By Dr. Mahamud M. Yahye
"You take my life when you do take the means whereby I live" – William Shakespeare
Even before the onslaught of its ruinous civil war, Somalia was very poor by any standard. Today, it is in a much worse situation, and the poverty and unemployment of its people have increased enormously. As a result of Somalia's 16-year devastating civil war, and since the country has not yet witnessed any meaningful political stability or economic development, the unemployment situation in Somalia is especially heart-wrenching. It is a war that, according to UN reports, has caused “a massive destruction to the means of production and the natural and human resources of the country.” This deplorable unemployment situation is also believed to have been contributing, immensely, to the equally bad situation of the civil strife with the existence of thousands upon thousands of illiterate young men who have no any marketable skill, whatsoever, and who use their guns as the only means of livelihood. This is so, because in the opinion of some experts, Somalia’s internal conflict is essentially a fight over scarce resources. As the World Bank has explained in a relatively recent report: "Illiterate gunmen saw war, plunder and extortion as their only livelihood. Some businessmen [as well as warlords] were enriched by war-related criminal activities such as weapons sales, diversion of food aid, drug production and exportation of scrap metal." Or as the renowned British scholar on Somali affairs, Prof. I. M. Lewis, put it while describing how Somalia has retrogressed in the past 20 years or so with the total destruction of all its government institutions: "The political geography of the Somali hinterland, consequently, closely resembled that reported by European explorers in the 19th century with spears replaced by Kalashnikovs and bazukas." As such, if real security, stability, and a modicum of law and order are to be restored to Somalia, whose economy has been almost totally destroyed, the leaders of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) have to step up to the plate and do their level best to tackle the severe unemployment situation which now prevails in the country. The steps they have lately been taking, with the support of the African Union peacekeeping forces, in terms of collecting all kinds of weapons and destroying them - and, thus, pacifying the capital city (Mogadishu) which currently experiences the worst insecurity situation in the country - are very commendable and appropriate steps. However, they are not sufficient measures and they should be complemented by equally decisive steps in the economic sphere – particularly in addressing the acute unemployment crisis.
II. Current Unemployment Situation in Somalia
Let us now present some basic facts and figures on Somalia’s economic situation. For the year 1985 for which reliable data are available, Somalia's gross domestic product (GDP) was estimated at US $880 million (for neighboring Ethiopia, the figure is around 8 times as much), and the per capita income of its people was estimated at $160 (for Sub-Saharan Africa, the current comparable figure is $745). The aforesaid GDP comprised: Agriculture 67%, services 25% and industry 8% only. The country’s exports, consisting mainly of livestock, bananas and hides and skins, amounted to a mere $93 million, while its imports recorded $373 million (i.e., four times as much as its exports). But the country's economic activities are currently believed to be greatly fueled by remittances from the Somalis in the Diaspora who are estimated to send to their relatives back home approximately $360 million annually. However, the second generation of Somali immigrants (especially those born or raised as youngsters in the highly individualistic West) may not be so generous with their painstakingly earned money, as one of the World Bank's recent reports has stated. On the other hand, thousands upon thousands of Somalis, who are scattered across the country as internally displaced persons (IDPs) or as refugees in neighboring countries, have left their farms and/or small businesses – which were taken over by stronger clan militias – because of insecurity. Besides, there are elements within the faction leaders/warlords who are not interested in real peace and national reconciliation in Somalia, because they would, otherwise, have to return the agricultural land, real estate, houses and businesses that they had illegally confiscated in the past 16 years to their rightful owners. Sadly, the misguided tribal militias and their bosses, the unscrupulous warlords, either ignore or don’t understand that, according to one of the hadiths (sayings) of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), it is strictly forbidden to take away or harm, without legal justification, a fellow Muslim’s life, his/her property or his/her personal honor.
According to the World Bank's latest reports, Somalia's labor force is estimated at 4.6 million (or 56% of the country's total population estimated at 8.2 million). This figure for labor force comprises 1.6 million in urban centers (or cities and towns) and 3.0 million in rural and nomadic areas. This labor force is estimated to grow at 3.1% per annum (in other Sub-Saharan Africa, the growth is 2.3% only). Total employment for this Somali labor force, including paid employment, self-employment as well as unpaid economically productive household works among the economically active population is estimated at 39% for urban, 59% for rural and nomadic population and 53% for the country as a whole. In other words, the unemployment rate stands at 66% for the urban and 41% for rural and nomadic areas. This translates to a 47% unemployment rate for Somalia as a whole – one of the highest unemployment rates presently taking place in Sub-Sahara Africa. Stated differently, almost half of Somalia’s population is now out of work. (Under normal conditions, if this rate reaches 10% in a country, it would be considered a big disaster). Here, it is not surprising that the unemployment rate is significantly higher in urban areas, because when Somalia had a functioning central government, the overwhelming majority of urban dwellers used to get paid employment opportunities from the various government institutions (i.e., the civil service, the police, the national army, etc.) and its autonomous public enterprises. At present, the economic entities operating in the country mainly consist of telecommunications (especially telephone) firms, money transfer entities (or hawalas), water/power distribution firms and petty traders. But these private sector entities are far from being able to absorb the ever increasing unemployed or under-employed labor force, particularly young armed males.
Due to the prevalence of severe poverty and lack of employment opportunities, as indicated earlier, many of the armed young men, who represent the urban drop-outs, armed thugs and those brought from the countryside and/or nomadic areas, ostensibly to help their tribesmen - the ruthless worlds - in their war efforts to assume full control over the government organs by force, pose a particularly thorny problem. As the world Bank indicated in the above mentioned report, Somali clans have been competing [and massacring each other, I may add] for the control of the central government, because it is regarded as the best and easiest way for accumulating wealth (and not as a public service to work for the good of the Somali people as a whole). Once these armed tribal militias become accustomed to the relatively more comfortable life in big cities and towns, they would not be willing to go back to the harsh, predominantly nomadic environment, they had left behind many years ago. On the other hand, extreme poverty rate, i.e., people living under $1 per day (or less than $370 annually), are now estimated to be around 43% in Somalia. Consequently, the country is not at all expected to realize any of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) which the developing or low income countries are supposed to achieve, according to the UN plans, by the year 2015. These targets include: Halving extreme poverty; achieving universal primary education (or 100% enrolment); reducing child mortality; promoting gender equality (particularly in the education field); improving maternal health; combating HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases, etc.
III. What is to be done?
In the light of the above brief analysis and in order to address the acute unemployment problem in the country, it would be advisable for the present government in Somalia (TFG) to take bold steps along the following lines:
(a) Restoration of law and order: There is no doubt that restoration of peace, security and stability is the sine qua non condition for improving the economic situation. Without that, the millions of internally displaced people as well as Somalis in the Diaspora will not go back to their original abodes in order to earn livelihood by lawful means in addition to contributing to the reconstruction of their unlucky country – a country that has to start from scratch, as Somalia is today, in the opinion of some observers, in a much worse situation than where it was when it gained its independence almost 50 years ago.
(b) Reconstruction of the Somali Government’s institutions: Immediate steps are required to be taken to rehabilitate and reconstruct the Somali Government’s institutions (i.e., the civil service, the police, the national army, public education and health, the essential autonomous public enterprises, etc) as soon as feasible. If this is accomplished, thousands of Somalis would, in the long-run, get a chance for obtaining decent jobs with the national government, as was the case before the collapse of the state machinery in early 1991.
(c) Provision of lawful employment to the armed militias: The illiterate marauding armed young men whom we talked about earlier have to be disarmed, demobilized and given the opportunity to gain livelihood through lawful means. To achieve this, the Somali Government is expected to embark upon ambitious public works projects, i.e., rehabilitating and constructing schools, hospitals, water points (or boreholes), veterinary centers, roads and other infrastructure components – provided, of course, that the government obtains sufficient funds from both local sources as well as donations from friendly foreign countries and institutions.
(d) Opening up vocational training centers: One way of improving employment chances for the demobilized ex-armed tribal militias would be to re-open the numerous vocational and technical centers/institutes, which Somalia had before the start of its tragic civil war, for the purpose of teaching them some basic technical skills or trades in such areas as: carpentry, plumbing, electric works, car repairs, etc., for a period not exceeding, say, 1-2 years. Those who don't desire to engage in these skills, usually needed by the market, could be absorbed in the national police and army forces that will be formed and consolidated in the near future to safeguard the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Somalia – and not annihilating the Somali people on tribal basis, as was the case in the past two decades or so.
(e) Encouraging the SMEs: Another important approach for enhancing employment opportunities and eradicating poverty could be for the national authorities to encourage and promote small and medium enterprises (SMEs) to aid, particularly, the poor Somali women, many of whom have been heading families and have been their only bread-earners as their husbands were either killed, maimed or engaged in Somalia's senseless fratricidal warfare of the past 20 years or so. To achieve this, Somali Government would be advised to revive, as soon as possible, the banking sector, especially the now defunct Somali Development Bank, in order to extend loans (preferably soft ones) to the qualified Somali citizens. Over the centuries, Somalis have been known to be naturally born entrepreneurs who are good, particularly, at engaging in trade and commerce. (It is a measure of Somalia’s disintegration and the terrible destruction of its major institutions that today, in the 21st century, there is no, for instance, a single ordinary bank or legal service available in the country. This would be something unfathomable in the civilized world).
(f) Benefiting from the experience of other developing countries: Somalia could greatly benefit from the experience of some other developing countries like Bangladesh, one of the poorest countries in Asia, in the field of poverty reduction through micro-financing. In particular, useful lessons could be learned from Grameen Bank, the pioneer of micro-financing, and its chairman, Prof. Muhammad Yunus, the winner of last year’s Nobel Prize for Peace in recognition of his considerable contributions to this field. As some of you may be aware of, this admirable ex-academician had started his mission extending loans to the Bangladeshi poor, especially, the women, for as little as $27 per financing operation to start their own small businesses!
Finally, some people may think that the above-mentioned recommendations or remedies for Somalia's dire unemployment situation are far-fetched and unrealistic given the country's current situation. (Today, Somalia’s government is penniless and on top of that the country had accumulated, before the collapse of its state, foreign debts currently amounting to nearly US $3 billion). However, the country cannot forever remain in this senseless civil strife and sooner or later it will be incumbent upon Somalis to get serious and think about rebuilding their lives and reconstructing their devastated homeland. It is also reasonable at times to dream in order to achieve lofty goals – like tackling Somalia's current appalling unemployment situation. This is so, because as an American social worker, a lady by the name of Jane Addams, put it almost a hundred years ago: "Of all the aspects of social misery, nothing is so heartbreaking as unemployment."
May God almighty save Somalia and protect her from her own sons.
Mahamud M. Yahye, Ph.D.
e-mail: [email protected]