September 23, 2009

Somalia: Land of Lost Opportunity



One of the longest inhabited regions within the world, Somalia is home to a longstanding history of trade and independence.  Never successfully colonized by a European power, yet always a major component within Arab trades systems, Somalia has the geographic proximity and definitive character necessary to become a vital actor within the global economy.  Yet entrenched within a prolonged history of regional and internal conflict, the burden of extreme poverty has forced this failed state into a precarious position.  With a population of over 8 million, the nation contains 1,277,200 displaced individuals, while 561,154 others have fled to other nations for refugee.  Within only the last 4 months, over 300,000 others have had to flee their homes in Mogadishu.  According to the BBC, within the last two years alone, 18,000 people have been killed.  After an extensive web search, I have been unable to locate a single estimate of the death toll within the last 18 years of its civil war.

America briefly involved itself within Somali during the Clinton administration as part of the UNISOM task force, wherein the UN and the US worked side by side to stabilize the nation and push it toward prosperity.  Yet as the lessons of contemporary asymmetrical warfare continue to repeat, the United States was unable to utilize its advanced technologies and formal combat interface against the flexible resistance of criminal war lords and Islamic fighters.  Evacuating with great haste, the US left Somalia in a state of greater despair than prior to its arrival. As America's internal allies were left behind, new targets for violence by local militants.  I have several friends, and have met many others, who were victims of this abandonment, as their American affiliation left them subject to torture and persecution.


[caption id="attachment_13" align="aligncenter" width="523" caption="Woman walking across Somali desert"]Woman walking through Somali desert[/caption]


Today the most popular headlines pointing toward Somalia are concerned with the fleeting acts of piracy on its coastline.  Sexy and adventurous, America and Europe have embraced the romantic notion of piracy as a subject of pegged legs and black flags rather than a tragic externality of poverty.  Piracy has been approached as problem to be solved with coast guards, naval fleets, and armed escorts.  I suppose that at least some degree of international interest has been directed towards Somalia and the struggling efforts of its president, Sherif Sheik Ahmed, to bring stability to this nation.  Thus far, this approach has been severely misguided, as piracy is not the problem, it is simply a consequence of greater issues.

A brief review of the CIA World Fact Book should illuminate many of the complications facing this struggling state.

[caption id="attachment_16" align="alignright" width="151" caption="Woman at Water Tap"]Somali woman at water tap[/caption]

• Population median age: 17.5           (U.S. 36.7 years)

• Life expectancy at birth: 49.3         (U.S. 78.11)

• Total population literacy: 37.8        (U.S. 99%)

• GDP per capita: $600                    (U.S. $49, 900)

• Exports: $300 million                    (U.S. $1.291 trillion)

• Telephone Landlines: 100,000        (U.S. 163 million)

• Mobile phones: 600,000                 (U.S. 255 million)

• Internet host: 1                              (U.S. 316 million)

• Airports with paved runway: 7        (U.S. 5,146)

• Roadways: 22,100 km                    (U.S. 6,465,799 km)

• Paved roads: 2,608 km                    (U.S. 4,209,835 km)

• Merchant marine: 1                         (U.S. 422)

• No national military

• 1.1 million internally displaced people

• Exchange rate of 1438.3 Somali Schillings (SOS) per 1 US Dollar


Such strong indicators of poverty do not stand in isolation, but operate in conjunction with an array of human rights, public health, and social complications including: gender based violence, ongoing conflict, absence of codified law, and humanitarian accessibility.  Furthermore, in recent years, aid workers have become targets within conflict, reducing the capability for aid delivery.  Today, Somalia has become the worlds greatest humanitarian struggle, with the highest concentration of famine.

I understand that successful nations see little reason to address these problems.  Western States wrongly perceive international development as a zero-sum game, while not recognizing the advantages of equitably distributed wealth.  The location of Somalia however places it directly within the heart of all oceanic shipping and traffic, making it a primary point for penetrating the underdeveloped markets of Africa from either Europe, Asia, or the Middle East.  Its globally distributed population provides immediate financial and economic linkages for the transfer of wealth, ideas, and education.  With investment within its agriculture and animal husbandry resources, North African and the Middle East can access a new food source, as their own water supplies continue to deplete.

If nations want safer waters, the last thing they need to do is approach the problem by means of military solutions.  The problems are better solved by engineers.  With only 2, 608 km of paved roads, governments could easily facilitate the growth of supply chains and resource networks by means of simply pouring more concrete.  With only one merchant marine vessel, governments could create a "rent-to-own" or large scale government micro-finance industry to prompt the growth of regional sea trade.  There is no need to invest in speed boats to further piracy, but instead to supply large shipping vessels that will ignite and industry for the current "pirates" who have no income, no resources, and no opportunities for self advancement.  Expanding the mobile phone networks will further distribute a form of flexible infrastructure for trade and business creation.

Nonetheless, at the root of all these ideas remains the demand for security.  How does that happen?  Although the answer will continue to be explored herein, one thing is certain.  The solution is not found within isolation, by ignoring the problem, and by only treating symptoms.  Remedies can only be achieved through direct engagement, communication, and an active approach to problem solving.  Until then, Somalia will always remain in chaos.

[caption id="attachment_14" align="aligncenter" width="480" caption="Somali Child in Market Place"]Somali Child in Market Place[/caption]