Monday, February 14, 2022


In 1991, the Somali government collapsed. The result was a still unresolved civil war and repeated foreign intervention. Which is a great sort of thought experiment, since pretty much everybody in Somalia is from the same ethnic group and the same religion, but they still find reasons to fight. 

But one part of Somalia, the northern quarter or so of the country that was ruled by the British while the rest was Italian, decided to just take themselves out of Somalia and start their own country, called Somaliland. They have received no recognition by foreign governments and very little foreign aid. Somehow, though, they established a quasi-democratic government and have maintained domestic peace while Somalia keeps reappearing in the military news.

From a review of When there was no Aid by Sarah Phillips (2020) in the TLS:

International isolation and negligible aid were an inauspicious start for this fledging statelet, particularly as billions of pounds and swarms of international advisers poured into Somalia. Yet for all this assistance Somalia remains to this day racked by violence, piracy and terrorism. Somaliland, meanwhile, has emerged as a beacon of hope in the Horn of Africa – stable, relatively democratic and broadly functional.

For Phillips, an expert on international development, Somaliland therefore provides a curious example of development without intervention. "For all the doubts raised about the effectiveness of international assistance in advancing peace and development," she writes, "there are precious few examples of developing countries that are even relatively untouched by it." As a result, it is ordinarily very difficult to consider counterfactuals, which question whether aid is actually helpful. Somaliland's example offers partial clues. Its peace "painstakingly negotiated under the trees at dozens of clan-based conferences," while Somalia's was "negotiated in five-star hotels funded by the United Nations." Only one endured. . . .

Phillips makes a compelling case for the unexpected positives of non-recognition. As one minister tells her, the country's isolation has been a "blessing in disguise." Because the peace process was free from "institutional endpoints favored by international donors," Somalilanders, the author tells us, "had the freedom to cherry-pick from local and international models blending Western governance with local customs. A system of clan-based proportional representation (the beel) was adopted, while an unelected house of elders (the Guurti) was integrated alongside a democratic two-tier legislature, presidential executive and an independent judiciary. 

It has to be said that Somaliland is a very poor place – the biggest piece of its economy in dollar terms is money sent home by citizens working abroad – but it certainly is doing better than Somalia. I have read two books about Somalia, and they both gave the impression that the main impact of foreign aid was to give factions and warlords something to fight over.


G. Verloren said...

Which is a great sort of thought experiment, since pretty much everybody in Somalia is from the same ethnic group and the same religion, but they still find reasons to fight.

Aren't most civil wars since 1945 ideological in nature, rather than based on ethnic or religious differences? Every so often you get something like the Bosnian War or the Rwandan Genocide, but unless I'm mistaken, such conflicts have actually ended up in the minority.

David said...

I suspect most civil conflicts since, say, 1945 are between different ethnic/religious/regional identities, and a lot of the "ideological conflicts" of the Cold War era were really between ethnic groups, such as those in Congo and Angola. Biafra, Sierra Leone, Zanzibar, Burundi, Rhodesia/Zimbabwe--these were ethnic; Burma has been in a state of more or less continual civil war since independence, involving revolts of the Karens, Kachin, and others against the central government. To a large extent, scholars now seem to think Pol Pot's genocide was ethnic in nature, despite his famous hostility toward urbanites, people with glasses, and so forth. The conflicts in Afghanistan, ditto. Acheh, Sri Lanka, the Kurdish conflicts, the Syrian and Yemeni civil wars, the current war in Ethiopia, the north-south war in Nigeria, Darfur and South Sudan, all ditto. Not to mention lower-level conflicts in Ireland, the Basque country, and other places.

My understanding is a lot of the conflict in Somalia is built around clan identities, which to me signals divisions of a quasi-ethnic kind. The Shebab are a more ideological group like al-Qaida and other Salafi extremists, but they're the exception.

Yes, in many cases, the different ethnicities have commonalities that quibblers may say mean they're not "ethnic," in the sense that the opposing sides may have similar languages, religions, genetic markers, ancestries, cultures, etc. Shi'ites and Sunnis in Iraq are both Arab, but IMHO they function as separate ethnicities. And there's usually plenty of intermarriage and such--in fact, an important part of what riles up the fanatics who do the fighting is the tendency of their fellow Kurds, Houthis, or whatever to lose their distinctive markers, intermarry, move to the city and become cosmopolitans, etc.