Very often, there has been an expression of the need to diversify our economy but I have yet to see a tangible suggestion as to precisely what to do (I am not claiming that there are none). I want to venture into more specific areas for national development considering our current background of a virtually broken everything – from emotions, to institutions, to the economy and all other aspects. I must admit, I am inspired by all the sensible discourse going on and particularly in the social media. Diversification, from my point of view, would mean to appropriately brand the country in a rather unique way in order to entice and harness all the positive forces of our newfound dispensation. Democracy is not unique to The Gambia but our mode of achieving it has placed us in the centre stage of global attention. Such attention is focusing on our potential and the future direction of our development. It is, therefore, important to provide an unambiguous vision as to where we want to head to in development. The models for development are no doubt numerous albeit they may have a common thread running through them – the enhancement of the livelihood of the people (be it poverty alleviation or eradication or generally augmenting standards of living).
As a country we have a comparatively small population of some two million which translates into a small local market. However, this population is also growing at a tremendous rate by a 38.3 percent increase from 2003 to 2013. It rose from some 350,000 in 1963 to 1.4 million in 2003 to 1.9 million in 2013. The Gambia is also one of the most densely populated countries in the world. The urban setting absorbs some 40% of this population. Naturally, all these have serious policy implications at both central and local authority levels and at the global or regional level (if you slap in the factors of a youthful population with no skills and employment leading to the “back way” syndrome). The economy, it is generally accepted, lacks diversification and has a narrow productive base with a heavy dependence on tax revenue and donor financing. Our private sector lacks the vibrancy to lead economic growth. We are highly indebted and our institutions are weak. Not a very good outlook, is it? But it shouldn’t be depressing.
Life is all about challenges. Facing them with the right resolve is the process of progress for mankind. Challenges will always be part of life and will be changing from one facet to another but they are mostly surmounted out of necessity, creativity and providence (one or all these). Our challenge as a developing country may not be unique considering the common feature it has with so many other developing (and even developed) countries.
The solutions shouldn’t be new either – it is a question of configuring the right matrix of approaches amid a gamut of conventional solutions. Nonetheless, it cannot be business as usual – churning out projects (mostly initiated by development partners) that are never sustained or have limited impact on livelihoods or standards of living.
As with commodities, countries are competing among themselves to get their products and services sold at ever increasing volumes. For a company, it is to increase the bottom line but for a country, it is for a better balance of payments in order to induce economic growth and thus leading to resolving all the other challenges – alleviate or eradicate poverty, augment standards of living, create jobs and so forth. Where there are many competitors in the market, you need to find your own place in that market. A country can also achieve such positioning by branding itself and making itself a little bit different from the pack, especially if others have developed a stronger market position. The best brand The Gambia can go for is to configure our economy into a major service zone for the sub-region or Africa as a whole. This area will cover – finance, tourism and transportation.
The service industry would entail the development of a robust and credible financial hub – a financial centre for the region. We are noted for a high density of financial houses. The question is how to attract other major financial service providers from Europe, Middle East and the Far East that will bring their goodwill with them. The buoyancy of a financial sector is very much influenced by the currency and confidence it portrays with an underlying predictable and transparent policy environment. There should be a programme encouraging headquartering the major global banks here as a staging location to expand their branches into the sub-region. With an ever-increasing Chinese investment (and Indian and Far East presence too) in the developing world, it may not be out of place to have a major Chinese bank’s regional headquarters located here (and banks of other nations too). The type of finance houses should be extended to go beyond commercial banking and should include financing outfits for long term investments in housing, agriculture, tourism development and so forth.
Our tourism sector has a comparative advantage. European and other destinations (Turkey, Egypt, and East Africa) are subjected to terrorist intimidation and regional conflicts. We are known for our relative peace and stability with a very kind and welcoming society. It requires an investment in the right infrastructure in order to accommodate the new features of this market – such as the all-inclusive market. Remember, the current tourism infrastructure has never been designed in the late 70s – they are the ‘bantaba’ type of layout which are to accommodate the economic activities of the local community. Expansion of the infrastructure – roads, public utilities, etc – is required to other sections of the Tourism Development Area (TDA). The current tourism infrastructure which stops at the Senegambia area was provided by the World Bank some 35 years ago or so. The target is to attract tourists from Russia, Pakistan, India, America, and Europe in general and it will require the provision of the right brand for the sector. An all-inclusive tourist market requires a different set of location that emphasises privacy and caters for religious needs – such as Muslims, who are increasingly finding it difficult to have suitable holiday destinations. The current infrastructure is totally unsuitable for this type of market which is the main source of discontent from the ‘bantaba’ of local investors around these locations – the craft markets struggle to survive and its injection into these areas adversely affects livelihoods.
Culturally, the Roots Festival, which was misused in the past, could be molded into a unique cultural venture as a magnet for an all-year round tourism. We will need to develop special jamborees (musical and cultural), educational seminars on slavery and an African Carnival (to compete or complement London and Brazil). By the way, we have something that other slave centres don’t have – others have the relics of slave infrastructure such as castles in Ghana and Senegal (Goree), but what The Gambia has, is a story (true or false) in Kunta Kinte! It is unique in its ability to generate greater affinity and emotions as a way of celebrating freedom through culture. It already has the extensive publicity.
Revival of this adventure will need infrastructure investment generally and in Juffure in particular, in order to create the required ambiance and simulation of the story or history. It would further require a reliable and efficient means of moving people (Banjul Barra bridge?) and providing accommodation. Already relics exist in Juffure which can be refurbished – relics of the oldest church in West Africa, an island, old trading centres and a family and community. The Futampf is a cultural event of high touristic value. We can add so many ingredients to our brand that will expand our visibility and strengthen our position in the market that goes beyond the attraction to sunshine and the beaches. Our proximity to the tourist markets of Europe makes us a central location as a tourist destination, even for intra-African tourism. I need not go into the details of ways to improve this sector – there was a master plan on this emanating from the scrapped Roots Office.
The development of this sector will connect very well with the provision of transportation services – by air and sea (and telecommunication). It is being touted that several countries are interested in developing our ports infrastructure – most likely moving it to the ocean area. That would be a great opportunity for the attraction of cruise ships and would not limit us to our current position of providing commercial shipping and the movement of goods. An extensive use of a good seaport can provide concomitant benefits in insurance and ship registration, regional bound cargo handling services and road transport development. (Perhaps Barra, Brikama, Soma, Basse will become revitalised as staging posts for a buoyant re-export trade market from which we have now lost much of our comparative advantage). However, we need to consider the best out of the offers or proposals we may be having for such a development.
Movement of people and cargo by air in large volumes will require an expanded airport with robust security facilities. An enhanced airport security augurs well with the West, particularly the US, and could generate some interest in supporting us in putting forward proposals for an airport development programme. As a matter of fact, the increase in travel volumes would require a more reliable security arrangement at the points of entry. These developments in themselves are major sources of employment and skills training not to mention the trickle-down effect on other sectors of the economy, such as the property market (houses and offices), boost in forex transactions, and so forth. (See Monday Standard for the concluding part.)
Lamino Lang Comma served as a senior government official in both the First and Second Republic administrations. A keen commentator on socio-economic issues, he now runs a consultancy company.