I met the army officer and USAID employee at Columbia University. They both have a wealth of experience, a true motivation to serve their country and the desire to support the Afghan government and people. They came to talk about the way civil-military US coordination has improved. They stressed how hard it still is despite the progress to get things done and achieve results. They mentioned how it was often easier to work with the Afghans then among their fellow countrymen and women. They highlighted the fact that the Afghans rule their own country, even if United States staff or citizens thought they did, or aspired to do. But although they acknowledged this fact, their statement and ideas swirled around the impact they could make with more money, more coordination, and more staff.
I have encountered the same type of discussions many times in East Africa over the last couple of years. Diplomats, peacekeepers and aid workers talk about the way the local government or civil society should change: how they can receive the necessary sums of money to increase capacity and support their development, and how their human rights record or their advocacy efforts can improve. The foreign development community tries to develop blueprints to speed up building peace, develop statehood or improve free speech.
At the same time, multiple studies, evaluations and long standing general research clearly indicate that change only works if there is local ownership, and if the local context and capabilities are taken into account. Assessments need to indicate what local people wish for and need, not what the outside world sees as an opportunity. Local history, culture, behaviour and perspectives need to inform action plans, not ideas and solutions that work in the West. Local capabilities and capacities are the baseline and drive forward the required change, while expert advice can be supportive at best. Most diplomats, aid workers and their governments agree on paper and in meetings rooms to all these principals and ideas. At the same time, they apparently find it impossible to practice as they preach in every day situations.
A couple of months ago, I had a frank discussion with two ministers from Somaliland and some of their staff. They expressed their concern on a certain development programme and their promise to the international community to fulfil certain agreements and tasks. The responsible ministers had brought the proposed agreement to the government for approval, and it had been signed. But now they felt uncomfortable, as they had the idea that they had forgotten to ask Parliament for permission. Or could they maybe bypass Parliament in this case? And what would happen if they did ask Parliament for approval and they did not approve of the agreement? Could they go back to the international community and say they could not fulfil their former commitments? What followed was a basic discussion on the ‘Trias Politica’ separation of powers, various parliamentary and presidential models, and governance and public administration in general.
What struck me most afterwards is the fact that representatives of a young, not even recognized state were eager to discuss the principals of statehood. Even without being a formal state, Somaliland is a player on the international stage. They have a constitution, have held successful democratic elections and developed the government and institutions they need to run a decent state. This is a significant task in one of the most unstable regions in the world. Somaliland has most basic functions and institutions in place, although they need to be further developed, as in so many other countries around the world. But what they also need is the chance to share knowledge and ideas internally within ministries, among staff and civil society, and inform the wider public before they can take successful next steps. They need to share values and understand how they see their democracy functioning in the long run. Of course they might want experts from abroad to take part in their discussions. But they would need then to agree among themselves on working arrangements. In due time, via trial and error, they would find a system that would work for them, just as has happened in the United States, the United Kingdom or The Netherlands over time.
To make this happen a Somaliland-led and inspired process focussed on statehood and governance needs to take off. Years of a United Nations-run governance programme for Somalia has not brought this about. The type of activities that are required would easily have fit in the UN Somali Assistance Strategy or the EU strategy for Somalia. But it would have meant letting go of huge strategic frameworks, and more important, of already agreed concepts of what democracy looks like and how it needs to operate. It would require slowly letting a Somaliland way of democracy emerge, and supporting this with only small amounts of funding and limited amounts of international expertise.
I would love to see some meetings emerge in Somaliland, slowly spreading from inside key ministries to all of government, and via NGOs to the general public. It would create the opportunity to develop a Somaliland approach to democracy and governance, a Somaliland ‘Contrat Social’, and the Somaliland interpretation of what signing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights actually means in daily life. There could be bilateral and multilateral discussions between Somaliland and international partners concerning their perspectives and ideas, and the way they implement them and put them in practice. Girls and boys, women and men in Somaliland could play a role in voicing their opinions, their concerns, and be aware of the rights they have in their country and as part of the global community. Development programmes could take off without hordes of international experts providing power point presentations and log frames to explain what the strategy needs to be. Somaliland could share their Constitution and adapt their laws according to their own new insights and wishes.
I know this can work. I designed and ran a law reform programme in which Somaliland drafted new laws, based on their own Constitution and law practice. Somaliland lawyers sat down to amend laws, with minimum support provided by example texts and one legal expert. The process wasn’t ideal, could have been better and needs to be improved. But as the first example of its kind it created trust and opened the way for next steps. If the aid and development community, diplomats and all those involved in ‘supporting development’ would spend some time letting go of the traditional ways of working, and focus instead on what is available and needed in local situations, the lives of many people would improve significantly. If we learn the lessons of Somaliland’s way of state building, solving major challenges might become easier than it has proven to be so far.