Somaliland v Somalia: great new paper on an extraordinary ‘natural experiment’ in aid and governance

Could someone please clone Sarah Phillips? The University of Sydney political scientist has a great new Developmental Leadership Program (DLP) paper out on Somaliland, following her excellent paper a few years ago on Yemen.

Political Settlements and State Formation: The Case of Somaliland may not sound like much of a page turner, but it is brilliant. It explores one of those natural experiments beloved of researchers – what can we learn when two neighbouring countries part company and head off in different directions (North v South Korea, West v East Germany).

Phillips compares Somaliland v Somalia – while the first has emerged from the  shared chaos of the 1990s (and a brutal effort by SomalilandSomalia to put down Somaliland separatists) into the sunlit uplands of relative peace and stability (some taxation, rudimentary public services, security, two peaceful presidential transitions through the ballot box, including one to the opposition), the other is the quintessential failed state. How come?

Her conclusions do not make comfortable reading, for they trample on any number of received wisdoms. Try these on for size:

Somaliland’s government has received virtually no direct financial aid, largely because it is not internationally recognized. The country itself gets a lot of aid via NGOs, UN projects etc etc, but the government has been generally outside this loop, forced to rely on local sources of funding.

Perhaps more important than the financial aspects, this meant there was no pressure to accept template political institutions from outside. Instead, Somaliland had time and political space to negotiate its own (e.g. clan-based) political settlements. The process involved a series of ad hoc, messy, consultative, and local peace conferences. In the most important conference, in 1993, one group stalled proceedings by reciting the Koran for several days. That’s not in the good governance playbook.

The peace process was almost entirely locally funded, due to Somaliland’s unrecognized status (so no bilateral aid or loans were available). That produced a strong sense of local ownership (literally). In the words of one minister, when asked by Phillips about aid ‘Aid is not what we desire because [then] they decide for us what we need’.

What’s less discussed is the power politics that underlies this transition. The second president used private loans to demobilise about 5,000 militia fighters. He offered stability (and tax breaks) to the business elite in exchange for funding demobilisation and the nascent state institutions. This was effective but certainly not inclusive – the elite came mainly from the President’s own clan. But according to Phillips, Somalilanders generally still see it as a legitimate process – that’s what leaders do.

Sheekh school 1958. Note flag and (English) tribal costume, bottom rightThe paper highlights the critical political importance of elite secondary schools in forging leadership. Available to a relatively small group of often privileged Somalilanders, this is in stark contrast to the donor emphasis on universal primary education. In particular, many of Phillips’ interviews led to the Sheekh Secondary School, set up by Richard Darlington, who fought in WWII as the commander of the Somaliland Protectorate contingent. Sheekh took only 50 kids a year and trained them in leadership, critical thought and standard (Darlington borrowed from the curriculum of his old school, Harrow). Sheekh provided 3 out of 4 presidents, plus any number of vice presidents, cabinet members etc. And no it isn’t a weird Somaliland version of Eton and Harrow (I asked) – it stressed student intake from all clans, especially from the more marginalized ones.

Somalilanders believe they are special, but also at risk:

‘For Somalilanders, the threat of violence was less from an external invasion than an internal combustion. This perception had profound impacts on the institutions – and the ideas about violence that undergird them – that were fostered during this period. Protection from violence was viewed as an internal matter, and if violence had been a political tool and a political choice for local actors in the recent past it was believed that it could become so again with little warning. Peace was precarious, and it rested on a tenuous balance between coalitions with roughly equivalent power.  Somaliland’s civil wars in the mid-1990s provided the opportunity for local coalitions to determine that no one clan could dominate the others.’

Conclusion (with due nods to local context, can’t generalize etc etc)? There is an upside to detachment from external aid and political influence. In the right circumstances, being detached can promote co-dependence between local elites, leading to durable, authentic institutions: ‘legitimate institutions are those born through local political and social processes, and that these are largely shaped through the leadership process.’

Subscribe to our Newsletter

You can unsubscribe at any time by clicking the link in the footer of our emails. For information about our privacy practices, please see our .

We use MailChimp as our marketing platform. By subscribing, you acknowledge that your information will be transferred to MailChimp for processing. Learn more about MailChimp's privacy practices here.


25 Responses to “Somaliland v Somalia: great new paper on an extraordinary ‘natural experiment’ in aid and governance”
  1. Kevin Cook

    Thanks, once gain Duncan for bringing this excellent paper to my attention. I have undergraduates in my classes from both jurisdictions and will ask them to consider the paper and its implications.

  2. Ken Smith

    Hi , it might be the elephant in the room and you kind of give the game away with the Harrow reference , but isn’t a big difference between Somaliland and Somalia is that they were occupied by Britain and Italy respectively during a critical period of their history. Has anyone done an analysis to look at the on-going long term effects of being in the various European empires ?

  3. Ismael Dahir

    Firstly, I will thank my Geography and Development module tutor Kevin Cook who letting us knows all essential news. I also thank Sarah who has done brilliant job and clarify what lot of people are confused while underlined the difference between Somalia and Somaliland.

  4. Francisco T

    In my little ode-to-Deaton over on BoringDevelopment the other day, I wrote wistfully that of course the problem was that we’d never be able to test his ideas, since nobody would ever run an RCT that involved depriving a whole country of bilateral aid for a generation…turns out it wasn’t quite so, was it?!

    I do think this Deaton/Phillips hypothesis needs to be taken very seriously, partly because I grew up in a developing world petrostate, which brings home only too vividly the way relieving the state of the need to raise tax screws up governing-elite incentives beyond all repair.

    In terms of state formation, though, it strikes me that there are all kinds of dogs-that-didn’t-bark, especially in Africa. All sorts of regions are too remote to be even vaguely governed by their notional capitals, yet fail to spawn effective local institutions of their own. There ain’t no somalilands in the East of the DRC…

  5. Zana

    Thanks Sarah, I agree, would be great to clone her. See, I’m from Kosovo, worked in Yemen too, and I read many articles on both wtitten by “outsiders”, researchers who have never even been in the country which often do not contribute to anything even less to peace-building; this fact then makes me appreciate Sarah’s point of view even more. Thanks again

  6. Tom KirkGBRYX

    Thanks for highlighting this paper. In many respects I feel that it signifies the coalescence of several streams of inquiry that investigate hybrid governance from different levels of analysis and with different lenses (sociological, institutional and political economy).
    For those interested in this type of analysis and what it might mean for the development game there are, however, some significant concerns – namely some argue that it comes close to offering a partial excuse for accepting coercion, exclusions and some measure of violence – a rush to Tilly if you will (See Kate Meagher’s 2013 paper in Development and Change for instance).
    Nonetheless I recently argued we should give serious weight to such approaches at a recent workshop on ‘hybrid governance’ at the LSE and was taken to town by a room full of notable academics / practitioners (perhaps this was partly my inability to express myself).

    All of this suggests the debate of hybrid governance and how development interacts or not with such processes will be a bloody one. I strongly believe the literature on complex systems is useful in this respect and hope to put my thoughts (along with a co-author) on paper soon.

  7. Mahamed Barkhadle

    You forgot to mention that Somaliland is still Dominated by one Clan and it’s Agenda’s, There are battles ragging East and Western parts, unless those other clans are satisfied with Somaliland and tire of Somalia and it’s never ending troubles, there will be no Independent Somaliland.

  8. Abdiqani H. Ali

    those who didn’t accept reality still doubt the capability of somaliland, so the world should give serious weight on them when they are dealing with somalia issue, they have the key to solve the chaos of somalia
    ultimately i thank to sarah for her valuable research as i also appreciate to my grandparents who put their utmost effort to build long lasting peace

  9. AYM

    Thanks dear Sarah for your good contribution to the democracy process in Somaliland, and how well you exhibited in a logical and fact based manner.
    To the benefit of those who don’t know or undermine it;
    Your Excellencies Somaliland is not just a few renegade regions of Somalia breaking away from the mother country nor is it an artificial fiefdom carved by an ambitious politician. We are a country with a history of its own, whose borders were demarcated in the late nineteenth century and legally mapped as “Promulgated State” by the British Crown in early 1930s of this century, we have effectively been in existence in one form or the other in over a hundred years of time past.”

  10. Jama Musse Jama

    Absolutely to the point and well written research. Thank you Sarah for this paper that, one more time, showed that Somaliland’s form of governance is not something coming out of the blue, but it is a process of moving from one form of “democracy” to an other form of “democracy”. This process also passes through conflicts and, as a conflict is a social problem, it can only be managed with methods belonging to the society itself. Thus hybrid governance. Job well done Sarah. Thank you Duncan Green for reminding us.

  11. Abdi Ismail

    Hi Phillips
    I think you have gone too far to make conclusion without getting enough data. My dad was one of those people in that photo 1958. Neither he nor I will endorse succession as you might not vote for “Independent Scotland”. So please hold your horse.

    • shakeeb

      scotland scotland held referendum and lost let somaliland got referendum then we will see somaliland is here to stay weather u like it or not somaliland is our blood we did not get for free we fight for it

  12. Murad Yusuf

    This small country is derided for making more money per capita than South Korea was in its days of struggle but failing to progress as fast as South Korea was, yet they fail to appreciate that such people and country is under a UN endorsed sanctions in the name of “non-recognition” since Somalia down south is totally non-existent and only propped up by foreign troops. So SL cannot attract and will never attract private investment as South Korea could as it was an American poodle in the far east Asia, hence SL’s vulnerability to still rely on “aid”.

    I would have forgiven the “international community” if this was only for few years or even a decade, but now I am beginning to think such nastiness towards such country and people highlight the derision and lack of respect towards those who find themselves in unfortunate circumstances.

    UN sponsored Somalia also need to be taken to task as they have consistently endorsed discrimination against the people originating from Somaliland. They UN has also been colluding with the South sponsoring former warlords and criminals who caused the deaths of many civilians in Somaliland during the Siyad Barre regime. It was the UN who was paying for the hotel bills of General Morgan for two conferences spanning between ten to fifteen years, yet shows no respect for those who just want to build the lives of their own people.

    So the UN is on the side of criminals in the eyes of people from Somaliland.

  13. Abdirizaq

    Great read and I think more scolars should be doing research about Somaliland. The bottom-up approach is the best solution to build a strong political system. Aid from the IMF, UN or World Bank makes a country dependable so the government can be forced to serve other interests then its own. A respond to what someone said about the fact that Somaliland would never be seperate. Somaliland was a recognized country before most African countries were recognized. It voluntarily joined Somalia. Now the people want their recognition back. I hope Somalia would be a peaceful country as well. However ask yourself: What has Somalia done for Somaliland?

    Some people from Somalia are negative about Somaliland despite its succes. It was Somaliland who helped Somali refugees, delivered humanitarian aid. If you are being helped by a country who has no access to aid or credit, then you should ask yourself as people: why can’t we do what they have achieved? One note: Somaliland is not ruled by one clan. Who was the longs serving President? Not from the biggest clan, so check the facts.