New Gambia-EU ties focus on debt, migration
Under recently expelled president Yahya Jammeh, development in Gambia was stalled for decades.
Following Mr Jammeh’s dramatic ouster after the democratic elections in December 2016, one of the new government’s first tasks is to restore relations with the European Union and other international donors.
This is made all the more urgent as the country looks to plug debt inherited from the Jammeh regime estimated at more than $1bn – well over 100 percent of GDP for the small west African nation.
The debt accumulation is the product of the Jammeh administration’s "rampant" pilfering of state funds over decades, according to interior minister Mai Fatty.
With rising poverty and ballooning national debt “the big issue is how to cover up the financial gap”, says Attila Lajos, EU ambassador to Gambia.
The EU seems prepared to take the lead. During new president Adama Barrow’s first visit to Brussels in March, the EU’s top diplomat Federica Mogherini described the change in leadership “as opening up a new chapter in EU-Gambia relations”.
Alongside the EU’s international cooperation and development commissioner Neven Mimica, she is putting together aid packages for Gambia worth a total of €225m ($224m) to 2020.
This is four times the amount Gambia has received in previous European development cooperation funding rounds.
The warm welcome from Brussels stands in stark contrast to the volatile relations with Mr Jammeh, who is now in exile in Equatorial Guinea. In 2015, the former president expelled the EU’s chargé d’affaires just as tentative talks were underway to restore aid budgets for 2015-16. These had previously been frozen over concerns of human rights abuses.
Confidence in the EU-Gambia relationship has blossomed since Mr Mimica made the EU’s first diplomatic visit to Gambia in February. He then pledged a package of €75m ($81.5m), which included releasing funds for many projects which had been put on hold.
A second €150m ($163.1m) mid-to-long-term package, agreed in March, will include direct budgetary support. The World Bank also pledged $60m in budget support in February.
Mr Lajos, the EU ambassador, points out that direct budgetary support has worked well in other less developed states but was not previously an option for Gambia because of concerns about the Jammeh government. “The new administration marks a real quality change in terms of in-depth cooperation,” he says.
There is another shared objective at stake. The EU wants Gambia’s cooperation to tackle irregular migration which, as a percentage of its population of 2 million, is the highest arriving on European shores.
In 2016, the number of Gambian migrants arriving in Italy jumped by 36 percent to 12,000, according to the International Organisation for Migration.
Some of the €225m EU development cooperation package will go towards projects aimed at encouraging economic growth and employment opportunities, especially for youths. The hope is opportunity at home will discourage them from making the Mediterranean crossing.
For NGOs in Gambia struggling to deliver programmes, the EU cooperation made possible by the political transition is a lifeline.
United Purpose (UP), one of the main international NGOs operating in Gambia, runs sustainable agriculture programmes with local partners. It was badly affected by the withdrawal of EU funding under President Jammeh.
“We lost one of our main funding sources when the EU aid was frozen. It was a huge slump in resources,” says project coordinator Ismaila Jarjo.
“For the past year we have not been able to run any big projects in Gambia. The focus of most of the programmes turned to Senegal.”
Funding was not the only problem during the Jammeh years. UP, then called Concern Universal, was threatened with closure in 2015.
“If you were doing good work, Jammeh believed you were undermining him. Beneficiaries had to self-censor their satisfaction because you never knew who was a secret agent,” Mr Jarjo explains.
In fact, the National Intelligence Agency under Mr Jammeh had a division tasked specifically with spying on NGOs. As a result, “you could not do meaningful development,” he says.
NGOs should now have a stronger voice. At his inauguration, President Barrow promised to seek and share expertise in pursuit of an inclusive development agenda.
“We look forward to a situation where there is willingness for open and where necessary critical dialogue between civil society and government” is possible, says Tony Jansen, UP’s country director.
“If the government is transparent...then a great deal can be achieved in reducing poverty and improving lives in Gambia.”
The EU’s hope, by turn, is that these improvements will translate into less Gambians seeking refuge on its shores.
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