Somalia: A mind for the nation?

By IndepthAfrica
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Jan 24th, 2013
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By Liban Obsiye & Abdullahi Warfa

It was a pleasure to watch the launch of the new Somali think tank, the Heritage Institute for Policy Studies, in Mogadishu yesterday. The great and good gathered and some fantastic speeches were given. Is this not always the case in Somali meetings? Well yes, but this time the hope is that, it will not be politicians speaking but nationalists with ideas, thoughts and genuine policy contributions to make without either being an opposition seeking power or government desperately holding on to it. Despite some MP’s  speaking at the opening ceremony, the  think tank founders were adamant that it will be an independent body for thought, debate, education and a vehicle for influencing  policy makers at all levels. What makes this more unique than just been the first think tank in Somalia is that it aims to promote a Somali narrative and communicate a Somali led agenda argued Abdi Aynte, one of its key founding members and current Director.

While think tanks are a million a dozen globally, in Somalia the creation of the first is a revolution. For the first time, the hope is, ideas can take the place of nepotism, false knowledge and poor policy planning and advice provided by incompetent, ill-educated Political appointees in oversized suits. The Heritage Institute for Policy Studies is an enormous name and can be ridiculed as it attempts to share a purpose, goal and even the claim to teach, as part of its name (Policy Studies) suggests, with the likes of the world’s best Policy teaching institutions such as Bristol University and the LSE in England and the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University in America.  However, its ambitions with little funding and no apparent government links is breath taking and ought to be welcomed by all interested in the development of Somalia.

The advantage Heritage Institute will have over others in Somalia seeking to influence policy is that they are Somali led and based in Mogadishu with an international and educated Somali staff. This organisation has the credibility to go far very quickly if it can establish integrity, build and strengthen partnerships whilst remaining loyal to its founding objectives and linking tightly with the general public. More than glamorous events in safe Mogadishu neighbourhoods attended by the elite of the Somali people, NGO grandees, diplomats and security experts, there needs to be future research which involves and focuses on the plight of the Somali people. More than anything, the Heritage Institute, needs to be a champion advocate for the nation’s forgotten and often side-lined majority who have had the misery of living with continuous war for over two decades. These victims of revolving door institutional failures, terrors and persecution in foreign refugee camps need to be at the centre of all research and policy debates initiated by the Think tank.

The challenges ahead cannot be easily side-lined by simple optimism. The competition for influence on Somali issues is fierce and almost every NGO has volumes of research, on the ground experience related to Somalia and connections to the donor nation’s political elites who use all this to base their future aid support strategies on. The market for ideas as well as being flooded by NGOs and independent experts is riddled with ideological traps and preferences. This will be a major impediment for the Heritage Institute and even if they are honest, impartial and nationalistic, their priorities may collide with that of donor nations and as such can easily be undermined by a lack of institutional support and funding. Even if they are able to secure funding from the international community can the organisation preserve its independence?

By nature, Think tanks generally specialise in different areas and the Heritage Institute needs to be able to show case its expertise in specific fields and not try to be a jack of all trades and master of none. Developing reliable, respectable and influential institutions requires patience, intelligence and support from the people the organisation was set up to help. As such research must be culturally sensitive, co-ordinated with the concerned public and carried out for their benefit. Public participation in debate, research and discussion will not only legitimise the work of the Institute but strengthen its political clout. If this is done successfully, perhaps the organisation can become financially independent by attracting a willing and supportive membership both at home and in the Diaspora to donate financially to continue its work with as little interference as possible.

Think tanks are generally viewed in the developed world as a legitimising body for politicians in an age of evidence based policy making where they cannot get academic or political support for their ideas and policy interventions.  However, in Somalia where 4.5 tribally inspired elections prevail and are constitutionally protected, policy making could not be further from evidential. The reality is policy making in Somalia is still confused, immature and dictated by a global agenda and not the Somali people’s interests. Even more morally crushing, the Somali faces of the policy making process, their many politicians, of whom most like the title and position but have no idea what their roles involve, monopolise the agenda. Starting from this position, a think tank is a great start. Whether it succeeds or fails it is better than the status quo of nearly 3 decades characterised by violence, industrial scale theft and the destruction of all institutions apart from tribe.

To have any real impact, the Heritage Institute, must be bilingual and very creative in the way it engages with citizens and other stakeholders. Whereas foreign NGO workers are comfortable reading long English reports, the Somali people’s low levels of literacy in both English and Somali may exclude them totally. The use of culturally sensitive and appropriate methods like radio and TV whilst building their literacy capacity will distinguish the Heritage Institute from global rivals. And they will genuinely be working in the public interest.

The Harvard University academic and author of the influential and classic book, Diminished Democracy, Theda Skocpol, warned that Think tanks, rather than being an enabling tool and a voice for the people, had contributed to the disconnection between ordinary voters and the political elites of America. A think tank cannot replace the people and should never be used as a stepping stone into comfortable and safe political positions as it usually is in England, America and most of the developed world. It must realise that the real experts are not them but the people and as such help to promote them to the front of the policy making processes by listening, engaging and accurately reporting findings and needs. What it must never become is simply a dumping ground for foreign ideas seeking a place in Somali society. If this happens, the whole Heritage institute will be dismissed as a legitimising mouthpiece no better than all the other groups that have let the Somali people down and prolonged their misery in the past.

Somalia, despite elections, is a place where there is little hope in politics, its practitioners and all those that work with them. However, there is need for frank and honest discussion which encourages the national exercise of freedom of expression which can drive Somalia and its people to a better future by helping the public to positively influence how their lives are governed. If the Heritage Institute wants to be a real and permanent voice and political presence in Somalia, it should not become as arrogant as the discredited politicians it hopes to influence. It should bridge the gap between the governed, government and international community through advocacy, education and public engagement.

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* Liban Obsiye is a Master’s graduate from the School for Policy Studies, The University of Bristol, UK. He currently serves as a Director of Ashley Community Housing in Bristol UK. He can be contacted at:libanbakaa@hotmail.com
@LibanObsiye (Twitter).

** Abdullahi Warfa is a Masters graduate in Human Rights from the University of the West of England, Bristol, UK. He can be contacted at:warfak@hotmail.com

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