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Diaspora Role in Somalia’s Rebirth

Returnees bring skills for Instititutional development, but...


There is not a conference that goes by without the mention of the role of the Somali Diaspora in the rebirth of Somalia, its future and stability. The International community has firmly placed the Diaspora at the core of their Somalia strategies and are actively promoting their engagement at every level and in all institutions. This is not a criticism because without doubt, the Somali Diaspora, despite their many shortcomings just like other groups, contribute to their nation through remittance, investment and as scholars and international ambassadors.

One area where the Diaspora efforts, knowledge and skills are needed is in institutional development. In the book, Fixing Failed States, prominent Afghani academic and politician Ashraf Ghani, with his coauthor Clare Lockhart, argue that without human capital, failed states can never find their way out of poverty and violence as the very institutions needed to lead to prosperity and security would not be manned by the right people.

Ghani and Lockhart see the Diaspora returning to work and invest in their failed state homes as the trigger for development, so long as they still understand local cultures and can integrate back into the societies they once fled.

This theory is evidenced in Rwanda and Congo, where after savage civil wars in both societies the Diaspora people returned in substantial numbers, encouraged by their governments, to work and invest. Today both nations enjoy strong social cohesion and impressive economic growth.

Somalia was a failed state until a few years ago when it elected its first internationally recognised government led by President Hassan Sheikh. Now that international support is here and the Diaspora people are returning to work and invest in large numbers it seems that an important corner towards the path of sustainable development has been turned. Today, most government offices and departments are staffed by Diaspora members with often the right professional qualifications, and in some cases, experience. Many Director Generals of Government departments and Ministries, senior civil servants and special advisers are members of the Diaspora who have returned home. These people have come from the developed world, especially western nations such as America, Canada, England and others from within the European Union.

A majority of them work hard to rebuild their nation through the acts of establishing processes and protocols that will strengthen the capacity of the state to function and deliver its mandate. Many Somali citizens are assured, like some key donor nations, that such an educated Diaspora returnees can only succeed in this endeavour and along the way take the local bureaucrats with them. They act as the rising tide that lifts all the boats.

Institutions and donor nations like Denmark, Great Britain and the USA have recognised this and directly encourage the Somalis living in their countries to come back to rebuild their homes and support the Somali state and people by directly paying the salaries of some of these key public sector professionals needed to make the transition from a failed to a stable state. The only issue that does arise when processes are examined and those implementing it are questioned is that there is no coherent strategy from the centre to which all government departments and civil servants work towards.

The Somali Diaspora are currently playing and will continue to play a crucial role in the rebuilding of Somali government institutions and their processes, but management and coordination from a central point is needed”

In Rwanda, right after the savage civil war which saw Rwandans of different ethnicities hack each other to death, a state quickly formed around the current President Paul Kagame. He rebuilt the institutions according to what he saw as his nation’s priorities. Those that work in the Rwandan civil service to this day, like those that worked under the late Meles Zenawi in Ethiopia, were instructed and guided heavily by central government. In Somalia this level of centralisation or coordination does not exist.

Ministries are almost autonomous and work on project by project basis, which is usually determined by the international community.

The key civil servants and the Ministers leading the institutions are almost the bosses of those areas of policy with the President occasionally looking in to see what is going on before quickly exiting.

All these provide the often well intentioned and not so well intentioned Diaspora administrators, advisers and civil servants with too much autonomy and the power of policy making in their areas. Autonomy in public service for both bureaucrats and service users at times is best where it is innovative and responsive. However, organisational and policy cultures in governmental institutions are also  fundamental.

The ideological commitments that many of the Diaspora returnees have brought to Somali public administration can be a baggage that might be best left at the airport when they arrive.

Without assessment and public consultation, such ideas are impossible to implement due to their number, inherent contradictions, internal disagreements and non-compatibility with Somali culture. Donor nations no doubt want to influence some of the new processes and institutions in Somalia and their Diaspora citizens are their best agents for this due to their education and experiences.

The Somali state is fragile and still not able to walk alone without international support and Diaspora involvement in all its forms. It is arguable whether it is even crawling on its belly at present, but in order for the crawling and the progress to walking and later sprinting to occur, there needs to be central government led public administration harmonisation and alignment, in tune with national priorities.

The shape of the Somali state, its policies and future aspirations and goals needs to be decided and cemented at the centre in conjunction with the public and other stake holders such as civil society.

The Somali Diaspora are currently playing and will continue to play a crucial role in the rebuilding of Somali government institutions and their processes, but in order that they do not make them in their adopted countries’ image, which may not suit the Somali people, central government action, management and co-ordination is needed.

Local solutions for local problems is a fashionable mantra in development talks, but in the case of Somalia, it must be strictly adhered to as the consequences of the experimental development approaches that the Diaspora returnees and aid agencies bring with them can backfire with enormous social and financial ramifications.

Not all returnees are aliens, however. Many returning today were once the elite technocrats of the past and many who grew up abroad or were even born there but are returning to rebuild Somalia and have had the advantage of educating themselves in some of the world’s most prestigious universities and worked in some of the most important professions at international standards.

Cultural understanding underpins global business, trade and laws. In an age of globalisation where the wealthier nations of the world are competing for ideological and economic supremacy in poorer ones, it is important that developing nations find culturally sensitive strategies to promote and implement reforms.

Policy transfers are easy and brilliant where the cultures are compatible like between Australia and England as is often the case in immigration law and policy. But between Somali and England, any transfer can be disastrous due to their enormous cultural, political and economic differences, if not managed and designed with the necessary cultural competence.

The Somali Diaspora returnees command enviable respect within Somali institutions, as they have had the advantage of Western education, professional experience and are generally wealthier than the local population. They hold key posts in government and this will only be genuinely beneficial in the long term if they are able to apply their international learning and experiences on Somali policies with a healthy dose of useful Somali culture.

This, indeed, will make the policies more legitimate and as a result easier to implement. This should hopefully make development and progress possible.

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