The New Gambia: What’s on and off the aid agenda

barrow-3The smallest nation on the African continent has a lot on its plate. Newly elected President of The Gambia Adama Barrow faces an insolvent economy, two decades of documented human rights abuses, reserves of only two months’ worth of imports, more than 40 percent youth unemployment, and a capital city that, according to environmental impact assessments, will slip into the Atlantic in less than 45 years.

Barrow’s inauguration tomorrow is billed as an end to 22 years of oppression and isolationism under the ousted Yahya Jammeh and a rebirth of “The New Gambia.”

As the world waits to discover how and when Barrow will carry out his promise to “completely reform” the fragile West African nation, aid donors are already crowding in, eager to get a read on Barrow’s agenda.

The new president is aware of the challenges he faces, and tries to remind the crowds of jubilant Gambians that it’s not going to be easy.

“We had a dictatorship against governance, with human rights abuses, bad policies and violations of the rule of law. A dictatorship that cost us our friends; a dictatorship whose conduct deprived us of development and aid; a dictatorship that was against its citizens,” he said at a press conference on Feb. 9 in the capital Banjul.

His predecessor, Jammeh, implemented a four-year freeze on the receipt of foreign aid from what he referred to as “neo-colonial institutions,” and political oppression was rife under his rule.

“As a new government, what we have inherited is an economy that is virtually bankrupt, and in need of immediate rescue,” said Barrow.

Barrow’s aid agenda

Despite the unflagging enthusiasm of Barrow’s followers, his plan for The New Gambia so far is vague. It consists of a self-imposed three-year deadline to achieve real economic, political and social reform, including job creation to keep Gambians in Gambia, infrastructure development, legislative and institutional reform, and good governance.

But he has a clearer vision of the role of international aid and investment. “My view of our dire economic situation is that what The Gambia critically needs at the moment is immediate budget support, in order to rescue our economy from the brink of collapse,” he said.

The country is experiencing high levels of unemployment and high fiscal deficits. Interest payments on public sector debt absorbed 40 percent of government revenues in 2015, according to the African Development Bank. And its economy is vulnerable to external shocks, such as the recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa, which severely damaged its tourism sector.

Donors including the European Union, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have confirmed more than $275 million in support since Barrow’s unofficial inauguration in Dakar, Senegal, two weeks ago. However, most of these funds are project-based, and most are dedicated to reactivating and expanding the scope of current small-to-medium scale initiatives such as shoreline erosion prevention, school-based nutrition and women’s economic empowerment.

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson also confirmed to Devex during a meeting in Serrekunda — The Gambia’s largest town — that more funding announcements “are expected” from the U.K. government. A source close to the Foreign Office added that these will include a new package from the Commonwealth, which Johnson said The Gambia will rejoin in a matter of months. Other funds will come from the Foreign & Commonwealth Office’s share of official development assistance as part of the U.K. government’s commitment to spend more aid through departments other than the Department for International Development.

However, regardless of which department sends aid to The Gambia, the U.K. government no longer offers general budget support because of concerns around accountability and transparency.

In other words, the aid Barrow wants is not flowing — at least not yet.

“When it comes to budget support, we have more precise criteria and more precise benchmarks that we follow and monitor and are the basis of each and every tranche,” European Commissioner for International Development Neven Mimica told Devex in Banjul.

Mimica said that in addition to the 150 million euros package announced last week — half of which will be available immediately to expand current projects and those suspended under Jammeh — the commission will be announcing an additional 50 million euros in budget support “most probably” this summer. All in all, the increase so far will quadruple aid to The Gambia in less than four months, up from about 75 million euros for the full 2012-2016 period.

“Now we have to discuss and negotiate the legal framework, the ‘state building contract’ as we call it, to decide on the conditions of this budget support,” Mimica said.

Barrow, who is under pressure to demonstrate results while his public remains largely enthusiastic, is keen to expedite the process. So is Mimica: The Gambia represents a possible linchpin for his controversial 2 billion euros EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa, which uses traditional development assistance combined with private sector tools, security-related measures and repatriation packages to stem and reverse the flow of African migrants to Europe.

The Gambia is small, but is the source of more migrants per capita to Europe than any other African nation. Gambian migrants — typically men aged between 18 and 30 — have fled the country for political and economic reasons. Investing early in Barrow’s economic reform agenda could mean early wins for the fund, setting an example for implementation in the rest of the region.

Still, budget support is among the most difficult modalities for donors to track. As a result, offering it is the clearest vote of confidence a donor can send to an aid recipient, in terms of its institutions and capacity to manage funds. Although Mimica insists the funding will be subject to all the human rights, governance and accountability conditionalities the EU has placed on this type of funding, it begs the question: can a regime as untested as Barrow’s demonstrate this level of effectiveness in its first four months?

What’s missing?

The new president often refers to his pledge to bring The Gambia in line with international conventions on human rights. For example, he has released many of those imprisoned without trial, including two of his newly appointed government ministers, and says he will release them all. But the extent of Barrow’s human rights agenda remains unknown — most prominently, his stance on what is known as the “aggravated homosexuality” law, which can carry a penalty of life imprisonment. The Gambian legal system does not define homosexuality, but specifies that “serial offenders” and those infected with HIV who are deemed to be gay or lesbian may be prosecuted.

An “act of homosexuality” is in some cases punishable by death or life imprisonment, a point of discord with international conventions that Barrow has yet to address, despite criticism from local media.

Asked during a Banjul press conference whether he intended to repeal or amend the laws, Barrow said: “Homosexuality is not an issue in The Gambia.”

He clarified that he felt homosexuality was a personal matter, and added again that it “is not an issue” in The Gambia.

Asked what she thought Barrow’s statement meant, Minister of Employment Dr. Isatou Touray, who is also a human rights activist and a former presidential candidate, told Devex that Barrow believes homosexuality “is not an issue and people have a right to have whatever orientation.”

“It’s their personal life and we are talking about the inclusivity of rights, and the indivisibility of rights. Of course everyone has a right to exist,” she said.

Yet Barrow’s stance on the legislation is unknown, and will play a key role in the commission’s decision to offer budget support, Mimica told Devex. He said that it was the previous administration’s poor record on human rights that led to the EU’s suspension of budget support to The Gambia in 2013.

“We discussed that briefly with the president. He put it in the context of the overall democratic process, that it’s very important that the political agenda that he came with was democratic, that whatever reforms or changes he would make would stem out of this democratic agenda,” Mimica told Devex.

“In a word, we do hope that this part related to ‘aggravated homosexuality’ will at least be under discussion for the changes here in the legal framework, so we are to discuss it again within the political dialogue of the Article 8 [of the Cotonou Agreement].” The article of this partnership agreement between the EU and 79 countries in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific — of which The Gambia is a signatory — includes addressing areas of discrimination.

A sinking city

Another public concern that appears even less frequently in Barrow’s statements is climate change. The Gambia remains among the top 20 countries most vulnerable to climate change, due to its low-lying topography, reliance on subsistence agriculture and poor drainage systems. A study conducted by Columbia University found that sea-level rise could drown more than 8 percent of the country’s land area in as little as 15 years, including the coastal capital city Banjul.

Coastal erosion, meanwhile, continues to wear away at the country’s beaches, the main draw for tourism to The Gambia and lifeblood to the economy. Tourism is responsible for around 40 percent of the country’s economic output.

Despite the adoption of a national climate policy last year under the previous regime, Barrow has yet to take ownership of his own climate change agenda. But his supporters feel certain he will prioritize the issue, particularly in Banjul, which is flooded annually and still relies on machinery built during the British colonial presence in the late 1950s.

“He lived in Banjul for 22 years [so] I know he will make it a priority,” Tunis Jammeh, a ward councillor, told Devex during a visit to the often nonfunctional colonial era pump. “This is the city, where the government ministries are and his palace and it’s sliding into the sea. How can he not?”

Still, as the city warms up for Saturday’s inauguration, it’s hard to imagine Banjul — plastered with photos of a smiling and youthful Barrow — under any kind of threat. The 49,000 people who fled fearing unrest around the election are trickling back over the borders, and as people celebrate in the streets in 85 degree heat, only the occasional and sudden chilly breeze marking the cold months serves as a reminder: it’s still winter in The Gambia.

Read more international development news online, and subscribe to The Development Newswire to receive the latest from the world’s leading donors and decision-makers — emailed to you free every business day.

Molly Anders is a global development reporter for Devex. Based in London, she covers U.K. foreign aid and trends in international development. She draws on her experience covering aid legislation and the USAID implementer community in Washington, D.C., as well as her time as a Fulbright Fellow and development practitioner in the Middle East to develop stories with insider analysis.

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