They did not win

10/09/2015

At the Jazeera Palace Hotel in Mogadishu, I spent the morning with Somali colleagues working out ways to increase the effectiveness of aid being delivered to Somalia.

Then, at approximately 16:00 local time, the front of the hotel was shattered by another Al Shabaab bomb. This time, a lorry packed with explosives was detonated outside the building. My colleagues and I emerged unscathed, and we were the lucky ones. 13 people were killed and 40 injured. As the shock subsides, we remain determined to continue our work in Somalia: trying to find better ways of delivering aid.

Why are we optimistic? Let me give you some context. You might get the impression that Somalia is still stuck in a morass, in a downward spiral of violence, with drones circling overhead and pirates living the high life. For sure, it is a complicated and unstable country, but all is not lost. Indeed, there is every reason to be optimistic about the future, if you dig a little deeper and look beyond the Machiavellian politics that preoccupy the mainstream news media.

If you visit Somalia, you will see that business and investment is booming in the major cities. But many businesses and investors are crying out for better systems, better government and more equitable development in order to put the country on a sustainable path to stability and growth.

I’m not saying that it will all happen overnight, but things really are changing. Crucially, in the belief that international aid has resulted in very little return on investment, there are an increasing number of Somali organisations determined to put aside failed approaches that have often merely fuelled corruption and waste.

The frustration in Somalia is ever increasing at the usual way of managing aid, dominated by political elites and large international organisations, and conducted largely from safe havens in Kenya. Somalis have become cynical about platitudes uttered on Somali ownership and empowerment when aid money is deployed based on decisions made by disconnected politicians and bureaucrats, and based on stale analysis.

Doing development work properly requires Somali and international decision-makers to spend more of their time outside of secure compounds and talking directly to people about their challenges and needs.

In an unstable country, this comes with a high degree of cost and risk, but any other approach is doomed to failure. Right now, most of the big decisions are made in meetings held in Kenya, supplemented by the occasional trip to the heavily-guarded confines of Mogadishu international airport.

We also need to take another look at the types of organisations charged with delivering aid. To date, aid to Somalia has been channeled predominantly through the United Nations and international non-governmental organisations, with some of the money trickling down to Somali non-profits.

The Somali private sector, which has shown great resilience in the face of decades of instability, hasn’t really had a look-in. And yet it is really only the private sector that can sustainably deliver jobs and economic growth; prerequisites for stability.

That’s why my colleagues and I are developing approaches to help the private sector play an active role in Somalia’s development and growth. What we currently have, sadly, is an aid economy where entrepreneurship is stifled; a landscape where there are such powerful vested interests in the humanitarian economy that actual development never gets a fair chance. It is telling that, when asked what they want to do when they grow up, many Somali children often say they want to work for a charity – and not for reasons of altruism.

At the end of the day, there is room for different approaches and organisations, but all organisations spending aid need to be held more accountable for results. The international community has an obligation to change our reputation of being a well-funded talking shop based in Nairobi.

Let us give Somalis the authority, space and resources to make change happen in their own country. Let’s not let our own limitations be a hindrance to helping Somalis deliver change on the ground. Let international organisations strive to be redundant by helping Somalis build their own accounting and performance management systems to manage money effectively and deliver results.

Conducting meetings in safe locales that are more convenient for the expats is not the right way to go about it. Let us not kid ourselves; delivering on the promise of genuine Somali ownership of Somalia’s development is not cheap or easy, but the old way of doing development, has delivered very poor returns on investment.

The dark, nihilistic and un-Islamic forces of instability that disrupted our work that Sunday did not win. Just ask my deeply committed 50 colleagues sitting around the table with us at the Jazeera Hotel that fateful day.

As the blast cut through the building, we were way behind schedule as passion for new approaches to Somalia’s development got the better of us. That delay probably saved us. And make no mistake; our work will continue.

Michiel TerEllen is a Senior Investment Manager with the Somalia Stability Fund, a new international mechanism for testing and implementing new approaches to delivering assistance in Somalia that emphasises Somali ownership of the national development agenda. The Stability Fund is implemented by Adam Smith International.