Reinterpreting Somalia

Alex de Waal, a British journalist and Darfur expert, published an editorial in the NYT today on the upcoming meeting in British meant to “solve” Somalia, and what ought to be done differently. He makes some interesting points, including:

Fundamentalists were struggling to gain a foothold in Somalia until foreign military interventions handed them the banner of nationalist resistance.

Somali elders and businessmen have created a functioning democratic state (the Republic of Somaliland) and, next door to it, an effective self-governing region (Puntland). They did this by turning their communities’ dynamic business sectors and traditional values — the clan system and Islam — into forces for stability.

However, I was surprised/dissappointed by some of his other arguments:

  • de Waal claims that simply publishing the names of suspected Somali backers of terrorism will stop these individuals and networks from receiving money and support. This has obviously backfired in the past, for multiple reasons. Even during the McCarthy era of suspected Communist blacklists in the US, plenty of people were a) falsely accused, b) put on the list for political or competition reasons, and c) were able to survive, receive outside support, and escape to other countries to operate. As long as these individuals have loyal networks (which is likely in a tribal society), I doubt that publishing their names will be easy or effective. If these people operate in rural regions with high levels of illiteracy, this is even less likely to be successful.
  • de Waal repeatedly points to Somaliland as a model for success, almost to the point that I question if he was asked by Somaliland’s leaders to speak on their behalf. Somaliland is much better off than many other parts of Somalia, but one must not ignore the geopolitical circumstances: most parts of Somaliland are very close to the coast of the Gulf of Aden (and thereby also the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean), facilitating transport and trade with the Middle East, South Asia, and East Africa (for example, Ethiopia uses Somaliland’s Berbera port for imports & exports). Furthermore, this proximity to the booming economies of the Gulf States means that Somaliland receives a high proportion of all remittances coming into Somalia–no small matter for a state that gets little development aid and needs to finance infrastructure for development. Finally, the smaller, more manageable size of Somaliland is much more in line with cultural and clan boundaries, and ultimately makes the state more governable by democratic means. And while it is a democratic system, Somaliland still operates under Sharia law–meaning that, among many other implications, no other religion but Islam is recognized or practiced, and gays and women do not have equal rights or opportunities (for example, women even need their husbands’ consent for a Cesarean section).

Map of Somaliland

  • The editorial’s title (“Getting Somalia Right This Time”) reeks of white man’s burden. At the same time that de Waal warns against using Western tactics to “fix” Somalia, the mere notion of “fixing” Somalia with extensive outside intervention is flawed. Yes, they can benefit from assistance, but what country–developing or otherwise–would ever turn down money? Just like in Afghanistan, tribal societies, and societies not based in Christian laws, require a different mode of thinking. The USSR realized this after its failed Afghan invasion, so why did the US think it would be any more successful? This gets to the root of the problem: a “state” solution is simply ignorant if the central government cannot be trusted, is put in place by Westerners, and does not represent the diversity of the country’s population. Why not let a nation work out its own issues for once?
  • de Waal points to a “thriving middle class” and home-grown entrepreneurship (such as Somalia’s cellphone network). While this is useful for those wishing to invest in Somalia, it fails to recognize that most people still live in poverty. So… yes, there is potential for growth, but the issues of unequal growth & increasing class disparities are worth mentioning too.
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About Development_Tango

Every nation's refugee. But more specifically, an open-minded French- and Russian-speaking former Moldovan-Ukrainian jumping between New York and California. Who hugs trees but tries to be logical about it. And wants to heal this broken planet by helping others help themselves.

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