The Gambia’s economy relies on tourism, rain-dependent agriculture, and remittances. For a few years, agriculture was affected by erratic rainfall, and tourism by the spillover effects of the Ebola crisis in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, as well as by The Gambia’s own political crisis in 2015/16. However, in 2016 the economy began to recover, with massive budget support shoring up public finances and investor confidence returning. Real GDP growth for 2017 is expected to be above 3 percent, propelled by lower interest rates, a recovery in agriculture due to a favorable rainy season, and a rebound in the service sector. The fiscal situation, which deteriorated during the political crisis, has also improved because of external support and efforts to strengthen fiscal discipline. Expenditure ceilings have helped too and, although domestic revenue has been lower than expected, the authorities are forecasting its recovery.
The Gambia stretches 450 km along the Gambia River, its borders completely surrounded by Senegal except for 60 km of Atlantic Ocean beachfront. Although the smallest country on the African continent, it harbors wealth in terms of coastal, marine, and wetland habitats housing bird species of global significance, making it an attractive tourist destination. Due to the convenience of its geographic location on the edge of West Africa, it is also a hub for trade.
The country has a population of 2 million, with a fairly high average rate of growth of 2.8% per year over the last decade. With 177 people per square kilometer, it is one of the most densely populated countries in Africa. Most of the population (57%) is concentrated around urban and peri-urban centers.
Presidential elections on December 1, 2016, resulted in a prolonged political transition after the incumbent, President Yahya Jammeh, was defeated by businessman Adama Barrow, who garnered 43.3% of the vote. Jammeh had led the country for 22 years after taking power in a military coup in 1994, surviving four presidential elections (in 1996, 2001, 2006, and 2011), but in 2016 he lost with 39.6% of the vote.
Parliamentary elections in April led to an absolute majority for Barrow’s United Democratic Party with 31 seats (not including the 5 MPs appointed directly by the President) in the 53-seat National Assembly. The parliamentary presence of the former ruling Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction Party was reduced to five seats.
Poverty is widespread and has stayed fairly static, worsening slightly to 48.6 percent of the population in 2015, compared to 48.1 percent in 2010. In rural areas, a higher proportion of the population (almost 70 percent) is poor. They rely heavily on subsistence agriculture for income. In urban areas, informal jobs are predominant. International migrants make up 9 percent of The Gambia’s population, and their remittances provide a welcome safety net.
The macroeconomic framework continues to be characterized by high levels debt (over 120 percent of GDP in 2016), crowding out public and private investment and creating significant risk of debt distress. Debt service consumes an inordinate share of available resources (46 percent of taxes in 2016), leaving very little fiscal space to improve service delivery and undertake the public investment needed in physical and human capital to support the emergence of a thriving private sector. More than half of the debt is held by domestic banks (55 percent in 2016), which undermines the stability of the banking sector.
Exchange rate policies that sharply overvalued the Gambian Dalasi have also contributed to financial strains and balance of payments imbalances. Central Bank official foreign reserves have declined significantly, with the periodic imposition of currency controls since 2013, and overvaluation (against the US dollar) of as high as 30% over pre-peg, market-determined rates. The lifting of currency controls in January 2016 should facilitate a rebuilding of reserves over time, but there are other administrative controls in place that could pose ongoing challenges, including shipment controls on US dollars, British pounds sterling, and euros.
The key long-term development challenges facing The Gambia are related to its undiversified economy, small internal market, limited access to resources, lack of skills necessary to build effective institutions, high population growth, lack of private sector job creation, and high rate of outmigration.
Overall poverty rates declined from 58 percent in 2003 to 48.4 percent in 2010, and the coverage and quality of education improved. Progress was made in the public sector, as well as in economic and fiscal management, civil service and justice reform, and anti-corruption and public procurement reform. Recent data show modest developments in health, notably on HIV/AIDS prevalence (which remains stable) and maternal mortality (which declined considerably). The government is committed to consolidating these achievements while creating space for the continued funding of poverty reduction programs.
The Gambia’s fragility indicators have steadily worsened. The legacy of authoritarianism has shown up as the most salient cause of state fragility, evident in its weak public institutions, political instability, and the limited capacity of its public administration. The fragmentation of public service delivery across a huge number of agencies reduces expenditure efficiency, increases the administrative complexity of the public sector, limits the transparency of resource allocation, and obscures accountability for specific outcomes. Moreover, decades of undemocratic governance have weakened Gambian civil society, diminishing its capacity to advocate for good governance.
The Gambia’s growing debt leaves little fiscal space to reinvigorate the economy and ensure inclusive growth, particularly by investing in energy, modernizing agriculture, and providing resources for the poor. Its heavy dependence on agriculture, tourism, and a small service sector—coupled with a legacy of unsustainable macro-fiscal management—has increased the economy’s sensitivity to external shocks. The country’s vulnerability is further aggravated by its high susceptibility to multiple forms of environmental damage, and environmental degradation.
Rapid demographic changes are destabilizing the traditional social equilibrium. Urbanization poses an especially significant challenge as the arrival of large numbers of unemployed young people in Banjul and other cities further strains already inadequate urban infrastructure and overwhelms the capacity of municipal governments, leading to rising crime, drug abuse, and the general deterioration of the urban environment. Meanwhile, rural areas are losing important labor resources and experiencing a profound demographic shift.
A combination of slow economic growth, limited employment prospects, political instability and food insecurity has driven a dramatic increase in emigration. Gambians are now Europe’s second-largest diaspora as a share of the home-country population. The implications are mixed for fragility and resilience. While the loss of skilled labor has long slowed the country’s economic development, remittance income is an increasingly crucial component of household consumption. Emigration has also alleviated pressure on the labor market and eased the rising social discontent caused by the deteriorating economic situation.
Last Updated: Dec 15, 2017