Published on Africa Can End Poverty

Somalia: A tale of two countries

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View of Mogadishu fishing harbour. AMISOM Public Information/FlickR View of Mogadishu fishing harbour. AMISOM Public Information/FlickR

Having endured cyclical crises spanning three decades, Somalia is both a fragile state and a resilient society. For decades, people have been organizing themselves and helping address crises on their own. At the local level, hybrid forms of governance, such as customary, religious, civic, private sector, and governmental authorities, have emerged to provide communities with variable, sometimes illiberal, but nonetheless real systems of governance. In the face of nascent state-led services, the private sector has filled the void to provide services.

In our latest Somalia Urbanization Review, Fostering Cities as Anchors of Development, we show that innovation has been the defining feature of the Somali private sector, which has flourished despite the difficulties, and has been the driving force behind the extraordinary pace of economic growth and revival. The future of Somalia’s cities, which hold the key to helping the country develop faster and further, will depend on the vibrancy and responsiveness of the private sector, putting a premium on developing policies, urban planning, and regulatory capacities that enable and catalyze accountable private sector behavior.

Fig. 1 Somalia is Urbanizing Rapidly

Somalia is Urbanizing Rapidly

At the same time, an estimated 2.6 million people who have been displaced within the country have largely migrated to urban areas and live on the city periphery in poverty. They cluster in camps, de facto slums which today are increasingly concentrated at the edge of cities, beyond the reach of basic services. They are here to stay, but most lack security of tenure and are vulnerable to multiple forced evictions. Those who live there are subjected to low-paying, unstable informal jobs, and many are removed from the clan-based support system that can provide a safety net and protection.

It is in cities where both opportunities and challenges for Somalia’s development and prosperity are acutely felt. Cities exhibit both the greatest wealth and the most enduring poverty, impressive and inclusive cosmopolitanism alongside entrenched clannism, the highest levels of security and the most destructive acts of political violence, and the greatest potential for expanded economic opportunities as well as risky exposure to external economic shocks. The quest then is how to manage and reduce the risks Somali cities face, increase their potential to provide livelihoods and services, and do so in a way that is more inclusive and accessible for all.

Somali cities feature a complex mix of different state and non-state authorities, in what emerges as hybrid governance. In addition to the presence of multiple state actors, much to most de facto authority resides in the hands of traditional clan elders, business leaders, militia leaders, civic groups, and religious authorities. Their relations with one another range from cooperation and power sharing to open rivalries. These hybrid governance arrangements are fluid and variable in their degree of legitimacy and capacity.

Delivery of nearly all services normally associated with the state is the domain of the private sector, with roles also played by local civic groups and NGOs, international aid agencies, mosques, or lineage-based mutual support systems.

These hybrid governance arrangements and third-party service delivery systems are a mixed blessing. Flexible hybrid governance is part of the reason why Somali urban communities have survived and managed decades of political violence and collapsed or fragile state authority. But non-state sources of governance are often exclusionary when it comes to women and weaker ethnic communities. Private sector-led service provision means that goods that should be public, like education and basic health care, become available only to those who can pay, excluding poor Somalis. The complex and fluid array of authorities and service providers also creates real challenges for external aid agencies trying to partner with local actors. Somalia’s impressive hybrid governance systems are critical sources of governance and services in the short-term, but are no panacea.

Fig. 2 Access to Piped Water

Access to Piped Water

Fig. 3 Access to Electricity

Access to Electricity

A transitional strategy for strengthening urban governance and service delivery in Somalia could be the starting point for the country going forward. Ongoing efforts to strengthen government capacity could be twinned with pragmatic strategies aimed at working with existing local capacities to deliver long-awaited basic services to urban populations. This may require a mindset change; cooperating partners—especially development partners—must be willing to embrace hybrid, “good enough” solutions to improve service delivery. As part of an interim strategy, the government would need to embrace the concept of a third-party service delivery model in which the government partners with or outsources roles to the private sector, civil society, and others for the delivery of critical social services in urban settings.

Managing urbanization in Somalia is therefore a process by which a wide range of formal and informal rules and systems surrounding governance and service delivery incrementally come to have greater coherence, complementarity, credibility, and capacity.


Makiko Watanabe

Senior Urban Specialist, Social, Urban, Rural, and Resilience Global Practice

Olivia D'Aoust

Senior Urban Economist

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