A ‘New Deal’ for Somalia

first published by Chatham House, 7 May 2013

Having officially concluded its ‘transitional period’, Somalia is set to embark on yet another.  Both Somalia and the international community face a critical test as the country seeks to exert greater control over policy development and implementation in the framework of the ‘New Deal’ initiative. The requisite shift in the nature of international engagements will bring unavoidable risks for all stakeholders – risks that need to be taken, however, if the Somali state-making process is to be advanced.

Optimism over Somalia’s prospects has peaked after an accumulation of changes in the country over recent years and months. Initial hopes arose in 2011, when the African Union Mission in Somalia made military progress against the radical Islamist insurgency of al Shabaab. This was followed by a sharp decline of piracy attacks off the Somali coast during the course of 2012. These security gains were bolstered politically, when Somalia’s eight-year ‘transitional period’ finally ended with the establishment of a leaner Federal Parliament in August 2012, the election of a new President in September, and the formation of a fresh government from October  onwards.

These changes within Somalia were accompanied by important shifts in international engagement. The Somali Federal Government scored significant diplomatic points in early 2013 by gaining the formal recognition of the United States of America and the International Monetary Fund. It also saw a partial lifting of the arms embargo by the United Nations Security Council in March. Furthermore, during the first London Somalia Conference in February 2012, the international community pledged to forge a more coordinated and effective approach in support of Somalia’s reconstruction efforts – a pledge that was demonstrated with the establishment of a multi-donor Somalia Stability Fund.

While the need for better aid coordination had already been emphasized in the 2005 Paris Declaration, the 2011 Busan Conference on Aid Effectiveness stipulates that more policy space should be given to ‘fragile states’. The g7+ group of 19 conflict-affected countries lobbied the international community to allow for increased national ownership over setting and implementing political and development agendas. As Somalia is part of this ‘New Deal’ initiative and given its recent progress, implications of opening the policy space in the country are likely to feature strongly in the upcoming UK-Somalia Conference in London on 7 May 2013.

If taken seriously, the implementation of the ‘New Deal’ would reflect lessons from past, tried, trusted and failed international engagements with Somalia. Approaches shaped by international security concerns related to warlordism, piracy, terrorism, and migration over the needs of the Somali population and their state-making project have thus far achieved little beyond catalysing new political forces and stimulating radical Islam. More generally, it put regional and international actors in the driving seat and restricted Somali governments’ policy space.

This restriction of national ownership has come at a great cost to Somalia, partly because it constrained national attempts to re-establish security and stability, and partly because it led to a neglect of other pressing challenges, such as the revival of a productive economy. Yet, the benefits of allowing for enhanced policy space in support of national development processes can be seen in the internationally much celebrated case of Somaliland, which unilaterally declared independence in May 1991. Although the self-styled republic’s trajectory has not been wholly detached from international influences, constraints and pressures, and even though it continues to face its own state-making challenges, Somaliland had significant policy space to set and pursue its own agenda. Largely due to the lack of international recognition, it had its own, unintended version of the ‘New Deal’ decades ago.

Although giving Somalia more policy space is crucial to resolving long-lasting crises, there are numerous obstacles to realizing this ‘New Deal’. Security concerns remain both for Somalia’s neighbours and the international community at large, calling the latter’s readiness to reduce direct influence into question. Moreover, scepticism remains over Somali stakeholders’ ability to stay on track, not least because expectations placed on past Somali partners have repeatedly been disappointed. Lastly, full adherence to the ‘New Deal’ would require the acceptance at the part of the international community that state-making processes are inherently conflict-prone and that not all good things do and can necessarily go together in the context of state-making – a realization the international community has not yet fully embraced.

Yet, as the Secretary-General of the United Nations recently pointed out, “we must be prepared to take risks for Somalia”. The risks associated with a Somali ‘New Deal’ are likely to test the international community’s resolve as well as the Somali government’s capacity to tackle pressing social, economic and political issues. However, under the condition that international actors are prepared to take risks, and allow sufficient room for some necessary mistakes along the way, then the long-term benefits of increasing national policy space are likely to outweigh the perils.

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