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Why Britain's aid efforts could be a victim of Somalia's Spring

The Week UK
BY Jessica Hatcher
Wednesday, May 02, 2012

'The economy without a state' wants to talk to investors - not be patronised by Kenya-based aid workers.

IF SOMALIA experiences its own Arab-style 'spring', it might not be a revolutionary wave against its own government - but an uprising against British intervention in the form of 'aid'.

Senior government ministers in Mogadishu have expressed concern at the renewed international interest led by London. They believe the "projectification" of Somalia benefits mainly Nairobi, the capital of neighbouring Kenya, where NGO workers have earned a negative image because of a fondness for driving brand-new Land Cruisers and inflating property prices.

"They don't consult with us. It's like a doctor trying to prescribe medicine for a patient you haven't seen yet", says Abdullahi Goodah Barre, Somalia's Minister for Planning and International Cooperation.

According to Barre, it is the Italian NGO workers in particular who are thriving. "One of them is building houses in Nairobi. Another is making cheese. It's like The Sopranos," he said.

British aid to Somalia started in March 2010. A year later, International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell announced an average spend of £69 million per annum. Total humanitarian assistance rose by nearly 600% between 2009 and 2011.

In an ironic twist, the spike of international humanitarian interest in Somalia has encouraged a blossoming of new organisations set up by Somalis to defend against it.

Hands Off Somalia is described by activist Haseeb Ahmed as a collective of individuals - neither a political organisation nor a charity - which opposes British intervention in Somalia. Although it is just three months old, its supporters already number in the thousands.

"We have agreed from the beginning that it is unfair and unjust for Britain to be talking about Somalia behind closed doors and branding the country a 'failed state'," Ahmed says.

In February, a London conference on Somalia issued a communiqué reading: "We are determined to place the interests of the Somali people at the heart of all our actions". But many Somalis say it drowned them out.

On the day of the conference, the Somali Relief and Development Forum released a plea. "If you want to help us, listen to us," they said.

"We are fed up with sitting on the sidelines as endless international meetings take place to decide the needs of Somali people."

It is estimated that 25 per cent (or even 50 per cent according to some sources) of Somalia's GDP comes from remittances abroad. "The diaspora are coming back. We've been appealing to them for a long time", says Barre.

Through poetry, blogs, petitions and protests, the internet is providing a platform to re-engage those living abroad.

Awoowe Hamza's poem, Letter to David Cameron, contains the lines: "You decide to punish me by robbing my brothers and sisters in Somalia from their economy / and politically try to change them and bring them back to being a colony."

The British government's unpopularity with Somalis is related to the country's ostensibly selfless provision of 'aid', which Cameron then justifies by calling Somalia "a failed state that directly threatens British interests".

This is a dangerous position. "When humanitarian assistance of this nature is presented as beneficial to Britain's national security, one's ability to reach those most in need is fundamentally undermined," wrote Marc DuBois, executive director of Médecins Sans Frontières UK (MSF) last year. DuBois's warning became prophetic on 29 December 2011 when two MSF aid workers were shot dead in their office in Mogadishu.

The perception of the UK serving its own interests was reinforced in February when The Observer reported that British officials had held talks with the semi-autonomous northern state of Puntland about oil exploration. The UK campaign group, World Development Movement, warned "the UK's new drive to provide aid to Somalia is looking like a cynical attempt to grab its oil".

A United Nations source insists "there is no alternative" to the costly Nairobi-based international aid missions. But Somalis believe there is; investment, not aid. "Somalis are renowned for being some of the most commercially savvy people in the world and the country coined the phrase, "The economy without a state."

The largest telecoms company in Somalia, Hormuud, reported sales of $40million in 2010 - staggering when the World Bank estimates that 73 per cent of Somalia's population of nine million lives on less than $2 per day. Selling phones is only one part of Hormuud's activities: it also distributes emergency food aid.

Prior to being Deputy Prime Minister of Somalia, Mohamed Ibrahim was a teacher at Newman Catholic College in Brent. "Now that Mogadishu is liberated, we welcome a lot of private investors, especially in the tourist sector," he says. The al-Shabaab Islamist militia retreated from the city in August last year, leaving it under the protection of African Union troops. Like many of his fellow politicians, one of Ibrahim's dreams is for Somalia to become self-sufficient.

Hope lies in people like Junaid Egale, a 30-year old former Londoner, who this year opened a UK-registered international business consultancy firm, MIJ, in Mogadishu. "We are here now to service the Somali government projects and the international private sector firms
- NGOs, telecoms and finance," he says.

Egale returned to Mogadishu after al-Shabaab's defeat. Although the Somali capital is still in counter-terrorism mode, security is much improved.

Tourists are also returning. On Lido Beach in Mogadishu, Ibrahim, a man in his late twenties who lives in London but was born in Somalia's second city Hargeisa, says he has come on holiday "for the beaches".

And Somalia's transitional government is developing its own anti-piracy task force – bypassing international NGOs.

Walking around Mogadishu, young children who see me shout: "Turkey, Turkey!" Ankara has had remarkable success in Mogadishu, for the obvious reason of their shared Islamic faith, but also, as one local put it, because they show they are not afraid to walk around in the city and "get their hands dirty".

In early March, a Turkish trade and investment delegation arrived on the inaugural Turkish Airlines flight to the capital and stayed for days to discuss opportunities for diplomatic cooperation.

By contrast, Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague was described spending "a few hours in Mogadishu glad-handing the president, announcing a new ambassador (who will stay in Nairobi) and praising the improved security (while travelling in an armoured car and wearing a flak jacket)".

Hague also chose to call Somalia "the world's most failed state" in front of its President and the gathered international media, a quote that is now routinely attached to any description of the country.

In February, Abukar Arman, Somali Special Envoy to the United States, coined the term 'ghost-lords' for the invisible actors in Nairobi and beyond - the international community - which he accuses of being "perhaps the biggest and most elusive obstacle to the reconstitution of the Somali state".

Unless the ghost lords start listening, the anti-imperialist Somali Spring could derail attempts to stabilise this nation. Private investment in Somalia is risky, but dialogue would be a start. In the words of George Bernard Shaw, "the single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place".


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