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Thinking Differently about Somalia, Governance and Piracy


That’s what economist Benjamin Powell is doing at the Freeman, where he notes that Western observers who refer to Somalia’s “failed state” status generally overlook the importance of Xeer, the customary law system that holds clan-based society together none too badly.

As for piracy?

Although they are a concern, this is not merely a symptom of a “failed state,” as many media reports make it out to be. In one sense, that the piracy is committed against passing foreign vessels is a tribute to the internal effectiveness of Somali customary law. The pirates are well-armed and obviously not hesitant to use violence. Yet they do not plunder Somali ships. What’s more, they interact peacefully with other Somali when they are on land. Although the total number of pirates is small, it has been estimated that 10,000 to 15,000 people are employed by the pirates indirectly in related industries such as boat repair, security, and food provision. (Other enterprising Somalis have set up special restaurants to cater to the hostages.) That pirates use voluntary market transactions to purchase goods and services on land, rather than pillage, provides some evidence that Somali law is fairly robust if even these otherwise violent people respect it when conducting their internal affairs.

It’s an interesting essay that breaks from the tired twin narratives of Somali piracy and anarchy. And it leads to a very interesting empirical question: which is worse for human security in relative terms, the absence of a functioning central government or the presence of an abusive central government? History suggests people generally prefer order to anarchy, even if that order comes at a price – the Taliban were wildly popular in the early 1990s for this very reason. But Powell’s keen to measure this empirically, using development indicators like telecommunications infrastructure, infant mortality and the like. He finds that Somalis are not doing badly compared to other Africans, state or no state. But he hasn’t controlled for the presence of the humanitarian sector in the country (which is often good for things like infant survival) or for the fact that Somaliland actually has a functioning government, stability and relatively favorable indicators – might this account for Powell’s findings?

Even if so, the effort to empirically measure what has herewith been an argument by assertion about human security and failed states is a valuable one.

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