Friday, March 28, 2008

Whither, Somalia?

In continuing with my favorite topic, Somalia, I noticed a story on the about Somalia. Normally stories about Somalia are about some failed initiative or outbreak of violence between government/non-government troops, but they don't really do justice to the smallness of the the power of the "government." This story does – it says that the government lives on $19 million per annum (the rest siphoned away from corruption). And it alludes to the fact that the Transitional Federal Government doesn't control much land, but doesn't do justice to the situation by stating that "in many ways, Somalia is not a state at all, but more a lawless space between its neighbors and the sea." That's a gross simplification – much of the land (especially the produce urban areas) are under the control of governments, just not the federal government. Nomadic Somalis follow the xeer, the same code they've followed since before the Europeans. Northern Somalia is divided among the governments of Somaliland and Puntland, with weak albeit present reach. They are much less violent than the south, and for the most part have been since the start of anarchy around 1990. And anyway, the conflict is not among the traditional nomads of Somalia, but rather between invading forces and their reactions, the Islamists.

Correctly, the Times points out the failed policies of American intervention, UN intervention, and American-backed Ethiopian intervention (the current demon). However, it's reflecting only its own ignorance when it declares that "[t]he looming failure is making many people here and abroad question the strategy of installing the transitional government by force." The implication is that there was some doubt in Somalis' minds as to what any form of government, imposed by locals or foreigners, would be like for them. Somali businessmen don't have ideological commitments and consistently side with whoever will protect their business, and would be impossible to capture in the form of a permanent tax base. Somalis haven't supported the colonial powers, diaspora-backed political democracy, American-backed dictatorship, Soviet-backed dictatorship, UN-backed political democracy, or American/Ethiopian-backed political democracy. At the moment the Islamists have sway, but that seems to be a reaction to the Ethiopian invasion. Given the history and the relative mildness of Somali Islam, the Somalis would likely chafe under the Islamists if the Ethiopians withdrew.

Finally, the Times makes the eternal Somali gaffe, when it implies that anarchy in Somalia has been brutally worse than under Siad Barre and scientific socialism in the decades before: "Sometimes it seems that if anything binds this country together, it is scar tissue." This is nonsense – the Somalis have an incredibly rich culture and civilization, with a functioning and unique justice system and generally growing wealth. According to a paper called "Better off Stateless" by Peter Leeson published in 2006, key indicators of welfare in Somali have largely risen in the period since the collapse of Siad Barre's state. Infant mortality is down, underweight births per capita declined 80%, extreme poverty is down more than 15 percentage points, and access to sanitation and healthcare is up significantly. Somalia has cheap, accessible, and competitive internet and mobile phone markets as well as competitive private low-cost air carriers. Education is relatively well-provisioned by the private market, and Somalia now has a higher university enrollment than under the Barre regime.

The Times and the media in general must emerge from their paradigmatic shell of always looking to governments for indicators of society. While this might work okay in Western countries where much of the civil and social discourse is in some way filtered through government, the model breaks down for countries like Somalia where foreign and non-governmental entities and institutions are much more important to ordinary Somalis than the supposed central government.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Typically, socialism is the worst option of all.