Paris was the venue for the international “Conference of Partners for the Development of the Comoros” (La Conférence des partenaires pour le développement des Comores), held over 2-3 December, by the World Bank, the United Nations Development Programme and the French and Comorian Governments. The conference sought to raise €4.2 billion ($6.8 billion) in loans and donations to help fund infrastructure and development projects in Comorian President Azali Assoumani’s ambitious and multi-faceted Plan Comores Emergent (“Plan for the Emerging Comoros”). At the conclusion of the conference, that goal seems to have been realised. Among the major donors were the World Bank, which pledged US$175 million, the African Union (US$11 million), and the United Arab Emirates, through the Abu Dhabi Fund for Development, which committed US$50 million.
The Union of the Comoros constitutes one of the poorest and least-developed corners of the Indian Ocean Region. It has been plagued by political instability – including some 20 coups d’état – and the accompanying economic underdevelopment, since independence from France in 1975. Compounding the archipelago’s troubles are: a small and very narrow economy offering only limited employment opportunities; a youthful and growing population; and low standards of education and medical care.
The three-island nation has few natural resources to draw upon. The economy is heavily dependent on exports of the cash crops of vanilla, cloves and ylang-ylang (an essence used in the manufacture of perfumes). Such crops are, of course, subject to the vagaries of pricing in global commodities markets and also to damage from occasional tropical cyclones.
Under the Plan Comores Emergent, with the funding secured by the Paris conference, President Assoumani intends to broaden the Comorian economy. He plans to: develop the archipelago’s very limited tourism industry; expand the agriculture and fisheries industries; construct much-needed infrastructure; improve air and sea transport links between the Comoros and other countries and among the islands themselves; develop the capital, Moroni, as a regional financial centre, particularly for Islamic finance; and showcase the economic opportunities available to investors. The ultimate objective is to move the Comoros into the ranks of upper middle-income countries by 2030. Coming off such a low base, this is nothing if not ambitious. The entire Plan Comores Emergent alone, if fully implemented, carries a price tag of US$2.02 billion ($2.95 billion).
President Assoumani certainly has his work cut out for him. According to the World Bank, more than half (53 per cent) of the country’s population of just over 821,000 is under the age of 20 and ‘according to the last household survey conducted in 2014, almost 18% of the population lives below the international poverty line set at US$1.90 per capita per day.’ Other statistics are equally as bleak: Gross Domestic Product per capita (calculated on a purchasing power parity basis) stood at US$1,600 (2017 estimate), the maternal mortality rate in 2017 was 273 deaths per 100,000 live births and the infant mortality rate was 58.3 deaths per 1,000 live births (2018 estimate).
Sustainable development is a key theme of President Assoumani’s vision and, if implemented carefully, an expanded tourist industry – particularly if focussed on ecotourism – could be of great value. As things stand, however, there are few hotels in the country and certainly none of the four- or five-star level comparable to those on offer on such other “Vanilla Islands” as Mauritius, Réunion, Seychelles, or even Madagascar. Considerable foreign investment will certainly be required if the ambition of increasing the number of foreign visitors from 35,865 (in 2018) to 100,000 in 2026 and 200,000 in 2030 – and providing the more than 4,000 beds needed to accommodate them – is to be realised.
Unfortunately, political discord is never far from the surface in the Comoros. Although President Assoumani secured a second term in March 2019, his opponents alleged that the vote was rigged and have threatened to boycott the parliamentary elections scheduled to be held in early 2020. Despite the country’s recent period of relative stability, further insecurity cannot be ruled out and that is a prospect likely to deter at least some potential investors.
The high level of poverty, poor health outcomes and low economic and educational opportunities are primary factors driving illegal emigration to the neighbouring, French-ruled, island of Mayotte, which is struggling to cope with the numbers arriving by boat from the Comoros.
France, under the government of President Emmanuel Macron, has pledged to work more closely with the Comorian authorities to improve living standards in that country, thereby stemming the flow of illegal arrivals in Mayotte and easing local anger there. If the Comorian Government, in partnership with France and other international donors, can achieve even half of the goals set out in Plan Comores Emergent, it should bring tangible benefits for both the Comoros and Mayotte.