Somali men and women perfom a dance during an event to showcase traditional Somali culture in Hamarweyne district in the capital Mogadishu, December 3, 2015. 
Feisal Omar / Reuters

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, a lack of government 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.

A Somali family sits inside a traditional house during an event to showcase traditional Somali culture in Hamarweyne district in the capital Mogadishu, December 3, 2015.
A Somali family sits inside a traditional house during an event to showcase traditional Somali culture in Hamarweyne district in the capital Mogadishu, December 3, 2015. 
Feisal Omar / Reuters


This is not to say, however, that things in Somalia are rosy. The limits of local, bottom-up governance are stark: local systems built on specific community-level institutions cannot scale effectively, and long-term planning or coordination of multiple institutions is a challenge. For example, the Shuraako report documented that electricity provided by local Somali actors reaches about 60 percent of the area within major cities. That figure hits roughly 23 percent in smaller cities. But grid-delivered electrification in Somalia has failed to reach the countryside at all. In the absence of state taxation and development, small-scale, private electric provider networks have not been able to fund or execute that kind of large-scale infrastructure development.

The same can be said for other utility networks. The 2014 Human Development Index ranked Somalia’s average life expectancy—55.1 years—as the 177th worst out of the 191 countries and territories ranked, and other human development statistics proved impossible to quantify due to lack of data. Security also remains a challenge: although Somalia has experienced some success at developing security forces at the municipal level, the absence of a strong national military has allowed warlords, as well as violent criminal and political groups, to take control in some regions. Al-Shabaab provides an example of a group strong enough to pose an existential threat to the nation’s federal government. When Somalia’s ad-hoc networks tackle issues that require national-level resources and coordination, they—and the system—fail.


This complicated landscape of more and less effective systems of governance poses a challenge to the international organizations that operate within Somalia. International institutions that are charged with responding to the systemic challenges of security and service provision in Somalia, such as the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) or international development agencies, can work alongside existing sub-governmental institutions or they can choose to set up new structures that may compete with them. These decisions have implications for the long-term stability of Somalia. Somalian development programs focused on power generation, for example, may run the risk of undermining existing locally-driven companies through subsidized power or through new systems technically incompatible with existing systems if they don’t engage directly with the current landscape of service providers. At the same time, purely local development can fail when braced with planning and coordination challenges at the national level, or when hard security issues that require national-level resources are at stake. This is also complicated by the fact that international development funding frequently requires organizations to work with and through the Somali federal government, which limits their ability to supporting non-governmental systems even when those systems work better than their federally supported replacements.  

One solution to this is to adopt a “fund what works” approach where possible, where organizations work with systems on their basis of local support, rather than what the formal institutional sector supplies. Some organizations may exist outside of the central governing structure, but are far more efficient; operating without their buy-in undermines systems that already work. This approach works best, however, when also engages with national-level institutions that coordinate and address national-level challenges. A dual approach that invests in local non-state or sub-state systems while also coordinating with institutions responsible at the national level can help development and stability initiatives in Somalia. Some institutions are already putting this into place, as in the case of the upcoming “Somali renewable energy Forum” hosted by Shuraako, focusing on a multi-track development approach encouraging direct investment with local businesses and governmental regulations to support renewable energy.

A money changer counts local currency notes at a local bureau where $100 US dollar exchanges for 750,000 Somaliland shillings in Hargeysa May 19, 2015.
A money changer counts local currency notes at a local bureau where $100 US dollar exchanges for 750,000 Somaliland shillings in Hargeysa May 19, 2015.
Feisal Omar / Reuters
Understanding how supposedly ungoverned spaces are governed is important not just to Somalia but to the world. There are many other parts of the world that have no real state government in control. Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal areas, the trans-Sahara region, and parts of northern Mali and Niger all represent ungoverned spaces in varying degrees. In all of these places, international institutions can make headway by working in tandem with existing structures, even if they are not tied with nominal federal governments. Organizations should not assume that an absence of government means an absence of public goods or systems designed to resolve collective needs and issues. To be sure, many of these institutions are insufficient, but others may function fairly well. Wherever this is the case, international development workers need to question whether what they are doing helps close gaps in local governance or punches holes in a system that could otherwise accomplish the tasks usually left for more conventional governments.

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