In political conversations, Somalia has become shorthand for how the lack of a strong central government makes states collapse into unlivable chaos. In part, that idea rests on popular conceptions of Somalia as the world’s most persistent failed state, a nation without basic security where the population struggles to get education, food, and security.
The idea that Somalia is completely lacking in central government is false, but the federal government’s reach is indeed inconsistent. The central government is strongest around the capital, Mogadishu, but declines quickly outside of the immediate area. But that is not to say that no governing structures exist, even if they are not central. Regional governments in Somalia operate with varying degrees of independence and effectiveness, ranging from the almost fully autonomous Somaliland region (which has sought recognition as independent state), areas dominated by the militant organization al Shabab, and other states and regions that still struggle to establish political control.
This patchwork quilt of governmental systems forms the backdrop of Somali life. It is true that the country offers lessons in the dangers associated with a lack of central government. It also shows how people respond to collective problems without government, too. In many parts of the country, society has organized itself to effectively solve collective problems and provide public goods. Somalia’s nearly ten and a half million residents maintain daily routines not too dissimilar to those in more developed countries. Basic utilities and services, such as garbage removal and clean water access, are offered by private-sector firms and small local governments fulfilling the jobs normally left to the state. One example is the energy sector in Somalia. A report by the Shuraako program of One Earth Future documented the current structure of electricity provision in Somalia, where electricity has been provided largely by a network of small independent producers. This has resulted in increasing access to electricity across the country but also high prices and inconsistent provision.
In other words, in Somalia, has not led to a lack of governance: when considering many issues of public goods and collective problems, Somali society has been able to step into gaps left by the absence of state institutions. This is particularly true at the local and municipal level: Davidson College Professor Ken Menkhaus has argued that cities and municipalities in Somalia have been remarkably effective at delivering “flexible, inclusive, hybrid governance.” On balance, then, the gap between life in Somalia and life in other countries is not as large as might be expected, and in fact, a 2015 report from the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada documented that as the security situation has improved many Somalis have chosen to return to the country from abroad.
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