Explore our work by: Country


Learning by Doing in Somalia

Recently, the President of Somalia, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, declared that the war against Al Shabaab was in its final stages. The President made this claim from Dhusamareb, a town near the frontline of the military operations against the terrorist group. His presence there firmly signals the government’s most urgent priority at this time 

This, clearly, is an important passage of time for Somalia, a young country where nearly half the population is under the age of 15. Somalia is currently approaching debt-relief – the culmination of a decade-long engagement with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank – which will mark a new chapter for the country in terms of both fiscal space and the demands that will be placed on economic management. What do we need to be doing differently to support this process of change that is underway in Somalia? 

Building a Stable Future for Somalia: Navigating Fragility and Fostering Inclusivity 

Somalia is currently fragile. It faces grave challenges on all five dimensions of fragility – society, politics, security, environment and economic. The society is fractured and attempting to come to terms with the consequences of longstanding, bruising conflicts. Somalia’s politics, a mirror of its society, is fragmented as well as in constant churn. The state in Somalia is still fighting to establish territorial control. Alongside, communities and governments in Somalia are battling to deal with environmental challenges compounded by climate change. Meanwhile, the formal economy remains small and overly dependent on remittances (nearly a fifth of the country’s GDP). Even the successful private sector firms are mostly monopolistic and contribute very little to government revenue (taxes make up 4.4% of GDP), which perhaps is understandable given the weak social contract that exists.  

Photos: AMISOM

There are a variety of ways in which the underlying causes of fragility can be addressed – some are essentially long-term political and social reconciliation processes. The rest, however, are about building the foundations for development in the future. In order to do that, there are a few underlying principles that must be followed – by both Somali stakeholders as well as by those on the outside who want to help. Foremost among those is the need to be inclusive. While politics in such contexts usually produces winners and losers, governments must ensure that their services reach all sections of the population. This lies at the heart of the ongoing negotiations over power-sharing between the Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) and Federal Member States, clans and political groupings. To sustain progress towards development once the current military campaign is successful, a stable ‘political settlement’, where power is shared equitably, and key political actors commit to a rules-based order, is going to be critical. 

Much of the work that I have been involved in Somalia is focused on building the capacity of government to deliver public services. The work usually involves establishing and strengthening mechanisms for policymaking and implementation – the painstaking job of governing. This has the three following features: 

  • Knowledge-creating: There is a long history of development work in Somalia, with a mountain of evidence for what has worked and what hasn’t, and it is plainly irresponsible not to factor that in and worse, where it leads to wastage of resources through repeating mistakes or a duplication of effort. When it comes to state-building and peacebuilding in Somalia, it is well-understood that transplanting ‘best practice’ from elsewhere is not going to work. However, the challenge remains one of applying the existing evidence to the current context, and observing what results that yields, which is essentially a process of generating new knowledge. We put this to practice by investing resources in continually updating our understanding of the institutions we work with, avoiding over-reliance on external experts, and by engaging deeply with key individuals at all levels. The problems we identify and the solutions we find are therefore context-appropriate and deliver value to the government counterparts we work with. We have successfully done this in our work supporting Somalia on public financial management reforms, playing a role in supporting Somalia’s journey towards debt relief.      
  • Understand incentives and capabilities: When working with the government’s administrative machinery, we are aware of the interplay between incentives and capability. For instance, when it comes to service delivery, the assignment of functions between the different jurisdictions in Somalia matter as much as the resources available to the state. We do not make the mistake of focusing on one at the expense of the other, and work with our counterparts to recognise and tackle issues where they arise. This also drives home the importance of patiently building capacities so that they are able to ride the momentum when the politics allows. As negotiations between the FGS and FMSs consolidate the federal system in Somalia, there will be opportunities to rapidly expand the reach of the state in a wide range of service delivery sectors, including security, rule or law, health and education.  
  • Accountability through a focus on outcomes: Building legitimacy of the state is basically all about implementation. Accountability to individuals, communities and the private sector involves implementing measures that yield tangible benefits. As the state expands in Somalia, the private sector will expect, for instance, a consistent regulatory environment and security in return for the taxes it pays into the state’s coffers. This ‘social contract’ is an outcome the state needs to work towards, and this can be realised only in implementation, not merely by formulating policies. Focusing on implementation also helps ensure mutual accountability – an essential aspect of how institutional change happens with external support. For instance, externally funded personnel working alongside officials in key government departments need to be accountable for the eventual outcomes they are supposed to achieve, and in our projects, we implement a transparent and shared performance management system.    

State-building in fragile contexts is a gradual process that requires patient and persistent engagement. The challenges that Somalia faces today are daunting, but the trajectory of change has been a positive one. With wider shifts forthcoming if the ongoing military operations are successfully concluded, the landscape in Somalia will evolve rapidly. Governments will have to follow suit and begin delivering on citizen’s expectations, which is going to demand a significant improvement in the state’s capabilities. It is therefore critical that we do things differently, learning from our experience on the ground, and demonstrating the willingness to accept our mistakes. It is therefore important that we get this right today.  

Suvojit Chattopadhyay 
Head of Africa  

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Adam Smith International. 

Our Work

Explore our work to transform lives by making economies stronger, societies more stable, and governments more effective.