Sunday, October 26, 2008

Global crisis threatens vital remittances to Africa

By Jack Kimball, Fri 10 Oct 2008 - KAMPALA (Reuters)

Coins clank softly and Ugandan shillings shuffle their way through counting machines at a foreign exchange bureau in downtown Kampala.

Yet in the last few months, the money-flow has been dwindling, with cash sent from Ugandans abroad via the bureau down by more than half to about $35,000 per day.

"August was the worst month. September was bad, and October is going bad, bad, bad," said Igal Mohamed Ali, managing director of Bicco Forex Bureau, which is a conduit for money from Ugandans living in the United Kingdom.

Remittances to Africa, worth $40 billion a year according to the United Nations, could be an early casualty of the global financial crisis.

Though traditionally resilient even at times of crisis, remittance flows are bound to suffer if Africans working abroad have to tighten their belts or lose their jobs.

"Remittances were keeping a very, very strong anchor under us, but I think we are going to have a dramatic slowdown in remittances because I think the second round effects (of the crisis) are going to mean a lot of lay-offs," Kenyan financial analyst Aly Khan Satchu said.

That could deliver a heavy blow to parts of Africa at a time the continent had been enjoying its fastest growth in decades -- an annual average of over 6 percent for the past five years.

Though it is too early to quantify the impact across Africa, anecdotal evidence from the Bicco bureau in Uganda and elsewhere show some are already feeling the impact of less money coming in from the 30 million of so Africans living abroad.

"We're not talking about investment or profitability here, we're talking about helping your family survive," said Pedro De Vasconcelos, remittance coordinator for the U.N. International Fund for Agriculture Development.

Some families abroad have already warned of less cash.

"They have always had to make sacrifices, holding down at least two jobs to make ends meet," said Zimbabwean Munashe Mujati, a student whose two brothers work in Britain. "Of late ... we've increasingly been told it could be tighter for them."

For the continent as a whole, remittances are estimated to account for only about 2 percent of gross domestic product.

But in some nations like Eritrea, Somalia, Burundi, Liberia and Lesotho, remittances contribute over 20 percent, according to global financial institutions. Money mostly comes from North America, Europe and Asia.

"OUR LIFEBLOOD"

In Zimbabwe's capital Harare, lines outside money transfer agencies have become noticeably shorter.

Pensioner Petros Makombe, collecting funds from a U.S.-based son, said his fortnightly receipts are now monthly. "This is our lifeblood. Without it, we would not survive," he said.

Analysts are divided at the moment on the depth of the likely impact of the financial crisis on Africa.

Tourism, remittances, aid and foreign investment may all suffer. A heavy blow for some countries could also come from substantial falls in the prices of export commodities because of falling global demand.

But African bank portfolios are relatively unexposed to assets elsewhere. The continent may also benefit from its deepening economic ties with Asia, which has not suffered as badly as the West so far.

Africa represents only 1.3 percent of world stock market capitalisation, 0.2 percent of debt securities and 0.8 percent of bank assets, according to the African Development Bank.

The longevity of the crisis will determine its full impact on remittances, analysts say.

"If this financial crisis becomes an economic recession, that will directly affect the viability of certain companies, and therefore also the jobs of some immigrants," said Kalidou Diallo, an official in Guinea's Ministry of Economy and Finance.

The fate of the dollar is another key factor.

"The dollar has been appreciating, so whoever receives remittances gets more at the moment, but if it falls, then receivers will start getting fewer dollars," said Oliver Saasa, a prominent Zambian economic consultant.

The financial crisis has added to an already tough year for Africans, hit hard by fuel and food prices rises.

The recent fall in oil prices has not yet translated into cheaper prices for consumers. "The last thing they want to see is remittance flows being choked off," said Philippe de Pontet, analyst with Eurasia Group.

But not all of Africa's nations are expecting to feel a remittance pinch.

As the world's eighth-largest oil exporter, Nigeria's swollen foreign exchange reserves -- estimated at over $63 billion or some 16 months of imports -- should help offset any drop in remittances from its sizeable overseas population.

And in Morocco, Mohamed Khachani, chairman of the migration study and research association (AMERM), said there may even be a boost in remittances.

"The crisis can lead to the retention of money in the host country, but can also be an incentive to send more home. With one important crisis -- the Sept. 11 attacks -- transfers back to Morocco rose 60 percent that year," he said.

For many, though, it just means more uncertainty in already precarious lives.

"I don't know much about this crisis. I'm waiting to see what happens and hoping that it does not affect the little bit of support that I get from relatives and friends abroad," said Sekou Cisse, a travel agency employee in the Guinean capital.