Caroline Abel, the Governor of the Central Bank of Seychelles, is one of 14 women leading central banks around the world. This year, Caroline collected two international awards; Central Bank Governor of the Year Award in the 2020 African Banker Award and the Africa’s Woman Leaders award. Caroline speaks to Cosmocreole passionately about her work, her hopes for Seychelles post-pandemic and the things that matter to her personally.
By Jini Gilbert-Finnigan
Caroline was born on 20th October 1973 and grew up in Anse Boileau, on the western side of Mahé in a close-knit family together with her parents and younger sister. Caroline attended primary and secondary school at Anse Boileau, after which she joined the former National Youth Service (NYS). Growing up, Caroline was instilled with the values of working hard, and the importance of education. These are values that Caroline still firmly believe in today and try to pass on to other people she comes across, in all walks of life.
Being at the helm of the institution that has the crucial role of ensuring economic and financial stability comes with significant responsibilities, which means that Caroline spend a lot of time working. Nevertheless, she does take time to do other things, such as going to church whenever she can, and she also enjoys reading as this is how she keeps herself informed.
Carolines describes her family as her pillar of support in all circumstances, and is very important to her, and she tries to spend as much time with them as possible.
What made you choose a career in the financial industry?
I always had a passion for Mathematics, which led me to study the subject along with Economics and Geography at Advanced Level. I successfully sat for my A-Levels in November 1993 and qualified for a government scholarship to pursue university studies abroad. However, I was adamant on gaining some work experience before undertaking further studies. I took up a junior position at the Social Security Fund in December 1993, where my abilities did not go unnoticed. This led to my transfer to the Central Bank of Seychelles (CBS) in March 1994 on a probationary six-month period, after which I was formally appointed as Senior Bank Clerk in September 1994.
I did my undergraduate studies at the University of Leeds between 1996 and 1999, where I graduated with a BA in Economics, with Distinction. I then returned to the Central Bank to work as a Research Officer in the Research and Statistics Division. I became a Senior Research Officer in the same Division in 2001 and subsequently, Director of Research in 2002.
Presented with the opportunity to further my studies in 2004, I decided to pursue a Masters in Philosophy (MPhil) in Monetary Economics and Finance at the University of Glasgow, where I graduated with Distinction in 2005. A year later, I was promoted to the role of Head of Research and Statistics, a post I held until I was appointed Deputy Governor in July 2010. Following amendments to the Central Bank of Seychelles Act, I was appointed First Deputy Governor in December 2011. In March 2012, I was appointed Governor—I was re-appointed to serve a second six-year term in March 2018.
Your appointment in March 2012, meant you became the first woman to be appointed Governor of the Central Bank of Seychelles—an enormous responsibility—What were the challenges you faced when you first stepped into those shoes and how did you adapt?
To me, it does not matter if you are a man or a woman, as long as you are prepared to discharge your duties with zeal and confidence. Hence, ever since assuming the position of Governor, I have always taken the approach of focussing on the role itself.
Having joined CBS in 1994, I have acquired ample experience and exposure from working with all the different divisions and units, coupled with the necessary technical training at other central banks and international institutions to boost my knowledge and skills. Through these exposures, I have gained a thorough understanding of how the institution functions and acquired a wealth of experience and expertise that have greatly helped me settle into the role. I have also worked closely with past governors who have challenged me to develop my potential.
When you first become Governor, you do take note that you are now responsible and accountable for every decision, and this can be an overwhelming thought at first. Nevertheless, over time, you learn to navigate and better manage the challenges and pressure that come with the role.
One important thing that I have always believed in, is having the support and dedication of your team. Being able to collectively address challenges, take decisions and move forward to attain the objectives of this very important institution is of paramount importance.
How important is it to work as a team in your field, and what kind of support you get from your team?
CBS is a young and dynamic institution with a team of around 200 professionals possessing a wealth of expertise and experience in diverse areas. No matter the job title, each of these individuals, has a vital role in helping the institution achieve its objectives. The Governor’s part of ensuring that the work that needs to be done is followed through and reflected in the economy, is highly dependent on this team. The year 2020 is one that has truly showcased the commitment and support of all staff through the time, effort and hard work they have invested in helping the Central Bank respond to the exigencies of the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic. The emphasis I place on the team relates to the fact that the work is not done by the Governor alone, but rather reflects the work that we do as an institution, at all levels; from the Board, Management Team to every single staff. It is important to note that inclusivity and team spirit, which fosters collaboration, are among the core values upheld by the institution.
It will be an understatement to say 2020 has been challenging—the pandemic dealt major blow to life as we knew it, as the Governor of Central Bank of Seychelles, what has been your greatest challenge this year?
Similar to other central banks globally, CBS has had to adapt in the face of challenges. The new reality presented by the COVID-19 pandemic has necessitated that we reinforce our role as guardians of the economy, think outside of the textbook and adopt a practical approach to support and give confidence to the economy. There are instances where CBS has found itself to be the only one talking to the population and maintaining its position on various economic aspects. This has been done considering that the Central Bank has a bird’s eye view of the economy and has a duty to monitor the constantly changing dynamics on the domestic and external fronts and provide guidance to all economic actors.
CBS remains vigilant and is working closely with various stakeholders to guide the economy through these challenging times, mindful that while the COVID-19 pandemic continues to be the primary focus, there are other persistent risks to CBS and the domestic financial system.
De-risking and its associated implications on Correspondent Banking Relationships (CBRs) is one of the key threats, as the loss of CBRs would hinder the ability of the local banks to facilitate trade and provide effective intermediary services. Cognisant of the impact that this could have on the economy, CBS is committed to continue working with other relevant stakeholders to strengthen the country’s Anti-Money Laundering and Countering the Financing of Terrorism measures.
Cybersecurity risk is also being closely monitored, given the increased reliance on technology and efforts to modernise the national payment system. Besides ensuring that there are appropriate legal frameworks in place to mitigate cybersecurity threats within the financial sector, education is also a key element to empower the population to use technology and the internet more responsibly.
What are your hopes for Seychelles economy when all this is over, and how is the Central Bank of Seychelles planning for the post-COVID-19 pandemic period?
This is not the first time the Seychelles economy has been hit by a crisis. We can all remember when the country embarked on the 2008 macroeconomic reform programme supported by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to primarily address the serious balance of payments and external debt difficulties, at a time when the world was also facing an economic crisis. Since then – until the economy was hit by the COVID-19 pandemic – the reforms, which led to the introduction of a series of measures had been successfully implemented. The country was on track to reduce the debt to GDP ratio to 50% by 2021, and as a result of prudent monetary policy, the country’s international reserves had grown from less than one month to 3.5 months of import coverage.
However, as we have seen with the COVID-19 pandemic, Seychelles remains vulnerable to external shocks, as a result of being a small open economy with limited resources, inherently dependent on international trade and highly dependent on tourism as its main source of revenue. The unprecedented global pandemic has led to a contraction in economic activity and brought about many challenges including a record loss of income from the services sector, labour difficulties, depreciation of the local currency resulting in increased cost of imports, amongst many others.
As of yet the duration of the crisis and the path to recovery remains uncertain. From the Central Bank perspective, it is clear that the situation is more difficult than the 2008 crisis and will take a lot of effort to achieve a strong recovery. Nevertheless, the CBS team stands ready to take on the challenge and continue to work with all stakeholders, both local and international, including the IMF, to implement measures that would help redress the economy.
As it has been the case throughout 2020, CBS will maintain its communication with the public to keep them informed of the situation and provide guidance. The path to recovery will necessitate a concerted effort by every single individual and at all levels where there should be an increased focus on the responsible management of our finances and resources, every effort should also be made to ensure that the country gets back on track to reduce its debt levels, diversification of the economy, amongst other aspects. As we steer the economy back on the path to recovery, we must also ensure that the country can become more resilient despite its vulnerability.
As the governor of the Central Bank of Seychelles, what important piece of advice would you give to anyone in order to cope with the financial challenges we are facing at the moment?
For CBS, financial literacy – having the ability to make better and more informed decisions about matters related to financial wellbeing – is of utmost importance. For this reason, CBS has been spearheading the implementation of a National Financial Education Strategy in collaboration with stakeholders from various sectors – advocating the messages of saving, budgeting, and investment. These messages, particularly the aspects of saving and budgeting, have been reinforced now that the country faces the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic, impacting businesses, households, individuals and the economy as a whole.
The situation is indeed difficult – the local currency has greatly depreciated, cost of goods and services have increased, some people have lost jobs and have had their income reduced, and there is still much uncertainty as to how long the situation will last and the time it will take for the economy to recover. In the meantime, while the situation is difficult, we all have to adapt. As CBS has been communicating in recent times, my advice to everyone is to be mindful of this new reality and realise that there needs to be a shift in our behaviour, particularly our spending habit. This is the right time to develop this culture of spending on what we really need and to put something on the side for a rainy day, even if it is a small amount. Reevaluating our priorities for the short, medium and long term is also very important. These messages do not apply solely to individuals, but they are also applicable to businesses and the Government.
You received two awards this year—Central Bank Governor of the Year Award in the 2020 African Banker Award, and an Africa’s Woman Leaders award—these are great achievements, congratulations! What do you feel has been your greatest achievements to date, and what do these awards mean to you?
Thank you. I have mentioned on numerous occasions, these awards are more than personal achievements as they have helped shine a spotlight on the work that the Central Bank is doing as an institution. Being a central banker requires hard work and dedication, which implies long hours, and I believe that these awards serve as encouragement for all staff.
In terms of achievements, I would say that I am proud of the transformation that CBS has gone through as an institution in the face of challenges, both on the domestic and external fronts. It is also truly rewarding to see how people within the institution have grown. There is much more to be done, but I am confident in the maturity of the institution to remain resilient and continue delivering on its mandate.
You are one of 14 women heading Central Banks across the globe, the first woman to be the Governor of the Central bank of Seychelles, do you think there is gender inequality in your field of work?
Based on the figures, one can conclude that there is gender inequality and I would agree that this is the case to some extent, particularly when it comes to more senior positions. According to the Official Monetary and Financial Institutions Forum (OMFIF) – an independent forum for central banking, economic policy and public investment’s Gender Balance Index 2020, central banks and other financial institutions are working to improve gender equality but still count too few women in senior roles.
To close the gap, central banks should be willing to empower their female employees and provide them with the opportunity to develop their potential to assume leadership positions. It is in that regard that CBS has launched its Executive Development Programme, to equip emerging leaders with the necessary knowledge, expertise, and skills – and there is a good representation of women enrolled on the training and mentoring programme.
As a woman, what does it take to be a leader in a male-dominated industry?
Many women are working in the financial sector. To take the example of CBS, women make up around 65 percent of our workforce. I firmly believe in women’s ability to excel in their careers and seize the opportunities that exist to take on leadership roles. As a woman myself, with a 26-year career as a central banker, my advice to other women would be to continue working hard and be willing to learn and accumulate experience, which will undoubtedly build their capabilities and confidence to become great leaders. Leadership can be defined in many ways and requires certain qualities such as being innovative, independent, resilient, embracing change, listening to others, and influencing others to make the best decisions, amongst other traits. Having said that, I believe it is important to stress that being a leader is not only about having a title; everyone should strive to display such qualities in everything that they do.
Is there anything you wish you’d known at the start of your career you now know?
Until you are faced with a situation, you cannot know how well you will handle it. This applies to all aspects of life, including along your career path. I have experienced this firsthand as CBS has been faced with new realities, such as the 2008 economic crisis and now the COVID-19 pandemic, which has required adjusting and doing things differently. I believe in continuous learning and that we should be willing and ready to adapt as we go through life, as things will always evolve. As long as you are equipped with the knowledge of what your job entails and remain true to your values, you will surely grow and advance in your chosen field.
Cosmocreole is all about inspiring women—we connect, inspire, and share. Who has been your greatest inspiration in life?
I would say, my father. Many people may know him for his literary works and accomplishment, but he was also an educator, a role that he did not limit to his classroom students but extended to his children. Growing up, my father was a great teacher and mentor who taught me at a very early age to think independently, and not take anything at face value. He would rarely provide me with a straight answer but rather got me to figure things out for myself, and trained me to always ask questions to make an informed decision. This has helped me to develop my thought process, and always scrutinise, and evaluate all available information from different perspectives before making a decision. Until today, I apply this principle in all aspects of life, be it professional or personal.
As Seychellois women, how do you think we can inspire each other?
Women have a key role to play, be it at home, at work or in any other settings. Women should find ways to come together and strive to build meaningful relationships. We all have our qualities and strengths and these should be used to empower others around us. As women, we should also be willing to reach out, be supportive to those having some weaknesses or facing trials, and show them that they can achieve great things if they are willing to make an effort and believe in themselves. Through this, we will inspire each other and become role models for the younger generation on how women should support and empower each other.
Let’s talk about the future—your future. What are your ambitions and where do you want to be in both your professional and personal life?
As Governor, I intend to remain focussed on the task ahead, particularly to guide the institution and the country’s economy on the path to recovery as we navigate through the impacts caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Beyond my role as Governor, I have a passion for helping others; from sharing my knowledge with those around me to providing a helping hand to those in need. I am the Patron of the Red Cross Society of Seychelles since May 2017, a role which I accepted as the fundamental principles of the Red Cross tie in well with my own beliefs.
As I reflect on my childhood, I believe that some of the practices and values that existed back then, such as elders guiding the younger generation, are lacking in today’s society. While we have evolved as a nation, passing down beliefs and values that make us who we are should not be neglected. For this reason, I would like to help counsel and give guidance to the youth who are being challenged in some way. The youth of today are our future, and we have to instruct and guide them. I see many young people with potential, which gives me hope that our future will be in good hands. I also believe that those who have lost their way still have time to get back on the right path, if they are offered a helping hand and they, in turn, are willing to accept the help.
If you were to choose one particular moment of your life, which will it be and why?
From childhood, through school and into adulthood, you are shaped by the knowledge and experiences gained from parents, educators, colleagues and mentors. You also encounter good and happy times and face many challenges and trials, which all help you develop as an individual and build your character. That said, I believe that life’s journey is a learning experience and that every moment counts and should be cherished.
What’s your life motto?
My motto in life is “Always say the truth, irrespective of who it might offend.”
And finally —Wealth is…
Generally, wealth is associated with money but I believe it is so much more than money. For me, it encompasses being healthy, having a family and friends that support you, and being able to spend time with them along with every other aspect of life that I value. Therefore, I would say that wealth can be interpreted in many different ways depending on each individual’s beliefs or aspirations.