CMG Content partnership   13 September 2018

“We are not peddlers of problems and doom; we are merchants of solutions and hope.”

- Gibril Faal

Gibril Faal is no stranger to the business world. With an impressive track record, having run and led several successful diaspora initiatives, he’s known as Mr. Diaspora.

He was recently appointed chair of the Entrepreneurship & Circular Migration Committee. We were lucky enough to meet him and discuss his journey, business initiatives and challenges. We also discussed what still needs to be done for the African diaspora.

Hi Gibril, please tell us about where your journey began.

I’m from a town called Latrikunda in the Republic of the Gambia. The original village was founded and developed by my great-grandfather, Morr Faal, in the late 1800s. He left the royal household of the Kingdom of Cayor (present-day Senegal), settled briefly in Banjul before establishing what is now one of the Gambia’s thriving communities.

I attended Serekunda Primary School in the early 70s, a state school opened in 1949, situated a mile from our house. From1979, I attended Gambia High School (GHS) and was there for seven years.

Could you tell us a bit about your experience of working at the Supreme Court?

In 1986, I had the opportunity to train at the Supreme Court of the Gambia for three months and worked for over a year as a Junior Clerk of the Court. I was still a teenager when I was given the responsibility to run a semi-rural Magistrate’s Court, clerking for a travelling magistrate.


When did you move to the UK?

I’ve lived in the UK since 1987. Education has always been a very big part of who I am.  In the three decades that I’ve been in this country, I’ve studied at five universities. I’ve qualified in diverse disciplines such as law, finance, management, development economics, planning and environmental sciences.

How did growing up in the Gambia influence your outlook on life?

My parents instilled strong moral and guiding principles, which have influenced a lot of things that I’ve done in my life. I believe that the starting point of growing as a person is being accountable and having a duty to contribute to the welfare and advancement of family, community and country.

At home and at school, there was an emphasis on the importance of education, especially for people from deprived backgrounds.

My father advocated hard work and wanted us to thrive - I think I’ve inherited that passion. My mother demonstrated generosity, kindness and discretion in all business and interpersonal relations. I try to live up to her standards of gentleness and general compassion, which have been beneficial in both personal and professional endeavours.

In 2014 the Queen appointed you an OBE. What did this mean to you?

I was grateful that the Department for International Development (DFID) was kind enough to nominate me. I was pleased for the sectoral recognition, especially for the pioneering role of the African Foundation for Development (AFFORD), which I chaired for over a decade. 

When I was growing up, I was taught that honour, success and personal satisfaction arise out of principled actions that benefit communities. And so material gain or public recognition on their own should not be motivating factors. I was both amazed and gratified by the people who celebrated this honour with me. 

My swearing-in was conducted by Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, at Windsor Castle. I was especially moved to see how proud and happy my father was. He was nearly 90 years old and passed away about three months after the ceremony.


What were your early challenges working with diaspora communities in the UK? 

We had to analyse, explain and demonstrate how small individual actions such as monthly remittances and the work of home town and alumni associations are linked to the macro-dynamics of national and international development.

We needed to explain to diaspora communities and mainstream partners, the role, potential and dynamic power of diaspora aggregation. This then led to making a case for the existence of diverse and healthy ecology of diaspora organisations. These would include well-structured legal companies limited by guarantee and fully-fledged registered charities – subscribing to the governance and compliance obligations of myriad laws and regulations.

Would you say it has been a success so far?

To an extent, it has been. This was the path to practical partnerships with the major development institutions. We had to motivate people to focus on positive action and healthy ambition in the face of unfairness and disadvantage. 

This is why in 2005, when AFFORD hosted the late Nobel Laureate Professor Wangari Maathai at African Diaspora and Development Day (AD3), I came up with the mantra that: “We are not peddlers of problems and doom, we are merchants of solutions and hope”.


With the African diaspora growing, what’s your opinion on the brain drain challenge Africa faces?

Migration resulting from actual or potential conflict or desperate poverty are indeed signs of underdevelopment. However, evidence also shows that the more developed a country is, the higher the actual migration from the country.

It’s not prudent for policymakers just to assume that migration is a potentially increasing phenomenon. Policy interventions should be differentiated so as to: prevent dysfunctional migration; mitigate the negative effects of specific forms of migration; and optimise the positive impacts of general migration. Brain drain and ‘brain waste’ (when skilled migrants are employed in lower skilled or unskilled work in destination countries), are examples of the negative effects of migration. Nevertheless, an entire body of best practice has evolved to mitigate these.


You have developed a course that tackles the issues of migration and its effects; could you give us an overview of its purpose?

Yes, I’ve developed an accredited course on ’Optimising Actual, Virtual and Circular Return’ to help countries of origin and heritage attain optimal development inputs from migrants in the diaspora, whether they return home or not. Large numbers of those in the diaspora are multigenerational people who were not even born in their country of heritage – yet they still have a lot to contribute.

How supportive has the UK government been to your cause? 

The emergence of diaspora-development in the past 20 years is one of the rare incidents in international development. Through the pioneering work of AFFORD and its co-founder and first Executive Director Chukwu-Emeka Chikezie MBE, the first formal breakthrough in the UK was in 1998.

DFID was created as a standalone Ministry from the Overseas Development Administration, which was part of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and produced its first white paper. Although the word ‘diaspora’ was not used, AFFORD was able to influence the government to include a commitment to work with migrants and members of ethnic minorities in the UK to promote development in their countries of origin. We followed through by helping DFID and others to implement that policy.  

“A large number of those in the diaspora were not born in their country of heritage, yet they have a lot to contribute.”


Would you say that diaspora groups are acknowledged more now, as a result of that white paper?

Diaspora organisations are recognised as a distinct group. Almost every international development funding programme in the UK monitors this category to assess the level of access to funding and general inclusion in programmes and processes. 

For the African diaspora and other small and specialised organisations, advocacy to avoid marginalisation is an ongoing task. In the early 2000s, AFFORD and VSO developed a very innovative diaspora volunteering programme, later funded by DFID and evaluated as successful and important.

Is there any help for diaspora community organisations struggling with capacity and funding?

In the UK through the AFFORD Business Club (ABC) and in the EU through Africa-Europe Diaspora Development Platform (ADEPT), we provide practical and technical training, support, fundraising and resource mobilisation. But AFFORD, ADEPT and similar organisations require more resources to meet the existing demand.


Do you think it’s necessary to have a funding scheme that’s specific for our diaspora communities and organisations?

The European Union, a number of national governments, as well as many major funders, have criteria that effectively exclude small and diaspora organisations from their schemes. And so it’s necessary to have dedicated diaspora funding programmes. This principle has been accepted by many countries around the world.

In 2013, as part of the United Nations High Level Dialogue on International Migration and Development (UNHLD), AFFORD facilitated the participation of Comic Relief who made a credible case for dedicated diaspora funding.

In the UK, AFFORD works in partnership with DFID, Comic Relief, Pharo Foundation and others to provide funding of up to £30,000 to diaspora organisations running projects in Africa. 

Currently, ADEPT is in consultation with the European Commission (EC) and the Swiss Government for a Europe-wide Diaspora Grant Fund.


How involved are you in promoting intercontinental dialogue, and how well is that going?

The diaspora may be in conflict with their governments, but they remain patriotic. Personally, I couldn’t have worked with the then dictatorial regime in the Gambia, so we made our contributions in different ways. 

With a democratic government taking office in January 2016, I am now running a Technical Cooperation Project with the Office of the President. It has been followed up with consultations and the production of a Diaspora Strategy which declared the Gambia Diaspora as the eighth region of the country. 

We are now in the implementation phase, with tasks including the setting up of a Gambia Diaspora Directorate, facilitation of diaspora voting at presidential elections, reduction of the cost of remittances and creation of a Diaspora Development Fund.

What advice would you give to Africa’s next generation of business leaders and innovators?

The African empires of classical antiquity, Kush and Kemet, were civilisations not for Africans alone, but for all of humanity. The medieval University of Timbuktu was not for African clerics alone, it was for Islamic scholars across the world.

The contemporary moral leadership of Archbishop Desmond Tutu did not benefit South Africans alone, it inspired the whole world. African business leaders, innovators and social entrepreneurs can bring Africa-inspired solutions, not only to Africa but to the global village, connected by technology and an emergent cyber-politan culture.

Is your work and personal life balanced? How do you relax from your busy schedule?

I’m not sure that my life is balanced and often, the boundaries are blurred. I like a good laugh. Satire is my favourite form of entertainment. I subscribe to Private Eye and collect satirical cartoons. My favourite artist is Rene Magritte.

“African business leaders, innovators and social entrepreneurs can bring Africa-inspired solutions.”