Chris Blattman

More on peaceable anarchy in Somalia

The comments on the “Free market anarchy for Somalia” post were excellent. See them here.

Several voiced support for letting Somalia try out new models of governance, and that political leaders from the outside are pushing a national or federal system for the wrong reasons. Here are my hasty thoughts.

It’s possible that international political leaders are constrained by a failure of imagination, but they also have a stake, and possibly a legal obligation, to promote a nation state system. So I agree we should not be surprised by their actions.

But more than just imagination and self-interest constrain foreign experts, intellectuals, and organizations. Finding institutions that provide a stable political equilibrium is very, very hard. The nation-state system is the go-to option because it has provided stability better than most of the alternatives so far. Maybe more importantly, it is the default, and thus a focal point and a norm. That status provides added stability independent of whether it is actually the right or the wrong model.

Phooey, you might say, failing and failed states need to experiment with new models. That innovation is the key to success. I say: easy to say if you don’t bear the risk. Experimenting with new models of government, as de Waal suggests, is exceptionally risky, maybe more risky than promoting an ill-fitting federal system and national government.

The last thing a private sector wants, moreover, is political instability. A clan-based or fragmented system might serve the short term business interests of the established businessmen, but does a merchant state leave a sense of policy stability, a long horizon of peace, and a possibility for peaceful political evolution? If the answer is “maybe, but maybe not” then the conditions are not present for domestic or foreign investment, for innovation, for creative destruction–all the things that actually drive growth and development.

The anarchic merchant state strikes me as the foundation for a stagnant oligarchy.

But that’s not my main worry. A stagnant merchant oligarchy could be pleasant compared to the present. It’s the uncertainty and risk that any of these stable outcomes will prevail that worries me.

In this, de Waal’s proposal for Somalia has echoes of Paul Romer’s push for charter cities, or Jeff Herbst’s suggestion that international enforcement of borders and sovereignty in central Africa should end–for instance, letting eastern Congo operate autonomously, or even letting Rwanda annex it. (See my charter city discussions here, and on Herbst here.)

de Waal and Romer and Herbst have my admiration. They may very well be right. But even if in expectation these are better proposals–in that the average expected outcome is better than the alternatives–these proposals come with huge amounts of uncertainty. Things can get worse, or stay just as bad.

Who is willing to bear that risk? Who will underwrite it? And who has the right to decide on behalf of the people who will bear the brunt of any failure?

You may disagree, but  in my mind the burden of proof is on the new model. Otherwise, give the one with some degree of success the time it usually needs (in historical perspective) to work: decades, not years.

If you insist we still ought to experiment with new models of the state, so be it. But we should pause before we use as our laboratory the homes of the poorest and most vulnerable people on the planet. Their ability to hear and understand their options, and exercise voice in the matter, is almost nonexistent.


5 Responses

  1. While I agree a robust state (whether it is a nation or not) is the ideal, I do not agree with your analysis that business depends on it (and I have been doing business for 20 years). Some of the most dynamic business environments in the world depend on a relationship based system of rules that works independent of the state. See the Chinese across Asia, Jews in the Middle Ages, etc. A clan based system such as that which Somaliland has developed works in a similar way. It is highly predictable to those who operate within it. Somali success in business across the country (in mobile phones, etc.) are because of the same principles.

    Your call for Somalia to take a more traditional route is fine — except that it has been proven not to work. The current focus on new ideas reflects a desperation with all the alternatives. Wishing for something that does not work is not likely to make it happen.

    I therefore agree with de Waal, as I write in this summary of things to read on Somalia:

  2. I am not so sure that a new institutional setup would change the chaos on the ground. It sound like a very simplistic approach to me. While I actually support Romers ideas about charter cities in the appropriate circumstances (lease a suitable piece of uninhabited land to a government with a proven track record), I am quite sceptical to the ideas of institutional experimentation in Somalia.

    Why? Because instability and state failure often comes from a break-down in inter-elite balance of power, theoreticized by North et. al. in ‘Violence and Social Orders’. What we can learn from VaSO is that any institutional setup would break down as long as such a break down is in the interests of the elites, unless you live in a democracy, or open access order, as it is termed in VaSO.

    Since there is no reason to believe that Somalia is going to be a open access order anytime soon, the key is political equilibrium, not the institutional setup.

    My support for charter cities is based on the same theoretical frame: If you build a city up from scratch, governed by a competent regime with a proven democratic track record and inhabited by immigrants, it is less likely to be held back by entrenched elite interests. The city will be a open access order from day one, and continue to be a open access order as long as it is well governed.

  3. I think de Waal is on to one trend on the basic observation, that things are better than one might expect. Ken Menkhaus has been observing this for years. I was surprised that the indicators that de Waal, a famine guy, cites are things like “cheap mobile phones” “fast money transfers” and “less violence than the civil war.” Not exactly the Human Development Index. I was at conference just before the famine hit, and saw a stunning presentation on Somalia’s development — including progress on such unlikely ones as “girl’s education.” But it is wrong for de Waal to discount also the enormous effects of hundreds of million dollars of humanitarian aid over the years on development indicators and trade (probably the most likely cause for the “girl’s education” indicator).

    To Chris’s comments about the idea working better on paper than in real life, I might also add that many of Somalia’s problems – on paper – are exactly the sort that strong governments were designed to address: chronic and uneven food shortages, aggressive large neighbors, lack of large scale infrastructure.

    Also, shame on de Waal for writing int he New York Times that Somaliland and Puntland do not receive “official foreign aid.” There has been plenty of ODA investments in those areas, including in governance and security. Check out the GHA briefing paper from earlier this month. I get what he means, that there would be more had it been a state and it would have been done differently, but still, it is misleading.

  4. Wow, you really articulated my feelings after reading that NY Times article. To the armchair theorist here in the West, the prospect of what you called an “anarchist merchant state” may seem like an appealing and viable option for Somalia, but all this conjecture really does leave out the Somali’s say in it. It’s a big leap to say that since Somalis seem averse to centralized national government that we should just totally change course and focus on developing a bunch of clan based city-states. Developing a national government is a long process and I agree that in today’s world a strong, competent national government is essential and that may take a painfully long time to develop. Certainly, development and aid strategies more attuned with localized Somali needs is preferable to top-down, corruption-vulnerable methods; but I don’t think the struggles in Somalia warrant a wholesale change of theory.

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