7 May 2013
Dominik Balthasar
(Former Chatham House Expert)


Having officially concluded its transitional period, Somalia is set to embark on another. Somalia and the international community face a critical test as the country seeks to exert greater control over policy development and implementation, in light of recent progress and its support for the 'New Deal' initiative. The requisite shift in the nature of international engagements will bring unavoidable risks for all stakeholders. 

Optimism over Somalia's prospects has peaked after an accumulation of changes in the country over recent years. Initial hopes arose in 2011, when the African Union Mission in Somalia made military progress against the radical Islamist insurgency of al Shabaab. This was followed by the unrelated sharp decline of piracy attacks off the Somali coast during the course of 2012. Security gains were bolstered politically when Somalia’s eight-year transitional period finally ended with the establishment of a leaner Federal Parliament in August 2012, the election of a new president in September, and the formation of a fresh government from October onwards. 

Building on progress

The changes within Somalia were accompanied by important shifts in international engagement. This year, Somalia's federal government scored significant diplomatic points by gaining the formal recognition of the United States and the International Monetary Fund. It also saw a partial lifting of the arms embargo by the United Nations Security Council in March. Furthermore, during the first London Somalia Conference in February 2012, the international community pledged to forge a more coordinated and effective approach to support Somalia's reconstruction efforts – a pledge that was demonstrated with the establishment of a multi-donor Somalia Stability Fund. 

Through the 2011 Busan Conference on Aid Effectiveness, which stipulates that more policy space should be given to fragile states, the G7+ group of 19 conflict-affected countries, lobbied the international community to allow for increased national ownership over setting and implementing political and development agendas. Somalia is part of this New Deal initiative and given its recent progress, implications of opening the policy space in the country are likely to feature strongly at the London-Somalia Conference.

The New Deal reflects lessons from past, tried, trusted and failed international engagements with Somalia. Approaches shaped by international security concerns related to warlordism, piracy, terrorism, and migration over the needs of the Somali population and their state-making project have thus far achieved little beyond catalyzing new political forces and stimulating radical Islam. More generally, it has put regional and international actors in the driving seat and restricted Somali governments' policy space. 

Deciding the priorities

This restriction of national ownership has come at a great cost to Somalia, not least because it led to a neglect of other pressing challenges, such as the revival of a productive economy. Yet, the benefits of allowing for enhanced policy space in support of national development processes can be seen in the case of Somaliland. This self-styled republic unilaterally declared independence in May 1991 and faces its own challenges that are not wholly detached from international influences, constraints and pressures. However, Somaliland had its own, unintended version of the New Deal decades ago and has benefited from having had significant policy space to set and pursue its own agenda. 

Allowing Somalia more policy space is crucial to resolving long-lasting crises, however there are numerous obstacles to realizing this New Deal. Security concerns remain, both for Somalia's neighbours and the international community, calling the latter's readiness to reduce direct influence into question. Moreover, skepticism remains over Somali stakeholders' ability to stay on track; past expectations on Somali partners have repeatedly been disappointed. Lastly, the international community needs to accept that state-making processes are inherently conflict-prone and that not all good things do and can necessarily go together in the context of state-making. 

Yet, as the UN’s Secretary-General recently pointed out, 'we must be prepared to take risks for Somalia'. The risks associated with a Somali New Deal are likely to test the international community’s resolve, but if they are prepared to take risks and allow  for some necessary mistakes along the way, then the long-term benefits of increasing national policy space are likely to outweigh the perils. 

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