Gambia in the 'Age of Choice'

By Michelle DeFreese

From multiple perspectives, Gambia defies conventional knowledge and practices of international relations and foreign affairs. One of Africa's smallest nations, its controversial leader, Yahya Jammeh, has maintained relative peace and stability in comparison to the country's neighbors since assuming power in 1994. Outspoken in his views, often in direct opposition of human rights norms, and characterized by his authoritarian style of leadership, Jammeh has managed to maintain power despite coup attempts, low levels of human development, and economic dependence on remittances. In keeping with its contrarian positioning in international affairs, Gambia has developed a rather opportunistic strategy in sourcing development aid and in the formation and dissolution of diplomatic alliances.

At a cursory glance, Gambia's current list of donors may appear to be quite random. In reality, these alliances are symptomatic of a development assistance framework that has become upended in recent years. As the foreign aid landscape has become more diverse, recipient countries have become increasingly selective in terms of accepting politically conditional aid. Non-aligned countries have a greater selection of potential donors than in the past, with opportunistic countries challenging conventional paradigms of aid conditionality. Once characterized largely by a relationship driven by unequal balances of power, the current status quo of development assistance has been challenged by new actors and emerging donors. The Overseas Developing Institute (ODI) describes this trend as "the age of choice." Few countries have challenged the traditional aid architecture in such a dramatic fashion as Gambia.

As a result of a proliferation of new donor states, disparate norms and stipulations can be tied to aid recipients that result in different mandates and challenges. For non-aligned countries, this has led to a tendency to negotiate more favorable terms and conditions upon receipt of aid. Indeed, Gambia has grown increasingly selective in its bilateral relations and development partners. Rather than conform to the political conditionality of aid (such as adherence to human rights norms and democratic governance) mandated by traditional Western donors, the West African nation has formed relationships with donor countries with different norms, values, and systems of accountability.

In its quest to forge its own path with development partners, Gambia has broken diplomatic relations with Taiwan and the European Union, exited the Commonwealth of Nations, and realigned its foreign relations strategy to partner with donors more likely to turn a blind eye to the nation's human rights record. As traditional donors have attempted to align foreign aid policies with more progressive human rights conventions, Gambia's hardline stance on homosexuality in particular has caused a rift with many Western powers, leading the country to form close relationships with donors outside of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's Development Assistance Committee, such as China, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates.

In the past three decades, Gambia has spurned long-term donors and political allies for unpredictable alignments with emerging donors. Despite its small size, Gambia has developed into a political maverick, eschewing human rights policies and stipulations on foreign aid to form unconventional alliances. This has allowed it to secure development assistance from high GDP, conservative Muslim countries with foreign policies less dominated by traditional Western human rights concerns, including Qatar and the UAE. These have included 11 loans totaling $91.1 million from the Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development.

As a result of Gambian foreign policy maneuvering, the country has succeeded in reversing the typical donor-recipient relationship in which donors play the dominant role in determining the conditions of aid. Between 2008 and 2013, Gambia received 73 million euros in aid from the European Union. In 2013, the European Union temporarily withheld a reported 13 million euros of aid over human rights and rule of law concerns. In response, Gambia announced its withdrawal from the Commonwealth of Nations, further pulling away from traditional donors. Yet while the European Parliament has motioned for punitive measures to be taken against representatives of Gambia due to allegations of human rights abuses, to date the European Union remains the country's largest bilateral donor with $186 million in pending funding still earmarked for the country.

Western donors are not the only ones to have experienced the impetuous statecraft and donor wrangling employed by the small, West African nation in recent years. Gambia severed ties with Taiwan shortly after receiving $6.6 million in aid from the country. Reports suggest the rupture was caused by a refusal of Taipei to provide an addition $10 million in aid - despite the fact that Gambia owed Taiwan $10 million in loans. Much to the disappointment of Taipei, Gambia re-established diplomatic ties with China on March 17, 2016 marking the first time in eight years that the China has recognized an ally of Taiwan.

Overall, Gambian foreign policy is an illustrative example of the increasingly complex, multipolar agreements and power dynamics guiding an interconnected web of African affairs, China-African relations, Islamic development finance, and South-South relations at work in the region. As emerging donors continue to increase in number and influence, Gambia's atypical, opportunistic approach to foreign policy decision-making is likely to become more common, serving as a telling precursor for a rapidly changing landscape of development norms and assistance. As a result, more unlikely partnerships and allegiances will unite opportunistic foreign aid recipients and donors willing to fund even the most repressive regimes.

Michelle DeFreese is an Academic Think Tank member with the International Association for Political Science Students (IAPSS) and is a member of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA). She completed her Master's degree in International Relations at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies (IHEID) and is an Africa Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.