As I reflect back to the London Conference on Somalia on the 23rd of February 2012, where 55 delegates from the Somali region and the international community met to discuss the Somalia crisis, I’m amazed by the international community’s missed opportunity to tap into the most important resource of Somalia, the youth. In a way this is not a surprise as the conference focused on the mainstream analysis of Somalia and accordingly offered mainstream recommendations: curb piracy activities and increase capacity of the African Union Mission on Somalia (AMISOM) in order to crush al-Shabaab.
Although I was optimistic in the run-up to the conference, especially given the tremendous efforts made by the UK Foreign Office in conducting extensive diaspora consultations, my disappointment is the fact that this Conference disregarded the most important ingredient in the fight against piracy and al-Shabaab. Youth are the vital human resource pool for both piracy and al-Shabaab. In fact, the very name al-Shabaab means ‘the youth’, reflecting its positioning and branding as a ‘youth’ movement. In the context of Somalia, engaging with the youth and providing them with viable livelihood opportunities which are alternatives to piracy and al-Shabaab is likely to prove to be more effective than AMISOM forces or the Regional Anti-Piracy Prosecutions Intelligence Coordination Centre.
Somalia and the self-declared Republic of Somaliland, like many other sub-Saharan African countries, are faced with a demographic youth “bulge”. According to the World Bank’s World Development Report 2007: Development and the Next Generation, out of the 1.5 billion people aged between 15-24 years old in the world 1.3 billion of them are found in developing countries, the highest in known history.
Somaliland National Development Plan 2012-2016 estimates that between 60-70 per cent of population is less than 30 years old and 75 per cent is unemployed. Lack of opportunities in Somalia and Somaliland has led to a youth exodus as young people search for opportunities elsewhere. Many cross dangerous terrains in hope of reaching Europe and North America. Statistics on those who suffer human trafficking abuses and those who perish in the seas are rarely documented.
Neglecting the youth in the Somali debate in a way reflects the current discourse on the Somalia crisis as a whole. Being referred to as a ‘failed state’, policies are geared towards ‘fixing’ the state and its governance structures with the presumption that once these are fixed other socio-economic activities will flourish. This way of thinking is hegemony in peace building and security sector reforms orthodoxy which tends to assign a simple correlation between stability and development. The line is therefore, if we crush al-Shabaab and put all pirates in jail, we will be on the way to fixing Somalia.
Don’t get me wrong, al-Shabaab and pirates are very bad news for Somalia and for the East African region as a whole, but there are better ways of dealing with them than killing a few hundred today and imprisoning a few hundred more. Poking holes in their potential pool of recruits by providing viable livelihood alternatives to Somali youth is possibly the most effective route to ensure enduring stability for the region. Of course in a world of short-term-results policy making, alternative long-term approaches are often overlooked.
The inadequacy of the current definitions and categories in capturing the situation in Somalia and the realities on the ground partly explain the shortcomings of the current approach to fixing Somalia. Somalia fits awkwardly with mainstream definition and categories of war and peace. Is it at war? Is it at peace? Is it in transition?
Somalia has been in a ‘war - no war - no peace’ state for over twenty years and instead of focusing on a war-to-peace transitions, perhaps it is time to consider that the current situation in Somalia is the norm. In this case, it is imperative to focus on how to improve living standards of millions of households suffering from acute deprivation and thousands of extremely capable youth roaming the dusty streets with no prospects. Of course this means the discourse will have to change from piracy, terrorism, state building, and peace building to livelihood building, economic development and poverty reduction strategies.
Developments within the region suggest that people on the ground have accepted this reality and are looking for ‘outlets’ for their youth. Increasing access to higher education is one of these outlets and is evident by the mushrooming of higher education institutions in virtually every part of the region. In the self-declared Republic of Somaliland, the rapid expansion of the higher education sector is tremendous. The first university, Amoud University was established in 1997 and at the time of writing sixteen universities are operational in Somaliland. Progress in this sector is also evident in Puntland and South/Central Somalia.
Every year hundreds if not thousands of Somali youth are graduating with university degrees. Although the efforts are commendable and the progress made in this sector is impressive, lack of post-graduate employment opportunities detracts from the achievement and suggests that university education is in reality a four year postponement to the inevitable life of joblessness and uncertainty.
This is where the international community comes in. Approaches that focus on improving economic opportunities for young people by supporting and investing in labour intensive sectors can have significant impacts on youth livelihoods and act as a pull factor to discourage youth out-migration and occupations such as piracy and terrorism.
Although the expansion of the higher education sector has been impressive, the types of faculties within these institutions are predominantly arts and humanities owing to the lack of sufficient funding required to implement science and technology related faculties. One of the implications of this is that majority of students graduate with Business Management degrees which further impedes their labour market outcomes since most cannot use them in the Somali economy.
For future social and economic development of the region, the international community needs to support the establishment of science and technology related faculties which will lead to equipping the region with the technical skills necessary to innovate, adopt and utilise technology and allow the region to effectively participate in the global knowledge economy.
It is time to change the way we think about Somalia. We need to start thinking more about economic development and how the youth can be mobilised for the benefit of the region as a whole and less about aggressive policies that will result in killing or imprisoning them en masse. The youth are the future and as Somalia thinks about its future, it cannot afford to overlook its youth.
Originally from Somalia, Nimo Ali is currently pursuing her doctorate studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London as a Mo Ibrahim Foundation PhD Scholar.