Editor's note: This is a guest blog by Jonathan Starr, founder of Abaarso School of Science and Technology, and the author of “It Takes A School.”
60 Minutes, The New York Times, MSNBC, BBC, and CNN are just some of the media outlets that have covered the story of Abaarso School in Somaliland. Abaarso is also the subject of a recently released book, It Takes A School, and an upcoming documentary, Somaliland, The Abaarso Story. All this attention is the result of Abaarso’s extraordinary success, despite conventional wisdom believing Abaarso’s results were impossible anywhere, never mind in the unrecognized breakaway country of Somaliland. Given Abaarso’s achievements and modest price tag, its approach is worth a deeper dive for lessons that can be applied elsewhere.
Somalia has the reputation of being a mysterious and conflict-ridden land. Who hasn’t heard of the infamous “Black Hawk down” episode, the militant group al-Shabaab or the pirates off the Somali coast?
But in the northwest corridor of war-ravaged Somalia lies Somaliland, a self-declared independent state that claims to be open for business. Really?
It’s easy to dismiss the “open for business” claim by Somaliland’s Ministry of Planning as mere fantasy or wishful thinking. Flying from Nairobi on a painfully slow UN-chartered plane, being greeted at the hotel by Kalashnikov-armed guards, or traveling to your meeting in an armored car is enough to discourage even the most adventurous entrepreneur.
At first sight, Somaliland has all the characteristics of a fragile and conflict-affected situation (FCS). However, you never want to judge a book by its cover. In Somaliland, I’d argue that the conventional narrative of fragility needs to be revisited.
"I am selling my ears" (Dhagahaan iibinayaa), Abdillahi says, laughing.
The sharp light glimmers through the small opening in the tinted window, the wind is audible. It is early morning in Hargeisa, the self-proclaimed Republic of Somaliland, occupying the north-western territory of what the international community defines as Somalia. Somalia and Somaliland could not be further apart in conflict resolution experience and relative stability.
Abdillahi is still looking at me, his smile widens, his eyes sparkle. Chuckling, he leans towards me to emphasize his point. He had been telling me about the peace conference between the Somaliland clans in Borama in 1993, and had interrupted himself with the expression about selling his ears.
"That is what we say today about daily allowances from donors," he explains. "Our society is built on contribution, people here gets legitimacy through contribution.
The gathering of world leaders in London last week to consider the fate of Somalia may be heralding a new development moment for the war-torn country. But we are in unchartered waters: we know very little about Somalia’s economy.
First, from a development viewpoint, there is no such thing as one Somalia. Ironically, the unrecognized Somaliland entity [see the Somaliland success story in “Yes Africa Can” ] has enjoyed stability and democratic governance, pursuing classic development interventions (service delivery through the state, infrastructure investment, capacity building …). [In addition, Somaliland appears to have very good statistics.]
By contrast, South Central Somalia, where the capital city and official -albeit transition- government of Somalia are located, is a quintessential failed state plagued by conflict and public mismanagement. Puntland lies somewhere in between, with some stability but an embryonic state under growing influence of piracy networks.