TWQ: Rethinking State-building in a Failed State - Winter 2010
January 1, 2010
As warships from a dozen nations patrol the waters off Somalia, trying to stem the piratical tide, the international community is once again trying to rebuild a centralized government in Mogadishu capable of dealing with the country’s myriad woes. Today’s efforts are only the latest in a long line of attempts by outsiders to build a national authority in the world’s most anarchic country. Since 1991, the international community has launched at least fourteen peace initiatives in Somalia and spent more than $8 billion on efforts to create a strong state. All have failed.
The consequences of these failures have been dire, and they are worsening. In the past three years, fighting has displaced over a million people and decimated the capital. The country may be headed toward another famine, with nearly three million already dependent on precarious supplies of food aid. Spreading lawlessness, a resurgent radical Islamist insurgency with growing links to al Qaeda, and blossoming anti-Western sentiment—not to mention hundreds of pirates—all suggest that Somalia is fast becoming the haven for terrorists and criminals that analysts have long feared.
Somalia is, in short, a nightmare for its own citizens and a source of grave concern for the rest of the world. Ironically, however, the international community bears much of the responsibility for creating the monster it now fears. Previous attempts to help Somalia have foundered because they have been driven by the international community’s agenda, rather than by Somali realities. The UN, Western governments, and donors have tried repeatedly to build a strong central government—the kind of entity that they are most comfortable dealing with—in defiance of local sociopolitical dynamics and regional history. Not only have these ill-judged efforts met with inevitable failure, but they have also endangered the traditional social structures that have historically kept order.
Instead of repeatedly trying to foist a Western style top-down state structure on Somalia’s deeply decentralized and fluid society, the international community needs to work with the country’s long-standing traditional institutions to build a government from the bottom up. Such an approach might prove to be not only Somalia’s salvation but also a blueprint for rescuing other similarly splintered states.