Somaliland v Somalia: great new paper on an extraordinary ‘natural experiment’ in aid and governance

February 19, 2014

     By Duncan Green     

Could someone please clone Sarah Phillips? The University of Sydney political scientist has a great new Developmental Leadership Program (DLP) paper out on Somaliland, following her excellent paper a few years ago on Yemen.

Political Settlements and State Formation: The Case of Somaliland may not sound like much of a page turner, but it is brilliant. It explores one of those natural experiments beloved of researchers – what can we learn when two neighbouring countries part company and head off in different directions (North v South Korea, West v East Germany).

Phillips compares Somaliland v Somalia – while the first has emerged from the  shared chaos of the 1990s (and a brutal effort by SomalilandSomalia to put down Somaliland separatists) into the sunlit uplands of relative peace and stability (some taxation, rudimentary public services, security, two peaceful presidential transitions through the ballot box, including one to the opposition), the other is the quintessential failed state. How come?

Her conclusions do not make comfortable reading, for they trample on any number of received wisdoms. Try these on for size:

Somaliland’s government has received virtually no direct financial aid, largely because it is not internationally recognized. The country itself gets a lot of aid via NGOs, UN projects etc etc, but the government has been generally outside this loop, forced to rely on local sources of funding.

Perhaps more important than the financial aspects, this meant there was no pressure to accept template political institutions from outside. Instead, Somaliland had time and political space to negotiate its own (e.g. clan-based) political settlements. The process involved a series of ad hoc, messy, consultative, and local peace conferences. In the most important conference, in 1993, one group stalled proceedings by reciting the Koran for several days. That’s not in the good governance playbook.

The peace process was almost entirely locally funded, due to Somaliland’s unrecognized status (so no bilateral aid or loans were available). That produced a strong sense of local ownership (literally). In the words of one minister, when asked by Phillips about aid ‘Aid is not what we desire because [then] they decide for us what we need’.

What’s less discussed is the power politics that underlies this transition. The second president used private loans to demobilise about 5,000 militia fighters. He offered stability (and tax breaks) to the business elite in exchange for funding demobilisation and the nascent state institutions. This was effective but certainly not inclusive – the elite came mainly from the President’s own clan. But according to Phillips, Somalilanders generally still see it as a legitimate process – that’s what leaders do.

Sheekh school 1958. Note flag and (English) tribal costume, bottom rightThe paper highlights the critical political importance of elite secondary schools in forging leadership. Available to a relatively small group of often privileged Somalilanders, this is in stark contrast to the donor emphasis on universal primary education. In particular, many of Phillips’ interviews led to the Sheekh Secondary School, set up by Richard Darlington, who fought in WWII as the commander of the Somaliland Protectorate contingent. Sheekh took only 50 kids a year and trained them in leadership, critical thought and standard (Darlington borrowed from the curriculum of his old school, Harrow). Sheekh provided 3 out of 4 presidents, plus any number of vice presidents, cabinet members etc. And no it isn’t a weird Somaliland version of Eton and Harrow (I asked) – it stressed student intake from all clans, especially from the more marginalized ones.

Somalilanders believe they are special, but also at risk:

‘For Somalilanders, the threat of violence was less from an external invasion than an internal combustion. This perception had profound impacts on the institutions – and the ideas about violence that undergird them – that were fostered during this period. Protection from violence was viewed as an internal matter, and if violence had been a political tool and a political choice for local actors in the recent past it was believed that it could become so again with little warning. Peace was precarious, and it rested on a tenuous balance between coalitions with roughly equivalent power.  Somaliland’s civil wars in the mid-1990s provided the opportunity for local coalitions to determine that no one clan could dominate the others.’

Conclusion (with due nods to local context, can’t generalize etc etc)? There is an upside to detachment from external aid and political influence. In the right circumstances, being detached can promote co-dependence between local elites, leading to durable, authentic institutions: ‘legitimate institutions are those born through local political and social processes, and that these are largely shaped through the leadership process.’