Building a Democracy in Somalia

This article was first published in Aftenposten 21.October 

The Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten has in a number of articles shed light on Norway’s role in the state building process in Somalia. This is good. Norwegians deserve to know more about how their tax money is contributing to democracy building in Somalia.

Without a fundamental understanding for the development in aid policies over the last years, however, it is no wonder if people get suspicious when reading that Norwegian aid is spent mainly on paying civil servants in Mogadishu. Is this really the best way to spend limited resources?


As we see it, the answer to this question is yes, and parts of the explanation may be found in history: After the iron curtain’s fall and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the world saw a resurgence of new democracies worldwide. Previous satellite states and other totalitarian regimes got both free elections and a taste of human rights. There was talk about a “global democratic revolution”.

The world getting more democracies is of course beneficial in numerous ways: democratic countries protect their citizens’ basic human rights, the world becomes more peaceful, economy opens up, and it is easier to build bilateral relations between democratic states.

During the 1990s, however, several countries experienced serious setbacks. What was understood globally to be a natural democratic evolution, appeared to be vulnerable processes where the end result by no means were given. The transitional phase from dictatorship and war, to democracy, would more often than not result in a semi-authoritarian regime where the political elite in reality never had their positions challenged.

Civil Society and Political Institutions
Somalia currently finds itself in a transitional phase. The next weeks and months will most likely reveal the direction this country will take in the coming years – towards more or less democracy. And the earlier one is included in this process, the greater are the opportunities to assist local democratic forces. This is what many international aid actors understood in the 1990s: If you can assist the political institutions in a country to move in a democratic direction, the potential for success is strengthened and all parties may eventually save significant funding and resources.

There are many positive things to be said about support to civil society, and about local projects such as building schools and digging wells. But there is always a danger that such “bottom-up” initiatives end up not being sustainable in the long term, either because they remain “Western-sponsored» activities that do not have a local foundation, or because they are destroyed by irresponsible and undemocratic local leaders.

In short, what aid workers have built up through decades can be destroyed in the course of a few months by an undemocratic and corrupt government. Democracy assistance tries to work with the underlying causes and not the symptoms that express themselves through for instance deficiencies in public schools and the health care system.

The Oslo Center is one of very few organizations which work daily with the new political institutions in Somalia. For instance, we are in close dialogue with the Speaker of Parliament when working with the reorganization of Parliament and seeking consensus in a divided society. The Oslo Center has among other things, facilitated the work of the parliamentary committees to enable them to work more efficiently and systematic. The new parliament has in its first year of existence, produced far more laws and reforms than what the previous parliament managed to do during several years in power. The bills are in accordance with national and international judicial standards.

The Speaker, Mohammed Jawari, which lived in Norway for many years, characterizes the cooperation with the Oslo Center as a success, which is based on mutual trust and respect. He emphasizes how bills are now not only rooted in the Somali public, but also has a judicial quality which makes them suitable for implementation.  This work has been successful mainly because it is done on Somali premises, however always built on democratic principles.

Development «on home turf»
Another important point is that donor countries like Norway, Denmark, and Great Britain have eventually learned that that development has to come from within, with its origins on “home turf”. Technical assistance with designing laws and regulations based on political systems in for instance the Netherlands or the United States, is not always working that well in Africa. In addition, these “consulting services” does not address the core of the problem which is the personal interests of political leaders.

A democracy needs be built from below and from above. Both political institutions and a diverse civil society are necessary features. But the work with supporting political institutions is often disdained and prejudged.

The financing that Norway provides in Somalia is part of a so called «New Deal», which is a new way  of ensuring development in vulnerable states. The concept has been developed by the G7-states in cooperation with 19 conflict-ridden countries. The central thought behind the “New Deal” is that the recipient countries are now given the opportunity to discuss and decide how aid funding should be spent. By employing local systems and methods, one hopes that the initiatives obtain more legitimacy. At the same time, capacity is built in recipient countries, both in terms of political and economic governance. The process is, in other words, both owned and led by Somalia.
Of course, there is no guarantee of success. But history demonstrates just how little one has achieved by directing development in Africa from the West. The hope is that this recent approach may actually end up saving money for donor countries, rather than wasting them.

Right now there is a political space and will to build a new Somalia. This is a vulnerable and temporarily limited phase with possibilities which we should all support – on every level.

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