Opinion: Regional Economic Development and Spatial Disparities in The Gambia

Thursday, August 24, 2017

The gulf in quality of services, resources and opportunities in the different regions of the country is a cause for concern. The evidence shows that you are more likely to be poor if you live away from the Greater Banjul Area.

Spatial disparities are a major challenge in Africa and Gambia in particular.

It is with utmost sadness to read from the 2015 Africa Economic Outlook Report and others like Ravllion and Chen, 2012, that Africa is the second largest most unequal continent in the World after Latin America. A forthcoming report by Shimesles and Nabassaga, revealed that close to 40% of asset inequality in Africa is mainly due to spatial factors. Furthermore, a greater component of poverty reflects the continents regional disparities. And this has the tendency to create what Bird, Higgins and Harris, in 2010, called “Spatial poverty traps”

In The Gambia, strides have been made in the fight to improve living standards over the last decade.  As per data from the Integrated Household Survey (IHS), 2010, Poverty headcount for less than $1 per day has declined from 58.0 per cent in 2003 to 39.6per cent in 2010.

Notwithstanding the above, the government should continue to implement policies to address concerns of disparities in poverty as revealed in IHS, 2010. And these are as follows:

•           Rural residence was found to be highly correlated with poverty as 73 per cent of rural dwellers as compared to 32 per cent to the urban ones were considered to be poor.

•           Education attainment was negatively correlated with poverty as well. IHS result shows that 58. 4 per cent for those with no education as compared to 17.8 per cent for those with tertiary education.

•           Household heads employed in the agricultural and fishing sector having higher poverty rates using both thresholds (P$1.25 = 79.0 %, P$1 = 68.8%) compared to other household heads employed in the other sectors ( IHS, 2010)

The last point is extremely worrying in light of improving spatial differences as majority of the rural community are engaged in farming.  Successful implementation of current policies to improve the subsistence nature of farming and reliant on rain-fed agriculture that will be discussed later are of utmost importance to reverse this trend.

The policy option to improve the level of education impacting positively on reducing poverty is to address the challenges at the Basic and Secondary education level.  Any improvements that boost enrollment in tertiary education is likely to positively impact on poverty reduction. Indeed, it is one of the motivating factors for government to commit more resources to education both from the domestic revenue in the budget and project financing opportunities. Over the years approximately 3.9 % of GDP was allocated for education spending, slightly lower than the ECOWAS average of 4.3%. Improving this share could contribute to the reduction of regional difference in poverty.

To be sure, Poverty has many dimensions, but the one most important factor in alleviating poverty has been steady economic growth. This has been shown by many researchers. The Harvard Economist Dani Rodrik stated the following in his influential Book “One Economics, Many Recipes: Globalization, Institutions and Economic Growth (2007)”

‘Historically nothing has worked better than economic growth in enabling societies to improve the life chances of their members, including those at the very bottom.’

For this reason, the government should continue to formulate growth –enhancing policies that promote inclusive growth, affecting the lives of rural Gambians. The volatility in our economic growth is mainly exogenous factors in rain-dependent weather and foreign demand driven tourism. Bar the drought induced negative growth of 2011 and 2014; we registered growth rates ranging from 4-6 per cent in recent times. To maintain this trend, policies and programmes geared towards reducing our dependence on rain-fed agriculture should be prioritized. Examples are the National Agricultural land and Water Management Development Project (NEMA) and Gambia Commercial Agriculture Value Chain Projects (GCAV). The GCAV was intended to address the challenges of the subsistence nature of our agriculture while the NEMA project is designed address issues of dependence on rain fed agriculture amongst other things.

A significant number of the rural farming communities should benefit from these projects geared towards improving their livelihoods if implemented as designed.

Unfortunately, not much progress has been made between 2010 and 2015, as the Preliminary result of the IHS, 2015/16 revealed:

 “Poverty still remains a rural phenomenon: the poverty rate of the rural areas increased from 64.2 percent in 2010 to 69.5 percent in 2015 – an 8.3 percent increase. The poor in rural areas account for about 64 percent of the total poor in the country. Conversely, urban poverty declined by 5.4 percent from 33.4 percent to 31.6 percent “. (GBOS, News Release, May 12, 2017).

It will therefore not be misleading to state that people are running away from rural areas due to poverty. For example, in 2010, IHS revealed that poverty incidence is much lower in Banjul and Kanifing Municipality.

On that background, it is not surprising that The 2013 Census revealed that over half (59.1) of the Gambia population live in the Greater Banjul Area and West Coast Region. This trend is clearly unsustainable. The government must recognize that this growing rural-urban migration will pose serious challenges in providing required social services. The government should work with development partners to bring opportunities to all regions in the country. This calls for an evaluation of the whole decentralization policy. Decongesting the Greater Banjul area must be a priority for any sustainable development.

Talking about growing sustainably brings us to another important point: The need for structural reforms. Much of the spatial disparity issues raised are effects of the structural deficiencies in the economy. Thus, these issues need to be prioritized:

Good infrastructure linking big cities to the rural areas. It creates access to markets. The AfDB is cognizant of this, to address regional disparities in Africa, with their focus on the Africa Highways with different corridors. In support of this, the Dakar-Lagos corridor via the Bamba Tendea-Yelli Tenda Bridge project is timely. It is believed this will contribute to more regional intra-Africa trade.  This established a road link between Dakar-Lagos.

Within the Gambia, road infrastructure continues to be top of government agenda based on government budgetary allocations over the years. The road fund for road maintenance has been long overdue. The one-infrastructure project that has the potential to decongest the Greater Banjul Area is the Banjul-Barra Bridge. Nuimi will be on the cusp of being the new “Kombo”. Land, Housing and rent prices will all be affected, as will be rural urban migration. In addition to on-going projects such as  Lamin_koto-Passamas, Bamb Tenda –Yelli Tenda, this will provide complete connectivity of the Whole Country by road network. For me, this could be our equivalent of the impact of the “Inter-State Roads” in the US. 

With development partners, reforms both in the telecom and energy infrastructure to support inclusive growth in the form of increased broadband connection and lower energy cost respectively cannot be over emphasized. Matter of fact, our industrialization drive is partly handcuffed by challenges in the energy sector. When the energy, road, and telecom infrastructure is established, fiscal incentives for industries and businesses out of the greater Banjul area will be a good idea. Charity begins at home, government departments; Ministries etc could be located away from the Greater Banjul Area. For example, The South African Parliament is located in Cape Town.

The current divergence might give is hope if we believe in the empirical work of Williamson, (1965), which found that there is a tendency for spatial inequalities to increase and then decrease. We in The Gambia cannot wait for the reversal to begin. But I suspect it will require deliberate policy changes to begin the convergence process.

Momodou K. Dibba, Sinchu Baliya                                                               

Disclaimer:  Views expressed here are entirely mine. The usual disclaimers apply.

Author: Momodou K. Dibba, Sinchu Baliya