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Helping a Failed State Succeed

Somalia, January 23, 2008

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Abdikadir Mohamed/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Abdikadir Mohamed/Mercy Corps

Mercy Corps' work in Somalia ranges from helping fishermen increase their yields to teaching new conflict-management skills to building vital transportation links. In three districts of southern Somalia, a major Mercy Corps "cash-for-work" program is giving people the opportunity to earn money; helping communities build and repair infrastructure; and teaching local groups to set priorities, make plans and implement projects in the absence of strong government support.

Inherent in all this work is a fundamental question for all international actors in Somalia: How do you help a failed state succeed?

Since the collapse of President Siad Barre's government in 1991, Somalia has been seen as the quintessential failed state. The country, a boomerang-shaped rim along the Horn of Africa, has struggled to establish a stable government, maintain law and order, and improve the difficult living conditions most of its inhabitants endure. Economic growth is anemic outside the country's surprisingly strong service sector in urban areas. Infrastructure has been decimated. Only about one in 10 Somali children attend school.

For many Americans, mention of Somalia conjures up images of "Black Hawk Down," the 1993 incident — chronicled in Mark Bowden's bestselling book and later adapted into a Hollywood movie — where Mogadishu militias killed 18 U.S. soldiers who were part of a multinational peacekeeping operation. International attention went elsewhere, but the chaos continued. Today Somalia can be considered one of the world's "silent disasters."

What is labeled "Somalia" on today's world map is actually composed of three relatively autonomous regions:

  • Somaliland, a former British colony in the northwest of Somalia, has declared that it considers itself distinct from the rest of Somalia. The region has its own system of governance and is seeking recognition from the international community as an independent nation.
  • Puntland, in the northeast of the country, has also established its own political system, though it considers itself part of a federated Somalia and its elected leader serves as part of the country's Transitional Federal Government.
  • Then there's the rest of Somalia, the south and south-central parts of the country. It is this area where competing clans struggle for control, where kids only dream of attending school, where infrastructure is crumbling from 15 years of war and neglect.

And this is where this story of Mercy Corps' newest project in Somalia begins.