we are young. It is incredibly difficult to imagine what my worldview, moral and values would be without my parents. For instance, apart from their work and devotion to public service, they both emphasized the need for us to travel around Africa — proud pan-Africanists. As a result, I have been to over a dozen African countries, and I view myself very much as a pan-African too!
I’ve heard you talk about the need to change the narrative on Africa as a negative example in the global conversation and highlight the positives. In what way can we enable this shift?
I’m greatly encouraged by the positive trends we are seeing in this regard already. I strongly believe that Africa’s negative perception in many people’s minds is directly correlated with our inability to economically develop. Let me explain — perception plays a major role in the amount of foreign direct investment a country/region gets and due to misconceptions about the continent, we tend to get much less investment. To enable a shift away from this, we need to be intentional about sharing powerful, positive stories about the history, culture and people of the African continent. Once people have a more realistic view of the continent, it will fundamentally transform the narrative in the short term and ultimately, our economies in the long term.
You started New Nation Gambia to mobilize Gambian youth towards socioeconomic development. Tell me about it.
Founded by a Gambian for Gambians, New Nation is essentially an organization that is about mobilizing Gambian youth to positively impact different aspects of our society — economic, social and political impact. We believe that committed and passionate young people can drive transformation. Last year, we provided essential items to our fellow Gambians adversely impacted by COVID-19 and the lockdown measures meant to slow its spread. We mobilized funds and other resources to support the most vulnerable in our rural communities. With the funds raised, we were able to provide food items, essential household goods and hygiene products to those that need it most.
In the past, the organization has organized and hosted numerous career development programs by partnering with Give 1 Project. Our career development programs were lauded by UNICEF and are designed to allow students to broaden their career choices, especially in the STEM fields. The highlight of our work on the promotion of STEM-related fields was a partnership with the Medical Research Council (MRC) unit in The Gambia that enabled us to host a unique science fair for over 60 students from both public and private high schools.
After graduate school, you returned to the Gambia, applied for many jobs but didn’t get any. Around the same time, you applied for one job at the United Nations, and you got it. Would you say that’s an indication of how our organizational structures, are unable to absorb smart talent in parts of the continent?
I think it is rather unfortunate that I did not even get responses from government agencies that I had applied to in The Gambia at the time. After getting my Master’s from the London School of Economics, I was eager to apply what I had learnt and contribute directly to the development of my country. However, the best I was offered was an unpaid internship with The Gambia Chamber of Commerce & Industry, with no guarantee of future full-time employment. Not long after that, I got a call from the Director of the UNIDO Office at the UN Headquarters in New York — eager to have me join his team. This tells you everything you need to know about our inability and at times unwillingness to absorb talented young people.
Any thoughts on how we can change that?
Personally, I’ve seen how important it can be to have the right people and unfortunately, the brain drain continues. Therefore, to counter this, I think it’s important that we do two key things here: 1) Incentivize personnel management offices and recruiters in the public sector to hire more young people. This can be done through creating a quota system, financial incentives or adding this to performance review criteria for personnel management officers; 2) Create digital and user-friendly platforms that simplify application processes for both applicants and employers, making it easier to attract the best young talent from around the world and better facilitate their transition into government roles.
What’s the most difficult decision you’ve had to make in your life so far?
Leaving the United Nations — what I thought was my dream job at the time — in New York, taking a pay cut and moving to a new country to take up my first role with TBI.
You left the UN after a year to take a role at the Tony Blair Institute. Take me into the TBI model and what appeals to you the most about it.
TBI’s model is somewhat unique because we embed ourselves within government agencies, ministries and offices to provide tailored bespoke advice. More recently, we are also helping leaders build strong governance and crisis response systems — implement disease suppression measures, increase testing, procure equipment, find tech solutions and advise on economic response.
So, I hear you have an announcement to share. Is it related to your career?
Yes, I am very pleased to say that I will be taking up a new role at the Office of the President in The Gambia with TBI — working to strengthen the Presidency and Office of the Vice President, through strategy development and coordination. I will be focused on strategic interventions into key departments to support delivery of the National Development Plan, particularly in sectors of importance to the President: job creation, investment, agriculture and digitalization. I also look forward to working with senior government counterparts in mapping, engaging and managing relevant key stakeholders, including foreign and domestic investors, development partners and various government institutions. For context, TBI has been a key partner to the Presidency by helping to strengthen its delivery and implementation mechanisms — primarily through the establishment of the Department of Strategic Policy and Delivery (DSPD), but also in supporting reforms in other areas such as private office, communications, cabinet, and more recently, support to the Vice President in her role as chair of the COVID-19 Ministerial Taskforce. This opportunity to work at the highest levels of decision-making in my home country is a dream come true for me and certainly a blessing. I thank the Country Head and new colleagues at TBI Gambia for giving me this distinctive opportunity to serve.
That’s awesome. If Maudo today was asked to write a letter to 6-year-old Maudo with some professional advice, what would be in it?
The best professional advice I can give my 6-year-old self is to start networking and building your contacts/network as early as you can. I would also advise him to stick to the things he thinks are important — ignore the noise and keep working towards your goals.
Africa is in need of smart young leaders and your experience so far puts you in that league. Do you have any plans of running for any high — no, scratch that — I mean, the highest office in Gambia?
I’ve said this before, and I repeat it here because it’s incredibly important. I believe that aspiring to that unbelievably important job — President of the Republic of The Gambia — has to come from a place of sincere altruism and not from a place of greed, narcissism or in pursuit of opulence. Therefore, the simple answer here is no.
What keeps you grounded even as you pursue your goals in life?
My family, especially my mum. They don’t care what I’ve achieved or who I become; they always treat me exactly the same way. I can always count on my family to remind me about what is important and where I came from.
Thank you, Maudo. Wishing you all the best in your new role and the coming years.