Went to a Foreign Affairs Live talk on state-building featuring Somalia expert Bronwyn Bruton yesterday. While the other panelists (James Dobbins and Claire Lockhart) were optimistic on state-building, Bruton was not, arguing that in places like Somalia, foreign aid and international state-building efforts can actually make things worse. Some points she made:
- Countries like those in the Horn of Africa can't raise enough tax revenue to actually have a central government. Ethiopia gets 80% of its budget from aid. It creates a cycle of dependency for the government to even exist. (One can also apply this to Afghanistan, where the military and police forces being trained are far in excess of what the country will ever be able to pay for.)
- In a conflict zone, if you want to build a state you have to pick a winner and once you do it is hard to rein them in. You wind up with incompetent or autocratic regimes like the Somali Transitional Federal Government or the Ethiopian government, and it looks much more like a necolonialist or Cold War arrangement.
- America has struggled to discern international threats to itself from local Islamist groups. Al Shabaab and any threat it poses to the US is a result of this. The organization basically did not exist until the establishment of the TFG.
- In a place like Somalia, trying to build a central government is not necessarily a good idea. The Siad Barre government was a terrible regime and most Somalis distrust central authority now. By contrast, in the years after the Black Hawk Down incident, Somalia was relatively stable and had living and economic standards comparable to its neighbors without having a central government.
- To the extent Somalis even want a state, they want it to include parts of several other countries, including much of Ethiopia, Djibouti and Kenya. It might not be best to encourage this sort of thing.
And now comes a report from today that as much as half of the aid going to Somalia goes not to the needy but rather to corrupt contractors and pirates. Call me a pessimist, but can we all agree to just stay the hell out of Somalia now?