BY NATE HAKEN
Global efforts at poverty reduction through infrastructure and institution-building have been an overwhelming international success, with poverty rates having dropped precipitously in the last twenty years. However, there is a glaring exception. In fragile states, with protracted or recurrent crisis, international and multilateral development efforts have not worked. In this “last mile”, poverty is unremitting, and in some cases the vicious cycle of poverty and crisis has grown even more entrenched. Further complicating matters are rising global pressures linked to water scarcity, natural disasters, and forced migration, which only seem to be getting worse, especially in certain regions like the Middle East and the Horn of Africa. In response to this challenge, multilateral Development Financial Institutions and humanitarian and development agencies are proactively developing new policies, guidelines, and financing facilities to address the unique challenges of development in situations of fragility.
In this context, Somalia stands out. On the one hand, it is emblematic, illustrative of the dynamic where states at the top of the FSI tend to be stuck there. Somalia has remained stubbornly among the top three most fragile states for 13 years. This remains the case today, where it stands at number two. The overall score of 122.3 on the 2019 FSI is virtually unchanged since 2007, when it scored 111.1. However, despite the relentlessness violence of the al-Shabaab terrorist group, coupled with devastating cycles of deadly drought, and mass displacement, the resilience of the Somali people is remarkable, and rightly a point of pride. Perhaps a better indicator of Somali resilience is not the overall FSI score taken in isolation, but rather to dig beneath the numbers and compare where Somalia is now with where it was before the establishment of the Federal Government of Somalia in 2012.
In 2011, al-Shabaab controlled most of southern Somalia, including the port city of Mogadishu. Meanwhile, a drought and famine killed over 200,000 people, a condition made inexorably worse by the devastation that decades of war had wrought on irrigation and water supply infrastructure, boreholes, catchments, and neglect of riverbanks and dredging. Since then, al-Shabaab has been driven out of Mogadishu and a new Federal Government has been established, including cabinet level ministries focusing on strategic coordination around issues related to agriculture, livestock, water, and humanitarian affairs. Beyond the federal level, there are also state-level governments for a more effective local response. So, when drought struck again in 2017, though comparable environmentally in terms of average precipitation, it was astounding how much lighter the humanitarian impact was this time around (thousands killed – instead of hundreds of thousands).
This relative success is perhaps not exclusively attributable to the Federal Government. Al-Shabaab still controls much of the rural areas in southern Somalia and the level of violence remains as high as ever. The state governments recently suspended ties with the Federal Government, citing frustration with failures of performance and effectiveness. The rivers have still not been dredged. The river banks and the irrigation infrastructure have still not been rehabilitated. But as an entry point for partnership and coordination, the mere existence of a Federal Government has enabled the humanitarian response to be more effective. After pulling out of Somalia in 2010, the World Food Program reopened its Mogadishu office in 2015. When the crisis struck, hundreds of IDP sites were set up, logistics were delivered by air, and hundreds of thousands received shelter kits, temporary access to safe water, and cash-based interventions.
When you interview community elders, religious leaders, and government officials in Mogadishu, they will speak glowingly of resilience. Some of the often-repeated anecdotes and illustrations may seem like bravado – and brave they truly are. It is not unknown for a bomb to explode in the morning before people return to line up for aid distribution in the afternoon. But more often, they speak about a new landscape that did not exist ten years ago. For example, in 2010, despite the complete lack of regulation in the telecom industry, Hormuud Telecom had just launched a new mobile money service for their customers. Now, the vast majority of Somalis conduct most of their transactions on their phone. This is true in both rural and urban settings. Even beggars on the street of Mogadishu display their Electronic Voucher number so that people can transfer funds directly to their account. In a country with high levels of insecurity and very little in the way of banking services, mobile money has been a game changer, which has also allowed for quicker humanitarian response.
Second, the combination of having a large Diaspora community and a new social media landscape allows for advocacy and remittances on a level that was impossible ten years ago. If a community urgently needs a school or a hospital, a standing network is quickly activated, including community elders, clan leaders, religious charities, business owners, and the Diaspora for philanthropy, zakat, hawala, and crowd funding. Even in the most remote village of Somalia, no one is as isolated as before.
Mogadishu is still a city under siege. The African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and humanitarian agencies still hunker down in the airport complex, rarely to venture into the city lined with blast walls, check points, every pickup truck with armed security straddling the tailgate. Every week or so another explosion. But somehow the Somali people remain fearless, hanging out a Lido Beach, going shopping, to the mosque, to class, back and forth to work every single day. The government agencies are busily writing proposals for the funding of projects. The Mogadishu port is bustling with containers being shipped all over the world.
The 2019 FSI tells a story of Factionalized Elites and Demographic Pressures being as high as they can be (10.0), due to separatism, insurgency and drought. Group Grievance and Economy have both slightly improved over the last few years to reach 8.9 and 8.8 respectively. All the other indicators remain in the nines. Just looking at the scores alone, tells you something about the enormous challenges that families and communities face. But the FSI does not tell you about resilience.
For poverty reduction to take place in this “last mile” it will be through a better understanding of resilience that the game will be won. What formal and informal systems and mechanisms exist that account for a country’s ability to bounce back from disaster, or to adapt to a new reality? How can these be leveraged and amplified?
Of course, geopolitics is an unavoidable as a factor in this equation. Important questions must be asked and answered. Can AMISOM be sufficiently perceived as impartial by Somali communities given a fraught history of conflicting interests with Kenya and Ethiopia? Now, with the recent peace agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea, is there a window of opportunity to resolve the conflict between al-Shabaab and the Federal Government of Somalia?
But beyond those political considerations, there remains the more pressing matter of survival in the day-to-day. And in a country with such bravado, entrepreneurship, social capital, and the innovative embrace of technology, for Somalia there may be hope.