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International engagement in Somalia: lessons from Somaliland?

MichaelWalls29 February 2012

Alex de Waal, writing in the NY Times on 21st February, argued that instead of focusing on the negative, international policy-makers should recognise the remarkable achievements of many in Somalia, and most particularly those of the self-declared Republic of Somaliland. [http://nyti.ms/zP0L4T] His comments were timed for two days before a major international conference on Somalia held in London and hosted by the UK government on 23rd February. But in the run-up to the conference, William Hague repeatedly used the phrase ‘Somalia is the world’s-worst failed state’, suggesting that the focus on the negative is here to stay. This is in spite of conference talk about ‘supporting local initiatives’ and the need for the process to be ‘Somali-led’. Taking a rather more cynical line, respected French academic Gerard Prunier described the conference as ‘Alice in Wonderland Goes Imperialist’, and ridiculed the organisers for calling for Somali-led initiatives while inviting few Somalis to the conference itself. [http://bit.ly/whCEH3] So how do we pick our way through the myriad of viewpoints?

While I agree with many of Prunier’s points and even much of his argument, I have to say that I am not as cynical about the process as he is. And while I wholeheartedly support the tenor of much of de Waal’s article, we need to take considerable care if we are to chart a constructive engagement that recognises positive achievement. The conference was welcome in many ways in that it raised many important questions and suggested a new sophistication in some of the discourse amongst the international donor, diplomatic and civil society communities. However, there is no consensus yet on what that sophistication means in policy terms.

And what of Somaliland? They have certainly achieved an immense amount. Meaningful elections, the transfer of power from a standing incumbent to his opposition challenger … these are remarkable advances, as is the durability of peace throughout most of the country. Indeed, Somaliland is seen by some as an object lesson in how Somalis will succeed if they are just left alone. But that fails to recognise the fact that Somali society has always been based on links, particularly through trade but also religion and politics, with the outside world and between different Somali clans. That model relies precisely on not being ‘left alone’. But Somaliland also clearly shows us that the nature of engagement is vitally important. Heeding that observation, many people are talking about the need to support locally-based initiatives. But there is great risk there too, because it means having to find a way of picking who to support. Somaliland has achieved a lot, and Puntland has also made some progress, but what about the burgeoning number of smaller entities who are claiming ‘local legitimacy’? Individuals were even handing out business cards at events in London during the week of the conference declaring them to be President of some hitherto unknown Somali state. Which ones are real and worth supporting?

As complicated as the situation is, there are some lessons we can learn as outsiders. There seems little doubt that there is a need for local disputes to be resolved before there is a move to form a ‘national’ government, whatever that might look like. That is the process that occurred in Somaliland. It means that there needs to be a great deal of discussion amongst Somalis and led by Somalis about how they will settle the complex web of grievances and counter-grievances that have built up over the past two decades of conflict in the south. International actors can support the process by allowing it to take place, by insisting that resolutions are agreed before the process moves on, and by providing small amounts of material support where there is a demonstrable need. But those interventions need to be proportionate. They must not dominate the process, which needs to succeed or fail on its own terms. In other words, there has to be real reward for local groups who succeed in agreeing a peace deal with their neighbouring antagonists, but they must also bear most of the cost of achieving that deal, and also the cost of failing to do so.

That also means that an early focus on elections would be counter productive. For many Somalis, representative democracy in which individuals are elected to make decisions on behalf of a populace is less democratic than the patriarchal but otherwise egalitarian (for men) system of discussion and debate that is employed under Somali custom. So elections are not a process of ‘democratisation’ but rather the opposite: a retreat from the slow and unpredictable process of consensus-building to a less egalitarian but more efficient form of decision-making. Now let’s not get this wrong: it is very likely that representative democracy will eventually be needed in some form in the Somali territories in order to facilitate the establishment of a reasonably legitimate state. That is, after all, the transition that Somaliland has gone so far towards achieving. But in the southern areas of the erstwhile Republic of Somalia, the time is not yet right for that transition. And in the meantime, external actors need to be prepared to go along with an unpredictable and probably fairly slow process of consensus-building.

The most remarkable thing about Somaliland is that, whatever the claims to the contrary, it was founded as a genuinely multi-clan polity, and no other multi-clan Somali political entity has been so successful and with such genuinely local involvement. The simmering tensions between the different clans represented within Somaliland’s colonial borders represent a significant challenge, but it is important to remember that those who are currently most dissatisfied with the Somaliland administration were intimately involved in the formation of the state between 1991 and 1997. The fact that Somaliland was founded as a multi-clan political union with broad local support should not be forgotten by anyone.

Part of the lesson is that political nationalism is not the same as cultural, linguistic or religious unity. The political nation-state is a construct that requires a great deal of compromise. Somali society is remarkably vibrant and, in many ways, successful. The measure of economic performance that would pass for GDP per capita if reliable data were available almost certainly surpasses that of neighbouring countries. The telecoms, finance and trade sectors thrive. Just about everywhere, not just in Hargeisa or Bosaso. But business unity and cultural, linguistic and religious commonalities have not formed a good base for nationhood elsewhere, so why should they here? The dream of a unitary state based on either one or other sub-clan grouping or, at the other extreme,  a Greater Somalia, just don’t make sense.

As the various actors who met in London on 23rd February move to develop a new approach to supporting stability in the Somali Horn of Africa, they would do well to build on local initiatives, and to support the successes that are already evident. But that needs to be done with caution and patience. Hurrying the process is likely to worsen security for the UK, US and Somalia’s neighbours and prolong the crisis for locals. But facilitating a process which is Somali-led requires a willingness by international actors to step back and let Somalis agree for themselves: first of all, the terms under which they’ll coexist with other clans and sub-clans; and, secondly, what their state will look like. That will test the patience and commitment of international actors, regardless of how sophisticated their dialogue. But it’s a test that they need to pass just as Somalis themselves must negotiate difficult compromises.

Somaliland: proof that aid doesn’t work …?

MichaelWalls2 February 2012

…or lessons on some of the kinds that do (sometimes)

PHOTO: M Walls. Erigavo, Sanaag

Somalia is the focus of a fair bit of attention at the moment with the London Conference taking place on 23rd February building on security concerns, piracy and the ongoing humanitarian crisis.

Somaliland too has been attracting a bit of interest in the UK media lately, but sadly it’s often been a case of using the most simplistic of understandings to construct an argument which is itself superficial and very possibly damaging. Back in September 2009, when Somaliland was in the midst of a fairly serious political crisis, the satirical magazine Private Eye jumped on the bandwagon and used an almost comically one-sided version of the facts to complain about ‘clumsy donors’ who, they claimed, had more or less single-handedly messed up a voter registration system (Private Eye, 2009). In mid-2011, the Daily Mail, Economist and Guardian Poverty Matters blog all published pieces that similarly used an incomplete view of Somaliland as a basis for the claim that development assistance is failing (Baobab blog, 2011; Birrell, 2011; Eubank, 2011a). For them, the fact that Somaliland remains internationally unrecognised as a country, and has received less donor assistance to support their development than the Transitional Federal Government (or TFG) in Somalia proves that less aid is intrinsically better than more. After all, Somaliland is a stable, albeit unrecognised, country that holds credible elections and enjoys a booming economy, at least in the capital city of Hargeisa. Whereas Somalia is a failed state, and the  TFG is massively corrupt, largely collectively incompetent and doesn’t enjoy respect from very many Somalis at all.

On the surface, one can understand headline writers succumbing to the temptation to grab the easy one-liner about donors messing up development, and then hanging a whole story off it.

The surge of interest in 2011 came from a paper written a few months earlier by a PhD candidate at Stanford University, Nicholas Eubank (2011b). Eubank’s paper was fairly thoughtful, though he did make a few errors. For example, he claimed that Somaliland “has never been eligible for foreign assistance”. It is true that, because they are unrecognised, they long received relatively less aid than Somalia, and a higher proportion of what they did receive has been channelled through civil society. However, Somaliland has always received some external donor assistance, and in recent years the amount has grown rapidly.

However, while I don’t agree with all the detail or all of his conclusions, Eubank does offer the common-sense argument that aid needs to remain proportionate to overall recipient government finances, and sufficiently low for the recipient state to remain largely reliant on the collection of taxes from their own population if they are to consolidate their position as a legitimate national authority. Notwithstanding his error regarding Somaliland’s eligibility for aid, Eubank’s point is that, for a number of years, relatively little donor aid was channelled through the Somaliland government. Through the critical seven years from the start of 1991 (the end of the northern war), that meant that the process of establishing a government was indeed reliant on local and diaspora resources. That’s a valid, if not exactly new, observation, and one that should be useful. I’ve argued much the same myself elsewhere.

It’s a pity, though, that common sense can so easily be misrepresented that it no longer offers a useful contribution to the debate on aid effectiveness, and instead becomes a polemic. This example is interesting partly because it was Eubank himself that wrote the Guardian piece. And where in his original paper he was fairly cautious with his language, once he was writing for the more popular platform offered by a major media outlet, he too fell prey to the sensational headline. Instead of explaining a complex picture in sufficient detail, he used a single example from 1992 in which the Somaliland government had had to negotiate with local clans for access to tax revenues from the port to support the broad claim that, “[a]s a result of these negotiations over tax revenue, Somaliland has become an exceptional democracy” (Eubank, 2011a). He forgets to mention that the negotiations actually caused a war and brought the government down. That conflict did contribute to stability in the end, but it was a circuitous process and could have gone either way. The detail is rather important, and it is a gross oversimplification to claim that it was all down to a lack of aid!

So what is actually happening in Somaliland with donor money? Well, lots in fact, and plenty of it provides lessons for better and worse on just how aid can work. I’ll offer a couple of examples from my experience to illustrate what I feel are positive instances. My own involvement is mostly on the political side, so I’ve had a particularly good opportunity to get a sense of Eubank’s argument about state legitimacy. One part of my work in the past few years, has been to help to coordinate international election observation missions. I helped with logistical planning for the 2005 parliamentary elections, then took a role as one of the three-person coordinating team for the 2010 presidential election. I’m hoping to play a similar role in 2012, when important local elections are scheduled. The core of the coordination budget is covered by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, with DFID showing signs of also taking an interest in the future.

Often, election observation or monitoring is handled by a multilateral agency such as the European Union, the Commonwealth Secretariat, the Council of Europe or the African Union, or a large international NGO such as the US-based Carter Centre or National Endowment for Democracy. It’s unusual for a small, ad-hoc group to take on that responsibility, but it’s a fact of Somaliland’s non-recognition that a partnership between DPU and the NGO Progressio have taken that role in this case. In Somaliland, the US state-funded group International Republican Institute also sends a smaller group of observers for a few days most elections.

Our job is essentially to coordinate a diverse group of international observers who are not affiliated to IRI. For the 2010 election, we had enough money to cover the costs of a core team of about 15 people, and a further 44 observers who were funded by their own organisations (or indeed from their own pockets). In the end, our group of 59 international observers were drawn from 16 countries, and included 40% diaspora Somalis. Our job was to arrange transport and deployment, formal accreditation, security, and to maintain regular contact with the National Electoral Commission, who issued the original invitation.

It’s a relatively modest intervention in financial terms, but we feel that this kind of donor-financed assistance helps to support local institutions in a way that builds both the credibility and accountability of the state rather than diminishing it. It’s important too that, in my experience, international observers are genuinely welcomed in most areas, and the elections are widely seen as a meaningful exercise in political decision-making.

Another area that can help to support development comes in the form of research. Again, an example from my own involvement. I was recently lucky enough to be awarded some money to spend about ten days in Hargeisa interviewing a range of men and women about women’s political participation in Somaliland. Over the years since 1991, this has become a sensitive topic, generating significant debate and motivating some of the best run civil society organisations to lobby for greater women’s involvement in politics. In fact, only two women sit in the lower house of Parliament, from a total of 82. In the upper house or Guurti there is only one woman from 82 members. This is a long-standing problem, but it’s become much more urgent because women’s role in Somali society has been shifting significantly as a result of environmental change (making pastoralism more marginal as a livelihood strategy) and conflict which have together driven rapid sedentarisation and urbanisation and the movement of many (particularly male) household members overseas to find work. Women have consequently assumed greater responsibility for household livelihoods in very different circumstances, yet their political participation has remained constrained by the overwhelmingly patriarchal political system. The research was a chance to better understand the social circumstances that perpetuate that situation. In the medium term, we hope that this greater understanding will better inform policy from both the Somaliland government and local civil society and donors and intrenational NGOs.

As long as aid is helping countries to deal with real issues, as well as allowing outsiders to better understand the circumstances that prevent people fairly influencing the issues that affect them then it is probably doing some good. But of course, Eubank is also quite right: it will inevitably distort societies if aid overwhelms existing capacity. The tricky bit is that learning how to balance those factors is a slow and difficult process that requires long-term commitment and patience. Not nearly as attractive as a snappy headline!

References
Baobab blog, 2011, ‘Aid and Somaliland: Mo money mo problems’, The Economist website, (24 June), [http://www.economist.com/node/21522470] (accessed 08 January 2012)
Birrell, Ian, 2011, ‘Somaliland: The former British colony that shows Africa doesn’t need our millions to flourish’, Daily Mail website, (23 July), [http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2018055/Somaliland-The-British-colony- shows-Africa-doesnt-need-millions-flourish.html] (accessed 5 January 2012)
Eubank, Nicholas, 2011a, ‘In Somaliland, less money has brought more democracy’, Poverty Matters Blog, The Guardian website, (26 August), [http://www.guardian.co.uk/global-development/poverty-matters/2011/aug/26/ somaliland-less-money-more-democracy] (accessed 21 January 2012)
Eubank, Nicholas, 2011b, ‘Taxation, Political Accountability, and Foreign Aid: Lessons from Somaliland’, unpublished paper, (26 March)
Private Eye, 2009, ‘Letter from Hargeisa from our own correspondent’, Private Eye 1244, 4-17 September, London: 17