Dr. Ousman Gajigo, Economist and formerly with ADB
Dr. Ousman Gajigo
It is that time of the year when many Gambians living abroad visit the country to see family members. The diaspora is an immense segment of the Gambian society. By some estimates, the Gambian diasporan community exceeds 150,000 individuals. In the economic realm, it is not an exaggeration to say this group keeps the Gambian economy afloat. Remittances from the diaspora for 2022 exceeded $ 600 million. This value is higher than the average annual foreign direct investments in the countryand the government’s annual revenue. For a large number of Gambian households, meeting essential expenditures would be impossible without the help from relatives abroad.
The above paragraph summarizes the standard narrative we have about the Gambian diaspora. While not inaccurate, it unfortunately undersells the real potential value of the diasporato our national development. Yes, it is true that remittance inflows are huge but most of the funds goes towards direct consumption rather than investments. And our policymakers have so far seemed incapable or unwilling to fully explore and think through all the implications.
Tapping the full potential from its citizens abroad can only be accomplished when the situation on the ground changes in a way to make them comfortable enough to return and make investments. This is what is lacking at the moment. While we are all thankful that Gambian citizens today do not need to worry about what they might negative experience under anautocratic regime upon returning, few Gambians abroad are confident about making any substantial investments given how Adama Barrow’s government has mismanaged the transition.
One does not have to be a member of the diaspora to be able to list the well-known problems that hinder their meaningful participation in the country. Individual dispiriting stories from attempts to return to start businesses in The Gambia are as varied as the individuals affected. Yet a common thread runningthrough all of them is the poor state of business enabling environment, which is not conducive to any investments. Some of the victims suffer at the hands of unscrupulous individuals.For others, it is enduring endless red tapes in government offices, inexplicable fees or officials with conflicts of interest.No matter how blatant the fraud or corruption, our legal andjudicial system can provide little remedy since they have notundergone any reforms, and therefore provides no credible recourse. Since there are no useful recourses for fraudulent and illegal activities, corrupt practices and general uncertainty translates into unmitigated risks, which discourages Gambians from returning to invest.
Efforts to win the confidence of the diaspora is not a questionabout focusing on them at the expense of other groups of citizens. The reality is that the changes needed to help harness their potential are completely aligned with development-enhancing changes that the country urgently needs. The ultimate beneficiary of any diaspora-focused efforts is The Gambia and Gambian residents. Indeed, the same factors that make it difficult for the Gambian diaspora to have the confidence to invest in the country also adversely affect the quality and quantity of investments from foreigners and resident businesses. If our citizens abroad are discouraged, imagine the effect it would have on foreigners with no pre-existing connections with the country. Instead, the poor state of our investment climate attracts not only a lower number of investors but of a large number of high-risk and illegitimate investors that we are better off avoiding in the first place. In the meantime, existing businesses in the country are barely able to stay afloat.
There are innumerable areas where the Gambian diaspora can make concrete and high-impact contributions when the right climate is instituted. Let’s consider some examples. Consider a toll road project in the country or a new electricity generation project. These are the sort of projects that can be difficult for acountry at Gambia’s level to finance and it would be extremely expensive to get financing from foreign banks. But a diaspora bond issuance will be over-subscribed if Gambians in generalare convinced that the project is well-designed and managed, as well as be confident that the impact would be accruing to their fellow countrymen and women. Specifically, the project would need to be put together by individuals with the competence to do so, including project finance expertise. Any associatedimplementation units would need to be staffed by individuals with expertise to execute the project rather than just bureaucratswho happen to accumulate years in a post. The economic and social case for the project, particularly how it aligns with the country’s long-term development would need to be articulated.In such a scenario, the diaspora can be counted upon to play a pivotal role with just a fraction of the remittance.
Another way to harness the economic potential of the diaspora to directly work on the investment climate of the country by targeting specific aspects of the business enabling environments. Key areas include infrastructure (energy, ICT, roads, etc.), contract enforcement, tax reforms and removal of unnecessary red-tape of people-facing public institutions. There is no shortage of Gambians living abroad who abandoned lucrativeopportunities to come to invest in the country only to leave after a few frustrating months. If an individual with deep links to the country can be so discouraged to abandon their investments, imagine how many other foreign investors have written off the country completely before even setting foot here. It goes without saying that improving the investment climate of the country is needed even if we do not have a large diaspora, but that reality just adds to urgency.
If only a small fraction of the value of remittance is instead turned into investments by returning Gambians, the development effect would far exceed the consumption value of those remittances. The value of Gambians returning to the country and investing goes beyond the monetary value of those initial investments. The reason being that those abroad have accumulated not only physical but specific form of human capital due to the different economic environment. It is simply a matter of fact that those Gambians that have worked in advancedeconomies have had the opportunity to professionally engagedwith more developed institutions, operate within settings with higher standards and other norms that raise efficiencies. These intangible effects are as important for development as the dollars and euros that get sent through remittances. When only remittances are sent, we do not see these intangible but important effects.
These returnees could help catapult the growth of numerous sectors. Just as there are a large number of Gambians abroad, there are many with expertise and interests in a range of sectors. As we know, the standards in the country across all sectors is low despite the presence of many of our brave and hardworking compatriots on the ground. The addition of a few returningGambians in key sectors can easily enable us to reach critical levels to bring outside innovations. Innovations do not happen magically.
At the risk of over-repeating myself, policymakers in The Gambia need to move away from focusing on remittances when it comes to the diaspora. One could double the remittances in the country and its positive effect would still be limited. The focus should instead be on changing the conditions on the ground to enable the diaspora to invest remotely through appropriate investment vehicles. The real metric of the government’sseriousness in this area would be the country witnessing a larger number of Gambians returning from abroad to work in response to improving investment climates. That would have a far greater impact on the country economically, socially and politically.
I have so far focused on the economic case for diasporans but we all know their value extends well beyond that. Certain members of the diaspora played invaluable roles in the fight against the dictatorship in ways we will never know, and often in the shadows. It is also important to emphasize that the recognition of the unique role of the diaspora does not mean treating them as a special group of citizens, and this is not what they demand. Rather, it is important to recognize that when a country has a group of privileged citizens who are willing to contribute to development, it is in everyone’s interest to enable them.
The unfortunately reality is that the Barrow government has already shown its lack of seriousness when it comes to the diaspora. While they paid lip service, there has not any meaningful engagement with the diaspora. To reinforce this indifference, the government has pointedly refused to enable them to vote, effectively disenfranchising them due to short-term political calculations. This disenfranchisement of diasporans is a blow not just against them but a threat to all citizens. By now it should be clear to all of us that any kind of wrongs by the government of the day against any individual or particular group of Gambians is a threat of to us all in the long-term.