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Sunday, January 24, 2021

The Government has no strategy for opening embassies

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Dr Ousman Gajigo

A document surfaced recently that revealed a great deal about the chaos at the top level of the Barrow government.

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The letter was written by a Malaysian businessman and a master self-promoter offering to help cover the expense of keeping open the Gambian embassy in Kuala Lumpur.

The businessman, who is an “Ambassador at Large”, has specifically indicated in the letter that he is willing to pay the rental bill of the embassy for year 2020, which amounted to USD 125,000. This raises a lot of interesting and troubling questions.

First all, why would our country open an embassy without proper thought to the fiscal cost of maintaining it? As I have written on multiple occasions, the country does not need all the embassies we are operating around the globe.

This particular case illustrates the fact that the government has no general strategy whatsoever guiding their decisions on this matter.

The large number of embassies we have opened in all parts of the world simply do not merit the cost they impose on the country.

For instance, a country does not need an embassy in a foreign country in order to attract foreign investors from there, as the letter erroneously claimed.

The determinants of investment have never included the location of embassies.

It is not the case in theory, and has never been so in practice.

The cost of opening and maintaining embassies is exorbitantly high. Many people who are sanguine about this or do not hold an opinion on it simply have not given much thought to the opportunity cost of maintaining embassies for a country in the Gambia’s fiscal situation.

The annual recurrent budget of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is over one billion dalasi in the last budget.

That amount is higher than the recurrent expenditures of the following ministries: Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of Health, Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Works, Construction and Infrastructure, Ministry of Trade and Industry, Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Higher Education.

Such a high level of budget allocation that far exceeds so many important ministries does not make sense for a country of Gambia’s stature and means. Diplomacy is important but it is a means to an end.

Diplomacy that bankrupts the state without any immediate or long-term returns is hare-brained.

We seem to have a government that only tries to copy what it believes to be the normal activities of governments without any careful thinking about their suitability to our context.

The amount involved in this particular embassy (rent value) also gives an idea as to the scale of the waste of money involved in opening and maintaining so many embassies.

The rental cost of the embassy building would still be lower the cost of salaries, benefits and the individual rents of the staff of many Gambian embassies around the world.

In many of our embassies around the world, the staff would include military attaches or SIS agents.

And all that expense for what benefit for the country?
Closing the embassy in Malaysia is obviously and easily the right decision rather than accepting a donation from a private businessman with other motives.

But it shouldn’t even have come to this. The embassy should not have been opened in the first place without a careful thought to the long-term cost of maintaining it. If the present government had found that embassy opened, they should have closed it, along with other many other embassies including those in Russia, Venezuela, Cuba and many others.

The government has been consistently advised by development partners to reduce the number of embassies it has across the world because of the unbearable cost for the country.

A well-functioning government should have been able to make the necessary budgetary projections for an important activity such as maintaining an embassy.

Whether the government has decided to accept the businessman’s offer is another matter. Before anyone is fooled, the offer by the businessman is no act of generosity.

This is nothing but an individual attempting to make an investment with an eye towards private returns.

Today, he would offer to pay for the 2020 rent of the embassy.

But make no mistake – the day would come when he would likely claim his return. When that arrives, the request would not be made in a formal letter but over an informal dinner at a fancy restaurant where public resources would be mortgaged.

Whether or not the government accepts the offer from the businessman, we have a problem. Not only the embassy in Malaysia needs to close, many others need to be.

The country should only have a small number of operating embassies, nothing more. Any embassy beyond the budgetary capacity of the country is a waste of resources.

There should be no need to receive any private resources from a businessman that will accomplish nothing but to enable the country to further waste resources, as well as to encourage corruption.

The root of all these problems is the failure of the Barrow government to understand the need for reforms and the inability or unwillingness to implement them.

The continued opening of embassies is a practice that has been unthinkingly or deliberately continued from the Jammeh government.

It is noteworthy that the current Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Tangara was an appointee of President Jammeh in the same position.

The Minister of Finance, Mr. Mambury Njie was another member of the Jammeh cabinet. It is these two individuals who currently have the greatest say on the opening of new embassies, and they are therefore the proximate cause of the problem.

The ultimate cause is however Adama Barrow who appointed them because he does not know better and cannot learn from his lessons.

Ousman Gajigo is an economist. He has held positions with the African Development Bank, the UN, the World Bank and Columbia University. He holds a PhD in development economics. He is currently an international consultant and also runs a farm in The Gambia.

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