Chris Blattman

“Somalia needs a chamber of commerce before it needs a cabinet”, or the case for anarchy in the Horn

That is Alex de Waal in the New York Times.

African neighbors and the West want to stop piracy, uproot terrorism, relieve famine, end civil war, and strengthen a federal government:

This is all very laudable, except for one thing: It won’t work.

The transitional government, established in 2004, has no credibility, in part because it could not exist without foreign backing. In fact, many Somalis don’t want a central government. Or, to be exact, they are so embittered by their experience of centralized power that they would rather have no government than the type that their African neighbors and the West have designed for them.

…For quite a lot of Somalia and for quite a lot of the last 20 years, quite a lot of things have worked. Above all the country has a booming private sector, self-regulating and helped by the country’s simple monetary policy (no one can print banknotes). The efficient, informal hawala system of money transfer allows the Somali diaspora to send money home. And Somalis enjoy one of the cheapest and most modern mobile phone networks in Africa, if not the world.

Somali society has functioned for centuries without a state, on the basis of kinship, customary law and Islam. These traditions survive.

…Instead of gathering Somalia’s discredited politicians and promising them more help, Cameron should support what already functions well in Somalia: the vibrant middle class and Somaliland. Britain, and other donors, should empower Somali businessmen with lines of credit and an improved system to regulate money transfers; Somalia needs a chamber of commerce before it needs a cabinet.

Interesting throughout. I concur with supporting the business community. It’s the idea that this is done “instead” of boosting a central government that is less obvious. “Before”, “alongside” or “at least as much as” would be more defensible.

Can we really expect regional political stability without some kind of national-level regime? Is this institutionalized anarchy? Why not a highly federal system in its place?

Most of all–Is it realistic to ask the UN, Presidents and Prime Ministers to accept that route (and could they if they agreed)?

I don’t know in general, and I know next to nothing about Somalia. Readers?

h/t @cheng_christine

10 Responses

  1. To Write Some words About Somalia its easy, but to change your words practically its very hard for those who doesn’t have enough information about whats going on somalia, rather than Articles posted public or personal websites. My Opinion,its very difficult for the somali people how they can to understand what the federalism is? Clan Based Administration, Self-interest Policy, Can not Change Somalia’s Future Less Than 0.00%, To Build Somalia .US and the world They Solved Many Problems Like Rwanda, Liberia, Seri Lion, but somalia’s Consequence It will mean the Somali problem is insoluble; it will encourage opportunist groups to maintain the status quo and once again, the civilised world will be humiliated.

  2. I think what de Waal is arguing is that the international community needs to support a more organic approach to state building by working with systems that Somalis support. I agree with with de Waal on this. A federal system might yet work but I still find it curious that the intellectual community cannot seem to conceive of alternative ways of organizing states that do not fit the general conception of what a state should look like.

  3. I do like a lot of de waal’s work but i find it this article to be premised on some big assumptions that make it a bit hard to take seriously. there is a strong case to be made as with any context, that the approach needs to be multi-faceted. the importance of developing the business community does not need to be done in isolation, as you’ve said it seems that organic growth and development of relationships between political entities is probably the way to go.

    i don’t think proliferating mini states, that are unsustainable, that can’t be secured, and that perpetuate single-clan structures as a way of governing, is a viable solution here (or anywhere for that matter) – and i really worry about referencing the article above. there is a lot of research and experience on secession beyond this – it isn’t a new discussion/topic and i worry about using this article as a reference. First, (a) because of it’s newness, and (b) because of all that is going on now, are we going to seriously use South Sudan as a model for independence? I also think this concept that a geographically coherent vision of African states is normative and doesn’t reflect the cultural and economic realities – particularly of this region. On the ‘why not’ question – it’s the same as for anywhere else – it seems questionable whether creating states based on the aspiration of a homogenous identity is really going to lead to peace, or whether it more likely continues to perpetuate the same problem that people of these states were original victimized by….

  4. “Highly federal” would be nice, yeah, but you could even go further than that. Real men call for secession.

    G. Pascal Zachary wrote in the Atlantic last year that a lot of African countries, Somalia included, suffer from a “secessionist deficit,” or an over-centralization of government. There’s no particularly good reason, he argues, for southern Somalia (where the real trouble-makers are) to be politically unified with Puntland, which is technically a part of Somalia, but which in reality has its own government, its own economy, its own reality. Why not recognize Puntland as its own country? Ditto for Somaliland. Do they *have* to be mere regions within a unified Somalia? Where did this idea of a unified Somalia come from in the first place… the Italians? British?

    G. Pascal’s article is here:

    …it points to a lot of other research on the subject.

  5. This is a fine idea in theory, but in practice it hasn’t worked. Kinship or clan ties have allowed the commercial sector to function surprisingly well. But a very weak state is never going to encourage stability because a very weak state will just encourage groups to try to capture it.

    If there were actually a consensus in the country that no state was best, this all might work. But there will always be groups/people that want to change that, so you’ll end up with bloody internally-led state capture and state-building efforts intermixed with foreign intervention when things get out of hand and spill across borders.

  6. I’ve read several interesting articles and papers on Somalia’s relative success without central government. Some of them defend the view that anarchy might be preferable to having some kind of central government. At least, it’s food for thought.

    Leeson, P.T. (2007). Better off stateless: Somalia before and after government collapse. Journal of Comparative Economics, 35(4), 689—710.

    Nenova, T. y Harford, T. (2004) How Does Somalia’s Private Sector Cope without Government? Note Number 280, Public Policy for the Private Sector, The World Bank Group.

    Powell, B., Ford, R., Nowrasteh, A. (2008). Somalia after state collapse: Chaos or improvement. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization 67.

  7. Well, after hearing a lot of negative stories about development aid, especially personally, I was kind of looking at your blog in hope to hear some more optimistic things.

    But in the moment I tend to say: just leave them alone, if they engage in attacks like Piracy, meet out immediate and indiscriminate punishment, like destroying every pirate harbor completely, and otherwise save on the engagement costs.

    Your opinion ? on :
    The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good by William Easterly (Paperback – Feb 27, 2007)

    A Women from Sambia, with PhD, MBA, World Bank experience:
    Dead Aid: Why Aid is not working and how there is another way for africa von Dambisa Moyo , Penguin 2009

  8. I’m not an expert, but I think your “highly federal system” idea is spot on. Parts of Somalia (Like Puntland and Somaliland) are already independent entities and the high level of distrust towards a central authority means that every try to create such an authority would require immense amounts of energy and cold hard cash to work. Having a “Federation of Somali People” would circumvent many of these problems.

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