How Somaliland transitioned to stability sans direct aid, recognition
Men waiting in a queue hold up their voter’s identification cards during the 2010 presidential election in Somaliland. A self-declared state since 1991, it owes its stability largely to a peace process that was led and funded locally. Photo by: Teresa Krug / CC BY-NC
The dramatically divergent paths that Somalia and Somaliland took after a struggle led the latter to become a self-declared state in 1991 run counter to the conventional notions of the factors that drive successful peace processes and, perhaps more importantly, spur development actors to rethink the needs of post-conflict situations.
More than two decades after the collapse of the Somali central government, Somalia continues to be a major recipient of foreign aid. Official development assistance to Somalia amounted to $5.4 billion from 2003 to 2012, with the proportion of ODA given as humanitarian aid averaging 68 percent in the same period. According to Global Humanitarian Assistance, Somalia was the second-largest recipient of humanitarian aid in 2011, when humanitarian assistance to the country peaked at $1.1 billion.
On the other hand, Somaliland, which is internationally recognized as an autonomous region of Somalia, continues to be unable to receive direct foreign aid because of its lack of an official status as a sovereign state.
During its early years, Somaliland rejected international assistance, which the breakaway territory considered tied to the U.N. state-building project in Somalia. In an interview with author Rebecca Richards in “Understanding Statebuilding: Traditional Governance and the Modern State in Somaliland,” Abdullahi Duale, Somaliland’s former minister of foreign affairs, recalled that he and other leaders in Hargeisa, Somaliland’s capital, told Admiral Jonathan Howe, then the commander of the U.N. operations in Somalia, “Thank you, but we don’t need your help.”
And yet the situations in Somalia and Somaliland today couldn’t show a more striking contrast.
A no-go zone for international aid workers, Somalia is rattled by violence and uncertainty as it continues to be embroiled in what has become a protracted crisis. Meanwhile, despite sporadic territorial tensions with neighboring Puntland, which has not expressed intentions to be recognized as an independent country, Somaliland has been far more secure.
“I think the most important thing to understand about Somaliland is it is probably the best example of autonomous recovery, development and state building that we can find in recent years,” Seth Kaplan, a foreign policy analyst and author of “Fixing Fragile States: A New Paradigm for Development,” told Devex.
An organic process
Somaliland’s successful shift toward stability mainly stems from a peace process that was led and funded internally, and underpinned by a desire among leaders and ordinary locals alike to strive for durable calm and avoid sliding back into conflict. Sarah Phillips, a senior lecturer at the University of Sydney whose work focuses on the Middle East and the Horn of Africa, emphasized this point in her 2013 paper on Somaliland.
According to Phillips, “with the exception of around $100,000, which was provided by several donors for the Borama Conference in 1993, there was virtually no foreign funding used to finance the peace conferences in Somaliland between 1991 and 1997.” To fund the peace conferences that gathered conflicting parties for negotiations, Somaliland turned to financing from locals, its diaspora population and the business community. The perceived threat of both a tenuous transition and recriminations from their own communities over misuse of funds meant the participants had a keen sense to not squander their own resources.
But Somaliland owes its peace to more than just the relative absence of foreign aid in its peace negotiations. In a 1997 article, Ahmed Farah and Ioan Lewis recounted how clan elders, during Somaliland’s most critical and already-delayed peace conference in 1993, further stalled the official proceedings by reciting the Quran for a week.
Such domestic power struggles took place in open-ended discussions that lacked the imposed schedules from those who had no personal stake in the peace process. Ultimately, the squabbles, while inconvenient and time-consuming, led to institutions that according to Phillips were “locally devised, locally appropriate and locally legitimate.”
“I think that the lessons of the Somaliland experience point to the importance of genuine local ownership in the development process but also to the fact that it was so unusually isolated from other forms of political and military support during its formative years,” Phillips told Devex.
The insight to be gleaned from Somaliland’s progress isn’t that the Western style of governance is incompatible with non-Western societies, but rather that processes must evolve organically and “accommodate local political, economic and societal customs and conditions,” Kaplan wrote in a 2008 paper.
“It took [Somaliland leaders] many years to figure it out,” Kaplan said. “[The process] was very internally driven, it wasn’t expensive, but it was enough to create a momentum and create some institutions that work.”
Does aid have a place in Somaliland?
The path toward Somaliland’s political settlement may be impressive, but institutions, as in many post-conflict contexts, are significantly hampered by weak capacities.
A vibrant private sector, local communities and development partners provide most of the health and education services in Somaliland. Contrary to some accounts of Somaliland in the period after its transition, foreign aid reaches the territory, but is delivered through project assistance and administered by local and international nongovernmental organizations. But the private sector is still the dominant player: Businesses run some of the most indispensable services, such as water, energy and road infrastructure.
Still, Somaliland has substantial poverty. While it was assessed to be on track toward achieving Millennium Development Goals on eliminating extreme poverty and hunger as well as reducing infant mortality, high levels of newborn, under-5 and maternal deaths persist. The droughts of 2011 and 2012 also reversed a long-term decline in the proportion of malnourished children under 5. Meanwhile, net enrollment and gender parity in schools in Somaliland remain low.
While the Somaliland government budget has increased annually, its existing sources of revenue remain limited and unable to sufficiently meet the needs outlined in Somaliland’s 2012-16 National Development Plan. According to Phillips, Somaliland’s mechanisms don’t have the teeth to require financial disclosure from companies operating within its borders and collect taxes after the point of entry. These deficiencies force Somaliland to rely on businesses’ honest declaration of profits and resign itself to the reality that service companies, which don’t have products to declare upon entering Somaliland, will be practically exempt from taxes.
In 2013, the $60.5 million Somaliland Development Fund was launched to address these gaps. A pooled fund initially financed by the U.K. Department for International Development and the Danish International Development Agency, the SDF now also has funding from Norway and the Netherlands. At the time of the fund’s launch, the amount was said to have made up 4.2 percent of the nearly $1.29 billion needed for the NDP. The SDF model, however, is still different from standard ODA, Phillips said.
According to Kaplan, an ideal intervention would involve a “modest amount with modest ambitions.” An arbitrary infusion of aid to Somaliland, after all, could overwhelm the ownership that enabled Somaliland to function relatively well after its independence in the first place.
“If they work with the grain of the Somaliland society, I think some extra money and technical advice could be very helpful because the country doesn’t have a lot of money [and] the government isn’t so strong,” Kaplan said.
The SDF secretariat didn’t comment in time for publication, but an overview of the SDF’s stated objectives and project lineup seems to show that it’s on the right track. The SDF agrees with Somaliland’s recognition that development aid is often “donor-driven, bureaucratic, poorly coordinated and unpredictable” and aims to prevent poor aid coordination by not earmarking funds for specific sectors and letting the Somaliland government jointly decide on the distribution of resources.
Still, the SDF doesn’t include secondary education, which has an overlooked but nevertheless relevant impact on development in Somaliland, among its priorities — an unsurprising omission, according to Phillips.
A less analyzed aspect in the Somaliland case that Phillips explored in her research is the role of secondary schools, particularly the Sheekh School, in honing the skills of potential leaders and, consequently, in forging the future of Somaliland. A privately funded, highly selective boarding school that allowed top Somaliland students from all clans to study for free, the Sheekh School produced three of Somaliland’s four presidents, three of its four vice presidents and many leading activists and technocrats.
Lamenting donors’ tendency to prioritize primary education, a Sheekh School graduate told Phillips, “We used to say to the international community [that] all we need is three Sheekh Schools.”
This sentiment, of course, is a drastic departure from the prominence of primary education during the era of the MDGs. Whether the inclusion of quality secondary education in the finalized sustainable development goals, which will be adopted in late September, could boost secondary education’s place among development partners’ priorities is not yet clear.
A rough road to recognition
Discussions of Somaliland often include the odds of it being bestowed diplomatic status — and for good reason. While its huge strides after 1991 have garnered international recognition, Somaliland itself has been denied legal status.
In 2005, the African Union visited Somaliland for a fact-finding mission and concluded that Somaliland independence “should not be linked to the notion of opening a Pandora’s box” or associated with a possible sweeping secessionist spirit across the region.
Somaliland has also met most criteria for statehood, as enshrined in the Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States: a working government, a permanent population and more or less defined territorial borders.
It also has its own flag, currency and passport — although only Ethiopia and Malaysia accept Somaliland-issued passports, and Djibouti, which only accepts passports from Somaliland officials, stamps the visa on a separate sheet of paper, according to Phillips.
Even so, an official diplomatic status for Somaliland remains elusive.
Unlike South Sudan, which had a powerful lobby that sold the United States on its independence, Somaliland has a much smaller support base that pushes for its recognition. Among African states, Rwanda, South Africa, Zambia and several others can be counted as backers of Somaliland independence, but the AU, afraid to strain relations among countries that don’t support Somaliland’s bid, “has been paralyzed,” according to Kaplan.
“Somalia doesn’t want it to be independent, Djibouti doesn’t want it to be independent, Ethiopia’s somewhat ambivalent, and other African countries will not support it if the immediate neighbors don’t support it,” Kaplan said. “And of course the wider world won’t support it if Africa doesn’t support it.”
Some Somalilanders themselves, including the elites in Hargeisa, are opposed to independence, according to Phillips’ interviews. That such attitudes exist casts doubt on the prevalent notion that independence is a popular idea in Somaliland.
But while its lack of sovereign state status didn’t hinder Somaliland in its most crucial years — in some ways, its unrecognized status might have even given it an edge over Somalia, where peace processes have been financially bolstered by donors — Somaliland still has much to gain from being conferred international legitimacy.
“There are some practical problems when you’re not recognized,” Kaplan said. “Problems for banks setting up branches, for letters of credit, some things you don’t even think about because the international system can’t work with you.”
Being recognized as an independent country means Somaliland will be eligible for grants and loans from bilateral and multilateral donors; its living costs will be lower; it will be easier for international investors, which presently don’t have insurance protections in Somaliland, to come in; and its diaspora professionals won’t have to fear the uncertainty of returning to Somaliland. All these could reinforce the gains that Somaliland has made.
But Kaplan, who is pessimistic about prospects for Somaliland recognition, said “it’s a tragedy” that these, for now, seem unlikely to happen.
“In general, all the studies will say Somaliland has done enough to deserve recognition. And in actuality, it’s an independent country that nobody recognizes.”
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