The Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE) pioneered its first rapid response anti-corruption program in The Gambia following the unexpected 2016 defeat of 22-year autocrat Yahya Jammeh to political newcomer and real estate mogul Adama Barrow. As optimism was running high in the small West African country in support of new President Barrow’s promises of democracy, improved governance, and an unleashed economy, CIPE moved quickly to engage civil society members interested in anti-corruption. By late 2018, CIPE had organized the country’s first grassroots anti-corruption organization, Anti-Corruption Coalition Gambia (ACCG), a sustainable organization that now engages regularly with government leaders and receives funding from multiple international donors.
The Gambia’s Window of Opportunity
Few observers could have predicted The Gambia’s sudden transition to democracy. For over two decades, the country had been controlled by a relatively stable autocracy and a president who declared he would rule for a “billion years.” Due to The Gambia’s relatively small size and population—just under 2.4 million—it also drew scant global attention. As a result, the international community’s response to the fall of Yayha Jammeh was positive but poorly coordinated.
Nonetheless, within months, new channels for development aid and investment were reopened in an effort to support President Barrow’s initial promises of a reform-oriented “caretaker presidency.” In mid-2017, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), of which CIPE is a core institute, was invited to join a small group of international partners, including its sister organization International Republican Institute (IRI), who were interested in helping Gambian citizens advocate for a cleaner and more effective government. To further this aim, the NED hosted a two-day conference in September 2017 with civil society activists in The Gambia’s capital of Banjul.
Frank Brown, CIPE’s Anti-Corruption & Governance Center Director, attended the conference and recognized an opportunity to pilot CIPE’s nascent rapid response approach. After securing funding for the pilot, CIPE organized a May 2018 anti-corruption workshop event in Banjul led by Executive Director Andrew Wilson. The event brought together dozens of NGOs and activists in the hope that CIPE leadership would find an in-country partner capable of acting as a new anti-corruption and accountability hub.
Anti-Corruption From the Ground Up
ACGC would need its local civil society partner to perform important roles: (1) acting as an in-country source of anti-corruption best practices and information for citizens and local civil society organizations, (2) organizing and driving new anti-corruption initiatives, and (3) acting as a bridge between international anti-corruption organizations and donors, official Gambian reform efforts, and local citizen and civil society stakeholders.
These were tall orders. While CIPE’s workshop was well-received, pro-democracy civil society groups were few in number and membership in The Gambia. After decades of oppressive rule, most existing organizations had only rudimentary organizational capacity. After a thorough review of workshop participants and other NGOs in the country, none were found with the will and organizational strength to act as an anti-corruption resource center. Without a strong local partner, the project seemed at a dead end.
However, then ACGC Program Officer, Jeanne Cook, kept the project moving by responding to a request to collaborate with IRI on an initiative to build capacity of The Gambia’s newly elected parliamentarians. 70% of these newly elected officials had never been in office before and were new to democracy and governance. Working together with then CIPE Africa Program Officer Lola Adekanye, CIPE consultant Donald Ide, and civil society partners, a series of workshops were arranged in July 2018 and training began on a peer-to-peer basis for parliamentarians.
These in-country activities proved essential to solving the problem of a strong local partner. Between the May 2018 workshop and the workshops for local parliamentarians, several highly-motivated individuals stood out: radio host Maar Nyang, former civil servant Michael Oko-Davies, and NGO leader Abdoulie Jadma. Previously unknown to each other, Nyang and Oko-Davies met as they led parliamentary sessions as trainers.
When the pair met Jadma, the three created an anti-corruption discussion group on social media where they recruited other workshop participants. CIPE’s Lola Adekanye supported their effort by connecting them to CSO counterparts in Nigeria, and the group began brainstorming strategies to fight common corruption problems in the country. Within weeks, Jadma, acting as the informal group’s spokesman, sent Cook an email a concept paper outlining an enthusiastic vision for combating corruption in The Gambia.
Over the next four months, Cook helped guide the work of this emerging group and increase their capacity. Through numerous email and WhatsApp exchanges and more than 20 intensive Skype meetings, Cook focused the group on realistic goal-setting, budgeting, proposal-writing, and activity planning. In November 2018, the group formally emerged as the Anti-Corruption Coalition Gambia (ACCG, or “the coalition”).
Reflecting later on the unlikely emergence and partnership with ACCG, Cook reiterated that the coalition’s leap from an informal social media group to a well-organized and well-resourced NGO was neither predictable nor inevitable. “They had low capacity,” Cook said, “but they came to me with all these very ambitious plans…saying ‘we want to do this, what do you think?’”
Over the course of its one-year partnership with CIPE, the coalition became an effective bridge between local and international anti-corruption advocates. At the local level, ACCG members met with local government leaders, hosted public workshops and events, and created radio shows, podcasts, and blogs publicizing the corruption of the Jammeh presidency. Using a CIPE-funded grant, ACCG evaluated how members of the public view corruption in The Gambia through a large corruption perception survey.
“They were extremely ambitious…very hardworking and dedicated to the cause,” said Cook. They were also “sponges” willing to “[take] direction and run with it”. “These qualities [were the reason] they came so far in such a short time.” The group’s ambition, commitment, and unity can also be attributed to the timing of CIPE’s intervention at a moment when hope for a new era in the country was extraordinarily high.
Today, ACCG is the kind of active and well-resourced anti-corruption hub envisioned by CIPE at the project’s inception. It quickly expanded from five to nine member NGOs and has maintained a small office in Banjul since 2020.
Most important to its anti-corruption work, the ACCG engages frequently with the Gambian government at both the local and national levels. According to Jadma, members of the coalition often speak with government officials—and sometimes several times a week. At the national level, members of the coalition are advocating that members of the National Assembly and the Ministry of Justice pass new anti-corruption legislation.
Its profile as an effective government partner is also on the rise. After completing a project with the National Assembly and National Audit Office, ACCG was recently invited to expand on its work using funding from the United Nations Development Programme. Moreover, ACCG’s formal partnerships have grown rapidly. In addition to CIPE funding, the coalition has received funding from the NED, and the German Embassy, and maintains ongoing relationships with the Partnerships for Transparency Fund, the International Republican Institute, and the National Democratic Institute.
Lessons for Rapid Responders
Several critical lessons can be drawn from CIPE’s experiences in The Gambia:
- First, rapid response projects need clear objectives. In this case, establishing an anti-corruption resource center that centralizes anti-corruption efforts by civil society into a single organization.
- Second, rapid response projects should be both top-down (e.g. CIPE’s and IRI’s efforts in The Gambia to develop capacity of parliamentarians and to find and develop in-country partners) and bottom-up (e.g. CIPE-funded anti-corruption activities at ACCG like workshops and publicity campaigns).
- Third, project organizers should create connections with and provide support for local anti-corruption activists before windows of opportunity open. This avoids setbacks due to operational and capacity deficiencies, allowing anti-corruption supporters to quickly launch anti-corruption programs when a window opens.
- Fourth, reform drives should be connected to specific, broadly shared grievances. In the Gambia, the Jammeh regime’s corruption scandals were a catalyst for broader demands for political reform. ACCG leveraged shared grievences generated by these scandals to build support for reforms targeting the previous regime’s failures.
- Fifth, project organizers must be attentive and adaptable during project implementation. In the Gambia, CIPE saw weekly changes in the operating environment, changes in partner needs, and changes in local politics. Attentive, flexible program support means being able to make quick adjustments to project activities, and this ensures that anti-corruption programs stay relevant and avoid logjams during windows of opportunity.
The Gambia’s case highlights how political windows of opportunity for anti-corruption can be leveraged to nurture new governance institutions and help new anti-corruption organizations emerge. In The Gambia, the establishment of a durable, capable, motivated, and internationally funded civil society organization – ACCG – was the greatest achievement of CIPE’s first Rapid Response project. By moving quickly to identify motivated members of civil society, organize them into a coherent organization with an anti-corruption mission, and provide capacity building support, CIPE demonstrated what can be achieved to move anti-corruption forward during a short time window. CIPE continues to provide rapid and flexible support to anti-corruption efforts in emerging markets and invites others to join the work.