An internally displaced boy walks through a gate riddled with bullet holes from a war-ravaged compound in Hamarweyne district of Somalia's capital Mogadishu, September 6, 2011. REUTERS/Feisal Omar
Wednesday, September 21, 2011
Randolph Kent is director of the Humanitarian Futures Programme at King's College in London. The opinions expressed are his own.
How come khat can be delivered anywhere in Somalia virtually at anytime?
Isn’t it amazing that you can you get chilled Coca-Cola in almost every town in the country? Why is the mobile telephone system so effective in Somalia though there are no regulatory authorities?
Why is the Somali currency relatively stable? Millions of itemised invoices are issued by Somali businessmen monthly, and despite the fact that there are few postal addresses, the money is regularly paid. And what do such questions have to do with the present crisis in the Horn of Africa?
An all too frequent challenge for the humanitarian sector is the extent to which our understanding about societies with which we are engaged are not adequately contextualised.
Insufficient time is spent on trying to understand the social dynamics of those who are ostensibly to be assisted, and all too often the result is bad aid provided badly.
This is not to criticise the efforts being made now by so many in the humanitarian sector to assist the estimated 12 million people in need in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia.
It is, however, to suggest that the resources of a donor community already under stress could be better used, and the impact of such efforts even greater if greater attention was paid to the views, aspirations and capacities of the societies being assisted.
Somalia is a case in point. In HFP’s recently launched Somali Futures: An Exploration, it is evident that the depiction of Somalia as a failing state is too simplistic and not a true reflection of the country. There are effective networks operating between the widely-dispersed Somali Diaspora and indigenous citizens in Somalia and Somaliland.
The report’s findings suggest different approaches and solutions to the seemingly perpetual crises that have haunted the nation for decades and more. This report indicates that it is time to step back and re-evaluate largely Western assumptions about Somalia's lack of governability.
Few in the Western media have focused on the extraordinary efforts made by the Diaspora - and the youth in the Diaspora - to hold events to raise money for communities in Somalia. According to Fatuma Abdisalam, a community organizer in north London, “The word of mouth or Somali oral tradition is now spreading like wildfire from a different platform - now via social media.
In the United Kingdom and the United States as well as in other European countries in which the Somali Diaspora live, Somali youth have started campaigns solely to fundraise for the famine -- entirely on social media and they have been highly successful.”
A former Somalia politician and UNICEF staff member, Nuradin Dirie, also continues to express his concern that, despite the good intentions of the international community, too little is understood about the Somali people, their institutions and culture.
In a September 4, interview with Aljezeera, Dirie noted that even Al Shabaab - which he described as many different organisations - normally allowed religious organisations to provide assistance, be they Christian or Muslim, as long as they were not perceived to be political like the U.N.
It is such emphasis on context that underpins the Somali Futures: An Exploration report - the need in this instance to spend more time trying to understand Somali perspectives. The report's conclusions and recommendations include the need to reconcile a seeming paradox - the fear among Somalis on the one hand that their fundamental ways of life are being eroded and on the other hand that while they welcome help, they do not want western interference and believe in their own ability to bring about stability.
One way to promote Somali solutions for Somali futures is to recognise what Somalis generally perceive as a formidable strength, namely, their business community. With that in mind, supporting and promoting indigenous small and medium-sized commercial ventures throughout Somalia and Somaliland, with particular emphasis on activities that could create employment in urban areas, is a fundamental way to restore Somali faith in themselves and a Somali way forward.
Greater efforts to promote practical linkages between the Diaspora and indigenous Somalis may be a second way to reconcile the paradox. These sorts of linkages could take the form, for example, of promoting training linkages between overseas academic and technical institutes that have Diaspora faculty with businesses and related institutions in Somalia and Somaliland.
The use of the Somali Diaspora and the Somali language to transmit skills across continents would be an effective way to provide training in a Somali context.
The abiding message that comes from the report is that the intentions of those seeking to assist the Somali people have to be far more sensitive to the traditions, customs and capacities of the Somali people.