Policy WATCH:Reports
Somalia’s Failure - America’s Fault
New Report Shows Little Love for US Foreign Policy in the Region or Somalia

In their new report "Twenty Years of Collapse and Counting, The Cost of Failure in Somalia", John Norris and Bronwyn Bruton have penned a depressing and perhaps dishonest report on the state of Somalia. It could be argued the Center for American Progress does not have a dog in the fight, but any report they release is usually designed to provide movement one way or the other in US foreign policy. The progressive think tank says that we are wasting our money in Somalia.

There is sure to be media and blog pick-up on this report, which seeks to show that over $55 billion has been spent over a decade in Somalia with no tangible results.

In this slick 60-page document, the authors use bold graphics, big charts, full bleed photos and naked numbers to overpower the reader with their sheer weight and font size. But closer examination brings up more questions than answers. In full disclosure, Bronwyn Bruton has worked for Somalia Report and is one of the very small group of respected Somalia experts in Washington. The running private joke of her her mantra of “Do Nothing” for Somalia is well-received by people in Washington and Virginia who do nothing in Somalia. But she is a well-known critic of US foreign policy in the region. Her well thought out 2009 paper on doing less, encourages the United States to " renounce political intervention and encourage local development without trying to improve governance. She has never received a Eid card from the TFG.

Who's Fault?

But this report goes further and is meaner. The first question the report raises is why should the US government take responsibility for the condition of the current state of Somalia? Or at least failing to "fix" Somalia?

The authors make the bold statement that “Somalia remains a tragic case study of the international community getting it wrong repeatedly.” It constantly shifts the blame between the “international community” (if there is there such a thing) and specific US initiatives.

“By and large, the US government ends up spending far more time and money responding to crises or tinkering with tactical responses than preventing crises or nurturing effective peacebuilding efforts. This paper explores the staggeringly high cost of this approach by looking at the case of Somalia.”

If they hadn't noticed, no foreign nation will ever “fix” a country. Even Stalin and Mao would have paused if they had been handed Somalia as a fixer upper. Yes, the US has intervened, shaped, paid for and supported the UN's humanitarian interventions, Ethiopia’s invasion and AMISOM, but I doubt anyone could pile the drought, piracy, poverty, terrorism, fragmentation and misery of Somalia on America’s shoulders.

Al-Shabaab is fought against just as viciously by Somali Sufis as by AMISOM rental soldiers. Pirates are thumped by the Korean, UAE and Russian Navies far more often than the US Navy. The TFG received more hard cash from Libya and Iran than America, so its hard to figure out why this report hangs the Somali albatross around America’s neck.

There is no evidence that the effort in Somalia is a “staggering cost” when compared to far more robust and perhaps equally failed efforts in Iraq, Afghanistan or other regional nations. There is no "win" only moving the ball around the field. The use of flawed metrics and lumping in gross exaggerated costs provides no real metrics to back up the author's contentions. There isn't even a yardstick to measure at what cost could Somalis expect success. What is success and perhaps what is our moral cost to feel good calculation when deciding not to save strangers from starvation, terror and misery?

Even the term “lasting peace” sound almost humorous when describing a region where inter clan fighting is more analogous to Monday Night Football.

Who Will Fix Somalia?

As with any people or region, it is their duty and right to fix themselves and outside nations can only help, hinder or meddle - ideally when asked. Although the TFG is not a shining example of a government, it is the government. The TFG is just as happy to meet with Iran, China or Pakistan as they are with the US, UK or France. They are capable of asking anyone for help, the question is who provides that help. Thankfully the US continues to provide help and naturally within its self interest.

Maybe that is where the authors fail magnificently in this report. Their critique of the failure of foreign support of Somalia pales when compared to Somali support and regional meddling.

Their estimate that the Somali diaspora donates almost as much as all humanitarian aid, and if you toss in the ridiculous estimate of $22 billion in piracy income and $2 billion in crime receipts, then Somalis contributed $35.2 billion of the $55.3 they estimate was used to create the failure that is Somalia.

Even using their own numbers, the authors should be blaming the Somalis for ruining their country not western foreign largesse. John Norris in a video interview supporting the report says

"That's inflicted a terrible cost not only on the people of Somalia but on Western taxpayers. We've spent close to $55 billion dollars as a world in dealing with Somalia over the last two decades. Yet, when you look at Somalia, it's very hard to say that that money has been well spent."

No "we" haven't, unless Norris is a pirate, drug dealer or Somali citizen. He has added in piracy, criminal activity and foreign aid expenditure to get to $55 billion.

He states:

I think the lesson is — and there are several — that you have to intervene early and try to get it right before these things get out of the box. A place like Somalia, no one would have had any idea that we would have spent so much in blood and treasure over the years from what was happening in the late 1980s. Once it starts it's very hard to stop.

He goes on to say:

I think the other lesson is that it takes a concerted, clear effort to reach a political, diplomatic solution. Peacekeepers, armed interventions, weapons transfers are not the solution. Those are quick fixes. They are tactical approaches, not strategic ones.

We need to do the hard, laborious work of building peace and nurturing peace at the ground level and make that work. Or else we risk, not only Somalia continuing to devolve, but new Somalias appearing next year and beyond.

One must ask how experts will be able to develop a strategic solution if they can't even move on the ground without the help of peacekeepers, AMISOM and those weapon transfers. Southern Somalia is in a state of war not reconstruction. Even in peaceful moments, it is hard to see how a "grass roots" long term program could survive more than a few minutes.

This report views America as capricious and non-strategic but reality would contradict that opinion. The long-term, multi-layer, region-wide coordinated US activity against terrorists, pirates, smuggling, drought, governance in the land, sea, air and conference rooms of the region would actually suggest otherwise. Yes, there could be an intense discussion about the various success of each of these programs over the last ten or twenty years, but these efforts have been happening in concert with each other over a long period of time.

This long term geo-strategic effort in the Horn of Africa, Middle East and South Asia do have a whiff of "strategic" to them even if none of these multi-million-dollar programs made into this reports balance sheet or the author's mental radar.

Saving Somalia a Long-Term or Short-Term Project?

The report lumps in the cost of delivering food or water to a Somali near death due to a recurring ecological disaster with the back-channel costs of the Ethiopian invasion. The report then labels both activities as wasted effort and money. This is morally wrong and Somali's may beg to differ. Disaster response is by nature "knee-jerk". Long term development plans are not, but the presence of violence does not allow big thinking, pre-planning or the programs required to provide food security. So the outside world deals in triage.

Supporting international efforts to create the Djibouti Accord is somewhere in the middle, but the US has persevered. Even though the TFG is often viewed with exasperation and despair it is still supported, allowing them the time to create the illusion of stability. But once again, how can this report blame America for crashing a car that has 550 hands on the wheel?

When it comes to Africa in general, it is sometimes more evil to do nothing than to do something well-intentioned and fail. The lessons of Rwanda and “Black Hawk Down” have been learned but it does not mean the US should be stuck in historical hand wringing. AMISOM is an example of African’s trying to fix Africa. It is still more efficient than inserting American troops and a short-term solution. A proper outside long-term solution to Somalia would be a permanent Soviet-style occupation of the country while governance, infrastructure, education and security were rebuilt. This is never going to happen so perhaps the way forward is the choice of least-worst solutions.

Even the tiny "Black Hawk Down" incident was the unsuccessful and more famous bit of the successful but rarely discussed Operation Restore Hope operation. There are less than a handful of papers on the success of that mission. Even the recent success of AMISOM and the TFG in Mogadishu is viewed with derision in the media. Critical thinking should also be applied to lessons learned and success but that same critique when applied to nonsensical numbers is a waste.

Despite what the authors would have you believe about abject failue, Somalia has also evolved over the last ten years and lessons learned a decade ago are not perfectly applicable to today. There are no snapshots of bustling downtowns of Hargeisa, Garowe or Mogadishu. No kudos for the world's largest relief projects working smoothly, not even jibes at the recent political fence mending and no numbers that compare positive results against the negative ones.

Those who jump first into the bottomless pit that is Somalia prefer to look for things that actually work. And then adopt them. A certain level of cynicism, reserved enthusiasm at forward movement and a refusal to label anything as a “success” is the hallmark on the in-country professionals. There is no "win". Despite the amplified numbers, the well-heeled Beltway military contractor boardrooms do not even see Somalia on their radar due to the relatively minor commitment made by the USG. There is some minor covert and logistics support activity but nothing that would add weight to the authors' statement that "the United States in particular shows an almost willful disregard for sensible diplomacy or the kinds of patient, grassroots engagement that might have helped Somalia achieve a greater level of stability at different junctures."

“Patient grass roots engagement” requires security, freedom of movement and - what is glaringly obvious in this case - the inability to put intellectuals on the ground to gather facts and propose solutions. Something neither of these authors have done to formulate their opinion.

This report will be received well by the cynical "glass half empty” crown within the Beltway and likely to be ignored by the “glass half full crowd” or those working inside Somalia. Many of whom are making millions of dollars providing maritime security, logistics support and training in and around Somalia. The bottom line is that this report is so far off the mark that it begs the question why was it created in the first place. The "progressive" goal of the sponsoring think tank is poorly served by a report that is more akin to the closing time rants coming from the far end of a VFW bar.

Monkey Numbers or Academic Research?

The authors, despite their heavy reliance on their $55 billion monkey number to make multiple points, do admit that there is a “profound lack of reliable data” when dealing with Somalia, but then chose to use a mish-mash of questionable statistics instead of developing new data. It is one thing to calculate that in ten years there were $11.2 billion in remittances (money sent home to families inside Somalia); it is quite another to add that up with a $22 billion in estimated piracy receipts and $7.3 billion in peacekeeping costs, $13 billion in aid and then toss in $2 billion in criminal funds to come up with a total of $55 billion of income since 1991. Their methodology is more akin to Somali bloggery than professional research.

Much of the money that is considered wasted never hits Somalia. AMISOM soldiers are paid in their home countries, weapons are purchased from eastern block countries, management fees go to DynCorp and so on. Aid rendered is not just cash but cash estimates of materials donated, many of it excess foodstuffs delivered by contractors dumped into needy regions, delivered by hired ships and foreign trucking companies. There are many more dollars handed to Ethiopia, Djibouti, the Seychelles, Kenya to support clandestine and other efforts that are not tagged. Very little of the money the report identified is spent on governance, schools, roads, ports or security training, so there is very little impact and very little reason to throw in the towel.

So without even fact-checking the numbers, the $55 billion figure is just a convenient fabrication designed to set the bar high enough to get attention in Washington. In an odd coincidence it was estimated that the "Arab Spring" cost $55 billion and one could write a similar paper decrying the waste of the same amount of money with no positive results.

Its hard to say why the authors didn't add the plus side of the balance sheet. Probably because the numbers would be even more meaningless. Somalia has a GDP of about a billion dollars a year but estimated remittances are about $1.6 billion per year. The annual budget of the TFG is still wishful thinking. Any estimate of growth or investment must be tempered by the ability to pack up and flee if al-Shabaab or foreign troops roar into town. There aren't even good maps let alone reliable statistics.

Just Say No?

The report does not take into account Bruton’s previous "quicksand" stance and her message that Somalis are quite productive and industrious when left alone; testament to that are the cell services, money transfers, qat business (which is not illegal in Somalia) and general subsistence trade that keeps Somalia grinding forward. The obvious conclusion of the report would be to simply cut off all foreign add and support to Somalia. There is no exploration of that logical but apocalyptic path. The Somaliland paradigm does not exist in a vacuum. It is a result of robust diaspora support and Somali industriousness and a warlike stance to its neighbor Puntland. But it is still a beggar non-nation. Puntland is much smaller, gets little to no aid but is blasted in public for being a lawless, pirate-filled nation, but somehow is the main recipient of $22 billion in pirate revenue. The numbers and conclusions of this report simply don’t add up.

The more disturbing numbers in the reports are the deaths and refugees. But once again, when these numbers are viewed from the ground they tell different stories. It is hard for Americans to stand by and watch millions of people starve. Somalia has not created the response the aid organizations would like but even in hard times, this country and the world community did not turn their back on them

The deaths span an amazing non-academic estimated range of 450K to 1.5M killed. But even a grade school reader would ask; Which is it? A natural holocaust caused by drought, tsunami, starvation or the result of evil murderous foreign meddling. The report deliberately does not make this distinction, perhaps because we must blame outsiders for the weather in Somalia: “Between 450,000 and 1.5 million people have died in Somalia’s conflict or directly due to hunger since 1991.”

If the deaths are from famine or by infighting or terrorists, both would require rapid response or "knee jerk" actions. Something the authors disdain as being destructive and useless. In addition to "BHD" the Rwanda genocide is also the touch stone for all rapid response planning in Africa.

It should be noted that the data window chosen by the authors deliberately captures the most violent two decades of Somalia’s history. It makes no concession to the recent gains against al-Qaeda, reduction of piracy success and accelerated shrinkage of al-Shabaab’s dominance of the capital. This is not intended to be a balanced report but it is already being picked up in the media as an example of yet another failure for America.

The estimate of 800,000 refugees refused to acknowledge that Somalis are by nature nomadic and quite used to moving towards food, water and sustenance. Even the number of 1.5 million displaced people should not be accepted as normal, but once again even the diaspora crowd the aircraft and buses into Somalia, even in the worst of times as well as in the best of times. These camps are swollen by the residents fleeing the fighting and nomadic people who have lost their livestock. They will return.

The issue of piracy is presented as contributing $22 billion into Somali. Even the most inebriated pirate, math challenged researcher or the most optimistic professional at the piracy monitoring center at IMB could would have a hard time even coming up with $500 million in ransoms paid over the last ten years. Part of this money has sparked a building boom in Puntland, kept hundreds of ne’er do wells in qat and SUVs and is reinvested in further pirate attacks, but it would be hard to classify this as equal to humanitarian aid or development funds. But the number used in this report is simply an invention.

"These attacks cost tens of billions. One Earth Future Foundation, or OEF, published a comprehensive report on the costs of Somali piracy at the end of 2010. It echoed previous reports from the United States Institute of Peace114 and Chatham House.115 OEF estimates that in 2010 the costs of Somali piracy to the global economy ranged between $7 billion and $12 billion."

No that is grossly misleading, those reports estimate that less than $400 million in ransom was paid over the last few years and the other "billions" are simply rough upside estimates of what the shipping industry pays in global costs. Costs that are passed on to consumers so they are actually profits. To blame failure in Somalia on higher shipping costs due to piracy (and higher profits) is just dumb.

Good News Anyone?

Pirate attacks are less and less successful (down to 12% according to IMB), the number of ships and hostages has dramatically reduced and an anomaly created by ransom payments. It has little impact on Mogadishu or Hargeisa. A result of maritime industry standards, naval persistence and an increasingly successful multi-faceted push back from intelligence gathering, arrests and prosecution. Is there a quick and cheap fix for piracy, drugs, poverty, drought and violence? No. Is Somalia the single most challenging place in the world to even effect large, expensive and slow solutions. Yes. But the wheel is turning and this report conveniently ignores the important need to show success with failure so that the reader can see what actually works.

The report’s statement that Somalia is a safe haven for al-Qaeda is simply wrong. Nairobi, Dubai, Washington DC or London are much safer for al-Qaeda with the advent of aggressive and merciless drone and air strikes against al-Qaeda in Southern Somalia. If anything, the “lawlessness” allows the US to kill terrorists with impunity inside Somalia. Most al-Qaeda fighters left Somalia for Yemen or to meet their maker.

Once again this report is not about capturing reality but appears to be a mean-spirited jab at the collective groups who have taken a moral stand against terrorism, starvation and abuse. The authors do say that “none of this research is to argue that we should no longer assist Somalia with its pressing humanitarian needs. Indeed, if anything, the data compiled here indicate the need for long-term development, defensive, and diplomatic strategies to mitigate Somalia’s long-running tragedy.”

Sadly, with all their research and expertise, they provide no examples, studies, facts or suggestions on successful ways to guide the way forward.

A reader of this report would be hard-pressed to find a light at the end of the tunnel, let alone the report locating a tunnel. The authors are out to kick the UN, State Dept, CIA, DoD and just about every alphabet agency in the collective soft spots. This report would be a healthy intellectual concept if it provided even one solution, or even provided new data. In a Foreign Policy blog that promotes the report, the authors do mention that Somalis gets less aid per capita than the majority of nations America helps.

Even those who drift through the worst case scenarios presented will scratch their head at the end of report thinking they might have missed the solutions. There are none other than, “It is all the more vital that we approach conflicts like Somalia with sensible long-term strategies rather than knee-jerk responses. The cost of any other approach is simply too high.”

Somalia Report would argue that the decade-long history of successful and failed projects with the resultant lessons learned along with the recent gains are actually proof that, love it or hate it, the US does have a long term commitment to Somalia. As flawed, petty, unsuccessful and controversial as it may appear, America’s persistence in helping Somalia is much more than many other nations offer.

Both authors are well-versed in the negative beltway view of engagement in the country and as they clearly point out, Somalia is in its greatest hour of need. Not because of some failed U.S. do good project but because of that exact "perfect storm" they talk about; sustained drought, lack of support in remote regions, and general difficulty operating in a hostile environment.

It is unfortunate to those who have heard, smelt, touched and experienced the human impact of this perfect storm that the authors could not have applied that privileged intellectual horsepower and high-level exposure to scratch together at least one solution to help the very people whose fate they lament.