Moroccan expatriates show Sierra Leone the way to harnessing diaspora investments and expertise

11 May 2012

When president Koroma took office in 2007, one of the promises made was that he would leverage the special relationship he had struck with Sierra Leoneans in the diaspora, especially those living in the USA – supporting his Agenda for Change, to help rebuild the country’s economy.

But five years on, his diaspora financial backers have let him down woefully. They have done nothing, other than enriching themselves in a national corruption scam, dubbed – ‘operation payback time’.

Few of president Koroma’s financial backers once living abroad, who returned to Sierra Leone after Koroma won the elections, have invested in establishing private enterprises. Their impact on the country’s economy is said to have been negative.

Many are either involved in creaming off lucrative public procurement contracts – acting as agents, or employed in key government offices, where they are enriching themselves with looted public funds.

Diaspora friends and business associates of the vice president have also been shown in a TV documentary to have abused their relationship with the vice president, in order to gain unlawful financial advantage.

The vice president, himself a diaspora returnee, had issued press statement claiming to be innocent. Many do not believe him, as government corruption goes unimpeded.

The country’s Anti-Corruption Commissioner – himself a relative of the president, is powerless to hold those involved accountable.

Few have been indicted and successfully prosecuted. The Anti-Corruption Chief is one of the country’s highest paid civil servants, with a whopping $18,000 a month. Most senior civil servants earn less than $300 a month.

It is a constant battle for state employed doctors to be paid $500 a month by the government. And it is difficult to attract Sierra Leonean doctors working abroad for such low income, when those producing less national value earn much more.

Yet, many in Sierra Leone do believe that qualified, skilled and experienced Sierra Leoneans living and working overseas, can and should have key role to play in filling the much needed human resource capacity gap, and more importantly, to return home to invest in the private sector to create jobs.

President Koroma gave his personal and official support for the establishment of a project aptly titled – Office of the Diaspora Project and the Direct Expatriate Nationals Investment (DENI).

Both projects are funded through the public purse to assist Sierra Leoneans living abroad identify and utilise available job and entrepreneurial opportunities in the country. And both projects have become a disaster and an embarrassment to the president.

When the DENI project was launched four years ago, the initiators said that; “the Direct Expatriate Nationals Investment (DENI) proposal was originally designed as a Debt Relief and Poverty Reduction program, but has since morphed into Enhanced DENI as an External Resource Mobilization and Poverty Reduction Program for countries that have received massive debt cancellation from the HIPC Program, mostly in Africa – including Sierra Leone.”

DENI’s main objective was to identify, evaluate and help government in the privatisation of state-owned enterprises, through the sale of shares to Sierra Leoneans in the diaspora. Four years on, not one state-enterprise has been sold off.

Since its launch in 2008, Sierra Leone’s Stock Exchange has just one company in its portfolio – the Rokel Bank, which is part-owned by the state.

The Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Rokel Bank, Birch Momodu Conte, told reporters in 2011 that; “our decision to expand the lending book bears a direct relationship with the need to grow the economy and provide opportunities for the investing public.” He also said that “plans to privatize the bank are underway by the Government of Sierra Leone to enable shareholders buy more and give opportunities to other Sierra Leoneans.”

Despite its potential to do more, the Stock Exchange is plagued with lethargy, inertia and poor leadership, which are stifling innovative actions and entrepreneurship.

Bank of Sierra Leone

The Bank of Sierra Leone believes that; “Capital markets provide both the government and the private sector with access to the types of long-term investment capital necessary to achieve accelerated economic growth. Sitting at the heart of the capital markets is the stock exchange, which provides the link between businesses, which need money, and investors, both individual and institutional, with money to invest.”

It also says that; “The government, and therefore the nation as a whole, benefit from the stock exchange through being able to raise money to invest in the country’s infrastructure and public services, as well as private business ventures.”

It is estimated that there are well over a million Sierra Leoneans living and working abroad, whose remittance to relatives and friends back home in Sierra Leone is said to have been running at over Ten Million Dollars, prior to the start of the global economic downturn in 2008.

It is also estimated that, should a mere fifty-percent of those skilled and experienced Sierra Leoneans living and working abroad return home, Sierra Leone’s GDP and productivity level will more than quadrupled.

But there are sceptics, especially among Sierra Leoneans back home. They have had terrible experiences of their brothers and sisters returning home, only to live on corrupt earnings or displacing local labour – by simply using their tribal or political connections.

Such pessimism about the valuable role that can be played by Sierra Leoneans living abroad, understandable has merit. Sadly, over fifty-percent of the recent corruption trials have involved diaspora returnees.

But it seems the people of Morocco are willing to turn to their diaspora brothers and sisters for help in developing the country’s economy.

According to the African Press Organisation (APO), the International Organisation for Migration and the Belgian Embassy in Rabat, have today signed an agreement to launch an innovative programme.

The programme is aimed at encouraging Moroccans living in Belgium to start businesses back home in Morocco.

This EUR 1.2 million, two-year programme, seeks to encourage Moroccan expatriates to invest their savings, knowledge and expertise into the setting up of private ventures that will further the development of impoverished regions in the north and east of the country.

The Mobilization of Moroccans Residing in Belgium for the Development of Morocco programme (MEDMA 2) is based on the findings and recommendations of a 2007 IOM/Government of Belgium study.

The study findings showed that Moroccans in Belgium were keen to invest in their home region, but often lacked sufficient information to do so.

Over 250,000 Moroccans, mostly from Morocco’s northern regions, currently live Belgium.
The programme will be carried out in partnership with the Ministry of Moroccans Residing Abroad and the Hassan II Foundation for Moroccans Residing Abroad.

It will be supported by a combination of public and private partners in Belgium, including the Solvay Brussels School of Economics and Management, in achieving its aim of providing potential investors with up-to-date technical, financial and administrative information.

It will also provide them with insights into how best to access existing national mechanisms to facilitate their investment.

“The overall objective of this pilot project is to show that the Moroccan diaspora can significantly contribute to the socio-economic development of some of the poorest regions in the north,” says IOM Morocco’s Dorien Deketele.

With elections in Sierra Leone just six months away, there are many Sierra Leoneans living and working abroad, who are hoping for a change in political direction.

They are hoping for a new direction, which could create a genuine and credible political and economic environment, conducive for them to return home to invest and offer their skills and expertise in rebuilding the country’s economy.

Can Sierra Leone learn from that Moroccan experience?

 

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