1. Summarize the history of Somalian state failure and then the failure of state-building at the national level that Menkhaus discusses.2. What are the competing perspectives on why Somalia remains a failed state?3. Why does Menkhaus think it is more important to focus on the local level—what are the examples he examines? Are these successes useful for other states, or even for national-level solutions in Somalia itself?4. Aman and Aman explore the idea of “institutional paradoxes” in the state-building process in Afghanistan. What do they mean by this concept and how has it played out in Afghanistan?5. Does what we see in Afghanistan through this analysis extend to other cases, do you think? In other words, is this a useful lens through which to evaluate external state-building efforts in general?


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The Annals of the American AcademyProspects for a “Functional Failed State” in Somalia
State Failure,
and Prospects
for a
Failed State” in
Ken Menkhaus
Over two decades of external efforts at institutionbuilding in Somalia have failed to revive a functional
central government there. There are many reasons for
this, not least of which are powerful local interests in
perpetuating weak government institutions, facilitating
corruption and other illicit activities. But some notable
successes have occurred at the local level, both with
formal and informal governance mechanisms.
Municipalities have been particularly effective sources
of formal governance in Somalia’s failed state, providing basic security and services via legitimate and
responsive local authorities. In addition, informal
hybrid governance arrangements, drawing on a combination of customary authority, sharia courts, business
leaders, women’s market groups, and professionals,
have been a critical source of routinized, legitimate
governance and rule of law in Somalia. External actors
have struggled to understand these arrangements and
their place in wider state-building efforts. Where external aid has helped with local and informal governance
in Somalia, it has been carefully calibrated and based
on close contextual knowledge, not template-driven
Keywords: Somalia; failed state; hybrid governance;
or many, a discussion of aid and institutionbuilding in Somalia—a country with a reputation as a “graveyard of foreign aid”—sounds
like an invitation to a eulogy.1 For more than
two decades, massive amounts of institutionbuilding assistance have been spent in Somalia.
And yet today, despite the announcement of a
post-transitional federal government in 2012,
Somalia remains ranked as the world’s “most
failed state” (Fund for Peace 2013). This is all
the evidence many observers need to conclude
that external institution-building in Somalia has
been an unqualified failure.
Ken Menkhaus is a professor of political science at
Davidson College and a specialist on the Horn of
DOI: 10.1177/0002716214547002
ANNALS, AAPSS, 656, November 2014
Prospects for a “Functional Failed State” in Somalia
This harsh conclusion is not entirely true. Successful instances of institutionbuilding in Somalia do exist, sometimes with external aid, though most are local
and some are quite unconventional, stretching the very notion of what constitutes
an institution. But it is hard to dispute the verdict that externally funded statebuilding in Somalia has in general been an exercise in frustration.
This article examines aid and institution-building in the world’s longest-­
running collapsed state. It reviews the history of failed institution-building in
Somalia since 1991, assesses competing explanations for this failure, describes
how and why some limited successes have occurred in institution-building in
Somalia, and analyzes prospects for the latest efforts to build a post-transitional
state in Somalia. Throughout, it also seeks to draw lessons from other Somaliinhabited polities in the eastern Horn—eastern Ethiopia, Djibouti, the unrecognized secessionist state of Somaliland, the autonomous state of Puntland, and the
newly created county administrations in northern Kenya—where some type of
state structure is at least minimally operational.2 These other regional governments offer valuable opportunities for comparative analysis of political institutionalization in a range of Somali settings.
The article concludes that external funding for institution-building at the
national level in Somalia faces steep obstacles, mainly due to deeply entrenched
political and economic interests in perpetuating a weak, de-institutionalized
state. Where external aid has succeeded in Somalia, it has been with carefully
calibrated support, primarily to local-level governance systems. These range from
municipalities to seaport and airport authorities to the many hybrid governance
arrangements that fuse informal and formal authorities in quasi-judicial, regulatory, conflict mediation, and other roles, and that often constitute the most
responsive and effective source of governance for local communities. Given the
powerful impediments to institution-building in Somalia today, as well as the fact
that institution-building in even the most conducive settings is a slow, long-term
process, Somalis and external actors promoting state revival should thus keep
their goals realistic and their approaches flexible. For a variety of reasons,
Somalia is likely to remain a failed state for some time to come, but in the short
term could, with the right combination of domestic and external efforts, transition from a dysfunctional to a “functional failed state”—one with weak institutions but with a durable social compact and other critical features that allow for
basic security, economic activity, and peace, along the lines of what Somaliland in
the north has enjoyed for nearly two decades.3
A History of Failed State-Building in Somalia
The formal collapse of the Somali state occurred in January 1991, and international efforts to revive central government institutions first began in December
1992 with the massive peace enforcement operation known as the UN Operation
in Somalia (UNOSOM). But state failure came much earlier to Somalia, as did
external aid programs intended to build institutional capacity. An appreciation of
this early iteration of state failure and failed state-building is important both to
understand the depth of the problem of the state in Somalia and to avoid repetition of past mistakes.
After the disastrous Ogaden War with neighboring Ethiopia in 1977–1978, the
Siyad Barre government—which in its early years built strong, albeit repressive,
political institutions in the security sector, the ruling party, and parts of the civil
service—focused solely on regime survival.4 An increasingly narrow set of clan
interests drove political calculations, corruption grew rampant, and the ruling
clique systematically de-institutionalized the state, rendering the large civil service little more than a bloated bureaucracy with little to do but collect very modest monthly paychecks and engage in “project hopping” with aid agencies to
make ends meet (Menkhaus 1997). Decision-making on virtually all matters of
state was monopolized by a small circle around Barre, while ministerial positions
were frequently rotated to prevent potential rivals from establishing a power base
or demonstrating competence. And critically, the large and once professional
security sector devolved into a predatory force advancing the interests of empowered clans and their leaders (Samatar 1986; Laitin and Samatar 1986; Samatar
and Samatar 1987). Thanks to Somalia’s strategic importance in the Cold War,
foreign aid flows were very substantial, so much so that by 1987 international
development assistance composed 57 percent of the country’s GNP (Henze 1991,
125). One analyst concluded as early as 1979 that Somalia had become “a ward
of the international community” (Laitin 1979, 8). The Somali state in that form
was, in retrospect, a castle built on sand, destined to collapse once foreign aid
dried up, as it did in the late 1980s with the end of the Cold War (Menkhaus
1997). Until then, donor states ignored the systematic corruption of the state, the
hollowed-out civil service, the state-sponsored land grabs, and the predatory
behavior of its security forces. This was done because of a combination of strategic interests in maintaining good relations with the regime and what former U.S.
diplomat to Somalia David Rawson termed the “baseless optimism” of donors
who were repeatedly taken in by the “studied ambivalence of Siyad’s zig-zag tactics” of promising reform and then failing to deliver (Rawson 1993, 115).
In this context, external efforts to build the state’s institutional capacity failed,
and foreign aid funds of all types were diverted and funneled out of the country
by enterprising political elites, especially close relatives and clansmen of the
president. Even external efforts to professionalize the military—a form of institution-building that has enjoyed considerable success elsewhere in Africa in the
past two decades—foundered. Emblematic of this failure was the U.S. officer
training program that brought commanders such as General Ali Hersi “Morgan”
for advanced training at Fort Leavenworth, only to subsequently watch him oversee the brutal government attacks on Somali populations in the north in 1988
(earning him the nickname “The Butcher of Hargeisa”) and then grow into the
role of one of Somalia’s most feared warlords in 1991.
If all this likely sounds disturbingly familiar to observers of contemporary
efforts to build Somali state institutions, it should. Many of the same dynamics at
play in the 1980s persist today, bedeviling both Somalis and foreigners attempting to revive functional and accountable governmental institutions. The fact that
these pathologies have now been a dominant part of the Somali political
Prospects for a “Functional Failed State” in Somalia
landscape for 35 years suggests that explanations cannot be reduced to relatively
recent factors such as warlordism. The protracted nature of the crisis has also
contributed to the rise of a political subculture among much of the country’s
small political elite that is soaked in impunity, corruption, and collusion, reducing
national political life to the art of unapologetic embezzlement regardless of who
is nominally in power. To the extent that this behavior has become the “new normal” in Somali politics, and deeply embedded in the shared norms of rival elites,
it will be challenging to reverse.
Postcollapse Somalia attracted over two decades of episodic, but often intense,
external efforts at state-building. The most dramatic instance, and the one most
loaded with lessons learned for today’s attempts to revive a central government,
came with the 1993–1995 UNOSOM intervention, two years after the country
fell into state collapse, civil war, and famine. The ambitious UNOSOM peace
enforcement mission included a United Nations (UN) Security Council Resolution
to promote both reconciliation and state revival with the “broad participation by
all sectors of Somali society” (UN 1993). UNOSOM sailed into uncharted waters,
as reviving a completely collapsed state was at the time an unprecedented task
(Clarke and Herbst 1997). It was a difficult assignment made worse by the UN’s
weak political capacity, and made almost impossible by the overly ambitious
timeline of only two years to achieve reconciliation, the drafting of a new constitution, selection of district and regional councils and a provisional national assembly, holding of a referendum on the constitution, a census, voter registration, and
elections. UNOSOM found itself torn by fierce debates over whether to promote
peace and state-building from the “top down” or “bottom up,” and ended up
embracing a mish-mash of both approaches that left all parties unhappy (Lyons
and Samatar 1995). The district councils hurriedly formed with UNOSOM tutelage met with resistance from humanitarian aid agencies that claimed that they
were unrepresentative and illegitimate and that they were focused solely on trying to control the resources of international and local NGOs. UNOSOM’s efforts
to empower local communities in the selection of their own leaders angered
warlords as well, prompting menacing responses from militia commanders whose
power base was threatened by this grassroots approach. This ultimately led to an
attack on the UN by an armed spoiler, General Mohamed Farah Aideed, and a
four-month battle culminating in the “Black Hawk Down” disaster. In desperation, UNOSOM’s leadership abandoned the bottom-up approach and sought to
forge a quick power-sharing deal among three of the country’s strongest warlords,
including Aideed, but that too failed (Menkhaus 1994). UNOSOM was withdrawn in March 1995, ending the first and most ambitious of a series of international attempts to revive the collapsed state in Somalia.
Both during and after UNOSOM, state-building and institution-building
efforts in Somalia in the 1990s—the first decade in which state-building became
mainstreamed in foreign aid—tended to reflect efforts to promote democracy,
civil society, and human rights. This reflected a preoccupation with the need to
restrain governments in previously authoritarian settings. This manifested itself
in foreign aid devoted to building institutional capacity outside of government,
especially in civil society organizations. Governmental capacity-building in places
where it was possible, such as Somaliland, tended to focus on democratization—
electoral commissions, political parties, and legislatures. Institutional capacitybuilding for the security sector was generally limited and focused on training
police in human rights and due process.
The prolonged collapse of the state in Somalia meant that subnational
polities—­regional states such as Puntland, the secessionist state of Somaliland,
and dozens of districts and municipalities—became by default the main targets
of institution-building after 1995. This was viewed by some as a “building block”
strategy of state-building region by region; others viewed it merely as the only
alternative in the absence of a central government (Bryden 1999). In either case,
local- and regional-level governance structures constituted one of the few success
stories in institution-building in southern Somalia. Aid agencies had to take care,
however, not to commit to building up political institutions in Somaliland in ways
that appeared to be shoring up the government’s claim to sovereignty, a diplomatic dance that continues to this day.
Since 2001, institution-building in the eastern Horn has been “securitized,”
with much greater attention devoted to building up the state’s capacity to monitor, prevent, and respond to security threats, especially from al Qaeda and its
affiliates (Hammond and Vaughan-Lee 2012, 9–10; Menkhaus 2013). The fact
that the eastern Horn has been the site of major violent extremist movements,
especially the Somali-based group al-Shabaab, has accelerated this process and
expanded the spectrum of donors and implementing agencies to include external
militaries, UN peacekeeping operations, and private defense contractors. Across
the region, this has had the effect of empowering security branches of governments and shifting programming from human rights and democracy toward a
more narrow focus on capacity-building. Almost every government and polity in
the eastern Horn of Africa has benefited from counterterrorism-driven institution-building. This has not only increased overall assistance to governments but
pushed more aid to security sectors and emphasized capacity over human rights
and accountability.
Coinciding with post-2001 securitization of institution-building was a major
push by the UN and some donors to revive the central Somali state. This
reflected in part a new global consensus that state weakness was a root cause of
both conflict and underdevelopment, leading to much more sustained efforts to
reinvigorate failed states (Department for International Development [DFID]
2005; World Bank 2011; Patrick 2011). The Somali Transitional Federal
Government (TFG), created in late 2004 with heavy international pressure and
even orchestration, was the chief beneficiary. Aid was refocused toward strengthening the central government, and included direct salary payments to members
of parliament and the security sector, despite mounting accusations that the latter
were preying on rather than protecting the population. Humanitarian agencies
came under pressure to channel their aid through the TFG as a way to increase
the government’s legitimacy and capacity. Because the TFG ranked among the
most corrupt regimes in the world, many humanitarian and development agencies preferred to work around rather than with the government, producing
chronic and sometimes open tensions among the humanitarian community, TFG
Prospects for a “Functional Failed State” in Somalia
officials, and donors (Menkhaus 2010). Donor emphasis on “whole of government” approaches and the UN’s joint integrated strategies—all designed to keep
international programming moving toward the same goals rather than at crosspurposes—had the effect of tethering humanitarian actors to political objectives
they feared would both jeopardize their neutrality and badly erode their
The strong push to “jump start” the TFG with external funding to make it
viable created an impressive flow of funds to and through the TFG. But the lack
of donor and aid agency presence in Somalia due to severe insecurity made it
exceedingly difficult to ensure accountability over how funds were spent, facilitating massive corruption. And the fact that the international community
appeared to need a revived central government more than the Somalis themselves meant external actors had little leverage over the TFG leadership.
Institution-building became a lucrative project—but not a goal—for TFG
After seven years in existence, the TFG was still unable to exercise control
over most of the capital Mogadishu, had failed to advance key transitional tasks,
and had almost no functional civil service. The one critical moment when it had
a chance to demonstrate some basic capacity and commitment to provide lifesaving aid to its own citizens—the terrible famine of 2011, in which 260,000
Somalis died and over a million were displaced—the TFG failed utterly. Corrupt
officials diverted food aid and demanded bribes to release aid arriving in the
seaport, and district commissioners in the capital struggled over control of internally displaced camps to control the “bait” for emergency aid they could then
divert (Menkhaus 2012). This episode was without question the low point in aid
and institution-building in Somalia.
Throughout 1991–2012, institution-building aid to Somalia, Puntland, and
Somaliland tended to be dirigiste in tone, conceived and managed by external aid
agencies and their donors. Local ownership was generally weak. It was also generally project-driven, typically with short time horizons and focused, measureable
objectives, despite the fact that institution-building is universally agreed to be a
slow process.
Foreign aid aimed at institution-building in Somalia was plagued throughout
the 1990s by a very poor understanding—and in some cases a willful ignorance—
of spoilers, local governance culture, and other critical contextual issues. That
produced a tendency to reduce institution-building to a purely technical exercise
of providing basic equipment and training to district councils and other government entities that had no authority and that faded as soon as the foreign aid
ceased. But over the past decade, aid agencies have been much more systematic
in commissioning political economy and conflict analyses to inform their program
planning, and in the process have developed a heightened awareness of cultural
and political economy factors working against institution-building. Unfortunately,
it has been difficult—though not impossible—to translate that new analytic
awareness into effective programming. As a result, many institution-building
projects continue to meet with high rates of failure.
Competing Explanations for Protracted State
Failure in Somalia
Why has Somalia been so impervious to political institution-buil …
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