- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 24, 2006

Officials with President Bush’s signature foreign aid program are touting a grant they do not intend to fund.

A unanimous June 16 vote by the board of the Millennium Challenge Corp. (MCC) to suspend the eligibility of the small West African nation of Gambia is a sign that Mr. Bush’s determination to match “foreign aid with accountability” is working, MCC Chief Executive Officer John Danilovich said last week.

MCC officials said Gambia, which was declared eligible to apply for MCC funds in November, has been suspended because of its deteriorating record on a number of fronts, from abuses of human rights and press freedoms to “policy slippage” on economic reforms and anti-corruption efforts.

At a packed public meeting Wednesday, Mr. Danilovich called the Gambia vote “a negative that’s also a positive,” saying MCC officials had found “a complete lack of political will to address [these concerns] on the part of the Gambian government.”

The MCC, an independent corporation funded by the U.S. government, grew out of Mr. Bush’s call at a 2002 global development summit in Mexico for a new model of U.S. foreign aid using assistance grants closely tied to political and economic reforms in recipient countries.

To date, the MCC has negotiated “compacts” worth more than $1.5 billion with eight developing countries, with a ninth grant to Ghana expected to be completed in the coming weeks. No money had been promised to Gambia, which was in the beginning stages of its application when it was suspended.

The government of Gambian President Yahya Jammeh, a former coup leader elected to a five-year term in 2001, has come under increasing fire from private civil rights groups and opposition activists over a crackdown on political and press freedoms. The government controls the only national television station, and a 2004 press law has been followed by increased harassment and detention of journalists, critics say.

The Washington-based International Republican Institute, which works with civil and political reformers worldwide, and the Vienna-based International Press Institute (IPI), both praised the MCC decision to suspend Gambia.

“Donors should not have to assist governments where, without the additional benefit of a free press, their money may be siphoned out of development projects and into the hands of corrupt officials and businessmen,” IPI Director Johann P. Fritz said.

The Gambian Embassy did not return calls or e-mails seeking comment on the MCC move.

Gambia is the second country to have its application frozen for deteriorating performance. The MCC board took a similar step against Yemen in November.

Mr. Danilovich said he hoped both countries could regain their eligibility if their records improve, but that the suspensions were critical to build congressional support for the MCC approach.

“This is not something we like to do. We’re not in the business of punishing countries,” he said. But Gambia’s failure to make progress on the MCC criteria “gave us no other option.”

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