Somalia: Far from a failed state?
- 20 February 2012
- From the section Africa
With leaders from more than 50 countries and international organisations due to gather this week for the London Conference on Somalia, BBC Africa analyst and Somalia specialist Mary Harper argues that Somalia's business leaders offer reasons to hope for the war-torn country's future.
UK Prime Minister David Cameron has managed to convince some of the world's most powerful people, including UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, to come to London because Somalia is seen as the world's most comprehensively failed state, representing a threat to itself, the Horn of Africa region and the wider world.
The conference will focus on three issues that have already had far-reaching and devastating consequences: Piracy, terrorism and famine.
But away from the headlines and the stereotypical media images of skeletal children, skinny pirates in tiny skiffs, and gun-wielding Islamist insurgents, their heads wrapped in black and white scarves, there is another side to the Somali story that is positive, enterprising and hopeful.
Remarkable things are happening which could serve as models for a new start.
It may come as a surprise that, despite coming top of the world's Failed State Index for the past four years in a row, Somalia ranks in the top 50% of African countries on several key development indicators.
A study by the US-based Independent Institute found that Somalia came near the bottom on only three out of 13 indicators: Infant mortality; access to improved water resources and immunisation rates.
It came in the top 50% in crucial indicators like child malnutrition and life expectancy, although this may have changed since last year's famine.
"Far from chaos and economic collapse, we found that Somalia is generally doing better than when it had a state," said the institute.
"Urban businessmen, international corporations, and rural pastoralists have all functioned in a stateless Somalia, achieving standards of living for the country that are equal or superior to many other African nations."
Of course many people in Somalia have suffered horribly during the past 20 years of state collapse, but some sectors of the economy, both traditional and modern, are positively booming.
It may come as another surprise that two northern Somali ports account for 95% of all goat and 52% of all sheep exports for the entire East African region.
According to the London-based Chatham House think-tank, the export of livestock through these ports, and the nearby port of Djibouti, represents what "is said to be the largest movement of live animal - 'on the hoof' - trade anywhere in the world".
I recently visited one of these ports, Berbera, in the self-declared Republic of Somaliland, where port manager Ali Xoorxoor told me: "I expect livestock exports from the port to increase dramatically from three million head of livestock in 2011 to 4.5 million in 2012.
"This is because of healthy demand from the Gulf, especially Saudi Arabia, and new markets emerging in Egypt, Syria and Oman. The Egyptians are especially fond of our camels, mainly for meat."
The livestock trade has exploded since Somalia's government imploded in 1991.
One trader told me exports from the northern ports alone is worth more than $2bn (£1.3bn) a year; this does not appear to be an exaggeration, when one considers that just one sheep is worth at least $30 and a camel several hundred.
Academic Peter Little found what he described as a "spectacular surge" in cross-border cattle trade from Somalia to Kenya, where cattle sales in the Kenyan town of Garissa, near the border with Somalia, grew by an "astounding" 600% in the years following the collapse of central authority.
In his book, Somalia: Economy without State, Mr Little describes how "a freewheeling, stateless capitalism" has flourished in the country.
On their way to market, Somali nomads drive their livestock through hundreds of kilometres of harsh, hostile terrain, much of it occupied by militias including the Islamist group, al-Shabab.
These nomads know how to negotiate their way through enemy territory; perhaps they have a thing or two to teach Somali politicians and international agencies struggling to get aid to those who need it most.
Another traditional area of the Somali economy which has thrived in a stateless society, and could serve as a useful model, is the khat trade, worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year.
This narcotic leaf, grown in Kenya and Ethiopia, is delivered fresh, with tremendous efficiency, to remote parts of Somalia, including those affected by drought and famine.
Special "khat planes", pick-up trucks and people on foot ensure khat gets to market before noon, the day after it is picked.
Otherwise, the khat-chewers will not buy it.
The local authorities and international aid agencies could learn something from those in the khat business about how to deliver supplies, perhaps of food, medicine and other essential items, to difficult and dangerous areas.
As Somali analyst Nuradin Dirie says: "The khat network reaches every corner of Somalia every day of the year and doesn't stop for wars, drought, floods, epidemics, Friday prayers, Ramadan - anything really.
"I suggested to the UN that it could make use of khat networks to vaccinate children as this would create an opportunity for 100% vaccination coverages.
"Of course I did not succeed," he says.
"I have travelled quite a lot inside Somalia. To little villages and big towns, to far away rural areas and to remote coastal outposts.
"Wherever I go, I always manage to get a cold Coca-Cola. If they can store cool Coca-Cola, there is a strong possibility they can handle vaccinations too."
Other more modern sectors of the economy are also thriving.
Somalia has one of the cheapest, most efficient mobile phone networks in Africa.
It is home to Dahabshiil, one of the largest money transfer companies on the continent, which together with other remittance outfits, delivers some $2bn worth of remittances to Somali territories a year, according to the UN.
Like the khat traders, remittance companies deliver money to remote and treacherous places all over Somalia.
Some humanitarian groups use these companies to deliver cash-for-food and other forms of assistance; perhaps more use could be made of these pre-existing remittance networks, which link Somalis together, wherever they are in the world, connecting them in a matter of minutes.
There is a startling contrast between the productive, can-do attitude of the Somali business community, and the sometimes obstructive, counter-productive approach of the politicians.
Members of the Somali diaspora, and those who stayed behind during the long years of conflict, are doing daring, imaginative and positive things.
A group of British-educated brothers from the self-declared republic of Somaliland has built a Coca-Cola bottling plant amongst the sand, anthills and cacti, creating a surreal environment of green lawns, gleaming white walls, glossy red paint, and polished factory floors.
A pioneering young woman has recently set up an art gallery in Hargeisa.
Another has opened up a boutique, where smartly dressed attendants sell shoes, handbags, brightly coloured lingerie, and men's and women's clothes in the very latest Somali fashion.
A man in Mogadishu runs a Billiards and Snooker Federation.
There are also political models and inspirations on offer within the Somali territories.
The most striking is Somaliland, which broke away from Somalia in 1991, and has built itself up from war-torn rubble into probably the most democratic polity in the Horn of Africa.
It has done this on its own, from the bottom-up, combining the old with the new, to create a political system that gives authority to clan elders as well as those elected by the public.
The Somali business community and places like Somaliland have "worked" because they have married the best of the traditional and the modern.
Much that has "failed" in Somalia is a result of combining the "bad", divisive things about the traditional clan system with dangerous modern elements, especially weapons.
It might be more productive for anyone interested in helping Somalia back onto its feet, including those at the London Conference, to deal with and learn from the business community instead of the politicians.