Understanding the local context is key to addressing fragility in Somalia

The current topical narrative and policies around supporting fragile states has been shaped at the highest levels of the development community by bilateral and multilateral actors including international financial institutions like the World Bank, African Development Bank, IMF, and the Islamic Development Bank. This is good news because these institutions were traditionally established for, and focused on, supporting those member countries that were simply able to borrow for development and pay back their loans. Now, with the global challenges of rising conflict, the war in Ukraine, the climate emergency, and regular environmental shocks, plus the lingering economic pain of the COVID-19 impact across most parts of the world, addressing fragility has rightly become a serious concern for the main international development players.

The drivers of fragility in developing countries are various and include conflict, extreme poverty, weak governance, and, sadly in some cases, a lack of commitment by governments to undertake real socio-economic reforms to improve the future of their countries and the lives of their citizens. These are often compounded by the underlying risks that make fragile states even more likely to remain fragile or regress into an even worse state of conflict and violence – factors such as rising inequality, youth unemployment, lack of basic public services and political disagreements or instability.

Somalia, by all international measures, is one of the most fragile countries in the world. This is due to the legacy of almost three decades of civil strife, lack of government and public institutions as well as conflict. Since 2012, when Somalia had its first internationally recognised government, led by President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud – then serving his first term, and currently serving his second, a decade later – the Somali authorities have been working hard to reverse the country’s fortunes. This has not been easy. Fragile countries cannot just wake up one morning and be better. For Somalia, the journey from fragility to sustainability is long, tough and very much ongoing.

Most people who have not seen Somalia in the past decade still have images of a failed state. Somalia is definitely no longer a failed state, but the negative stereotypical lazy depiction is understandable because the global media narrative is such that unless you have a seamless, possibly miraculous transformation process in this new age of globalization and hyper-global connectivity and interdependence, a country and people’s efforts to develop are not worth mentioning. This narrative ignores the daily activities of the Somali government, people and all international partners that go into paving the way for this positive developmental transformation to happen sustainably going forward.

What makes, and keeps, a state fragile is complex and requires a thorough understanding of the country and its people’s history, culture, values, geography and even capabilities. In Somalia, despite all the civil strife, the Somali people have developed their resilience by supporting each other through a network of kinship, community solidarity, and in business even in the absence of a functioning state.

Today, Somalia has one of the most advanced telecommunication networks in East Africa and remains a pioneer in the use of mobile money which is crucial for financial inclusion and reducing poverty. The Somali Diaspora still sends home over one billion US dollars in remittances to their families. Successive Somali governments have been actively and successfully fighting the Al-Qaeda linked international terrorist group Al-Shabaab with the support of regional and international partners.

More importantly, Somalia is on track to complete its economic reform programme guided by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and is expected to secure debt relief under the Highly Indebted Poor Countries Initiative by the end of this year. This will no doubt be a socio-economic game changer and a major achievement for a country that remains among the most fragile in the world.

The most important question now is, how can Somalia successfully transition from fragility to stability and, eventually, sustainable development? On the face of it this should be fairly straightforward. Somalia is strategically located in the Horn of Africa and has one of the longest coasts in the world, 8.5 million hectares of arable land, and vast amounts of livestock, natural resources including oil and green energy and blue economy potential.

The Somali government has been working hard for years to pass the legislations to improve the investment environment and instill the legal frameworks to attract and increase inward and foreign investment in all these untapped sectors. However, despite all these and domestic revenue mobilization efforts and public financial management improving significantly since 2012, Somalia’s national budget is still small compared to all neighbouring states and over 50% of this comes from external donors. Furthermore, according to the World Bank, currently only 4.4 % of GDP comes from national taxes, which is the lowest in Africa and the world.

For Somalia’s vast untapped resources to contribute to helping the Somali people escape the painful and costly trap of fragility, including the constantly looming possibility of famine, the government must successfully finalise its ongoing economic reforms, and deliver on its ambitious inclusive politics and good governance aspirations.

On their part, international partners should continue to support a Somali-led and Somali-owned state and public institution-building efforts that have been steadily taking shape since 2012.  In addition, real investment in human capital, education and skills, basic healthcare and peace building (rather than peacekeeping) activities at the community level alongside inter-communal dialogue and reconciliation will deliver the most impact in terms of further strengthening national resilience in Somalia. Perhaps, even more importantly, it will be wise to listen and learn from the lived experiences of project and policy beneficiary groups in all localities to design interventions that are appropriate, cost effective and easy to sustain by grassroots and local and national government agencies. This is fiscally prudent, morally correct and will enhance the vital citizen-state relations.

Somalia’s fragility is arguably not only of its own making as billions of dollars of humanitarian and development aid have been poured into Somalia from across the world since the early 1990s. Many Somali citizens, the real beneficiaries, and donors are rightfully asking themselves “What has been the developmental impact other than short term emergency response outcomes?” To learn from this past, a review of the effectiveness of the last three decades of aid structures and utilization must be undertaken.

Furthermore, with improving Somali institutional capacity, legal frameworks, and public financial management, there is an increasingly strong case for using more of the Country Systems by donors to support Somalia and further strengthen institutions and increase developmental impact on the ground.

Fragile countries are unique and, in an increasingly interconnected world with global geopolitical, economic and security interdependence, it is important to translate fragility policies and intentions into deliverable and impactful development programs on the ground. In Somalia, like in every other fragile state (and they are increasing in number), understanding the unique local context (s) and national ownership and leadership will be key to achieving this.

Liban Obsiye is Head of the Strategic Economic Unit at the Ministry of Finance of the Federal Government of Somalia.