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Development implications of a bloated security sector


By Dr. Ousman Gajigo

The World Bank recently carried out a public expenditure review of the security sector in The Gambia, of which the draft report it out. Its broad findings shouldn’t be news to most people following developments in this sector. What I find particularly useful about the report is the figures it provides so as to enable a more concrete discussion of the economic development implications of having such a bloated sector for the country.

The overall security budget of the country is huge. In 2018, it was $30.4 million, about 15% of the national budget. Both the level and its share in our budget is increasing. This budget share actually understates the scale of the security sector expenditures. This is because the ministries under the sector end up spending much more than the budget initially allocated. It is important to point out that such budget indiscipline is not restricted to the Jammeh regime. For instance, over-spending happened regularly over the period 2015-2018.

The security sector budget is almost exclusively recurrent rather than development budget. This means that practically the whole budget is on personnel rather than security infrastructure or equipment. The Gambia is almost unique in this regard as such lopsided expenditure patterns is way out of the norm. The overall size of our security expenditures relative to our budget or GDP is also unusually high for a country that is not in a conflict situation. Compared to neighbors such Senegal or Ghana or the Cape Verde, our security sector budget burden is much higher.

Of course, the security sector is quite broad and is composed of the military, police, and specialized services (immigration, prison, fire and rescue, intelligence and drug enforcement). So one has to be careful with statements about whether we are over-spending on all these sub-sectors.

Our military has about 7000 personnel, and it is increasing as the recent hiring of cadets would seem to reveal. The first question relevant to the discussion of the military’s size is whether this sub-sector is needed at all or at this size. While not coming out directly and saying so (documents of this nature don’t do that no matter how obvious), the expenditure review clearly hints that the military does not meet an actual need in the Gambian context.

Specifically, it points out that, given The Gambia geographic context and type of threats it realistically faces, there is no external threat to the country’s territorial integrity. Hence the need for a military, much more an expensive one is difficult to justify. This conclusion is not new. Even the country’s own security sector review came out with essentially the same finding.

The police force is highly critical and the country needs it because internal security is not optional. Yet even in this branch, The Gambian figures are relatively too high. With about 1 police officer for every 278 inhabitants, The Gambia exceeds that of not only our closest neighbor but that of the world average of about 1 police officer for 500 inhabitants. Needless to say, it is not only about the sheer size of the police officers that is important but how inefficient this sub-sector is in fulfilling its security role.

With little to no equipment given the low level of development budget mentioned above, the large size of the police force further reinforces inefficiency because the individual salaries are too small to attract quality recruits or motivate existing officers.

Without having to go through all the other sub-sectors, the reading of the report shows that the overall size, spending patterns and the posture of the security sector are not aligned with the security needs of the country. What is more worrying is that noticeable changes we should be seeing by now given the regime change three years have unfortunately been absent. The SIS (formerly NIA) has not undergone any retrenchment (it has about 600 staff). It still operates under the NIA decree, which means that while the service has suspended its powers of arrest and detention, those same powers can be brought back since there has been no change in the legal framework that governs it operations.

The lack of meaningful progress in security sector reform has significant implications for the country’s economy as a whole. An outsized security sector budget means significantly less resources available for the productive sectors of the country. Let’s do some comparisons. The security sector budget is more than the budget for agriculture and education combined. It is also more than the budget for health and education combined. For a very poor country such as The Gambia, this represents a significant misallocation of resources.

How the government manages the economy to ensure macroeconomic stability and growth depends largely on its public finance management strategy. The two arms of public finance management are revenues and expenditures.

In the short to medium term, there is little the country can do to significantly increase revenues without excessive borrowing. Given our current debt burden, further borrowing will not be advisable. And due to the failure of the government to enact needed reforms during this transition period, a large part of the budget support that had been expected is not materializing from development partners.

On the expenditure side, there is a lot more the government can do. While expenditures will necessarily be constrained by available revenues that the country can mobilize internally and externally, the composition of expenditures matters greatly and is within the government’s control at any point in time.

This means making our expenditures count by prioritizing the appropriate sectors. There is no realistic scenario where it makes sense for a country in Gambia’s context to have such an outsize security sector when the country has productive sectors that are so under-funded. What social and economic returns is The Gambia foregoing by spending so much on the military when the unmet needs for infrastructure, education, health and agriculture are so high?

Dr. Ousman Gajigo is the manager of the Microeconomic, Institutional & Development Impact Division of the African Development Bank (AfDB). The views expressed in this article represent only his own, not that of the AfDB or its Board.

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