Foreign aid blights rather than builds a nation

Published by The Times (5th July, 2023)

Somalia is a shattered country associated with chaos, conflict and piracy, host to an Islamist terrorist group described by a senior US military figure last year as “the largest, wealthiest and most lethal al-Qaeda affiliate in the world”. It sits in the Horn of Africa, long tormented by despotism, famine and war. Yet it is home to a small region that developed into a self-governing beacon of democracy.

Somaliland has long sought recognition as an independent state — a cause taken up this week by the former cabinet minister Sir Gavin Williamson with a ten-minute rule bill in parliament. The demand for self-determination by the former British protectorate is justified, given its differences with Somalia, although probably futile due to fears across the continent that altering post-colonial borders would uncork a tide of separatist tensions.

Yet Williamson’s bill turns the spotlight on a state that offers a case study in the toxicity of aid programmes, despite spurious claims made by self-righteous charities and their patsy cheerleaders in parliament.

Somaliland enjoyed a fleeting five days of independence in 1960 before deciding to merge with a former Italian colony in the south and suffering badly in a hideous civil war. Afterwards it became a country in all but name, with its own currency, president, parliament and passports.

Denied international recognition and thus direct aid while subjected to an arms embargo, its citizens relied on internal negotiations to defuse tensions and disarm militias. It designed a system of government that fused western-style democracy with clan-based traditions. One presidential election left two candidates only 80 votes apart but was resolved peacefully.

Billions have been blown on doomed aid initiatives in the rest of Somalia. But when I visited this democratic oasis in the northern corner of that failed state 12 years ago, I repeatedly heard people express pride that their success was based on their own efforts rather than foreign handouts.

One minister, highly critical of the aid lobby that he saw as exploiting Africa’s struggles, said they benefited from having space to sort out their own problems. This is not rocket science: if regimes rely on outside donors, they have less need to respond to concerns of their citizens; aid can therefore fuel corruption and conflict.

I also met the indomitable Edna Adan Ismail, who retired from the World Health Organisation and used her savings to set up a maternity hospital hailed as the best in Africa. She spoke movingly about relying on “people power” to rebuild the nation, arguing that they would have been trapped in a dependency culture if outsiders had given them cash to rebuild infrastructure and told them how to set up institutions. “Instead, through trial and error, we found what worked,” she told me.

Somaliland’s democracy was not perfect: there were problems over delayed elections, freedom of expression and women’s rights. But academics noted that the lack of international attention forced elites to develop a spirit of civic cohesion and bargain over resources rather than simply court donors. And even human rights groups admired the improbability of its achievements in such a troubled location.

Sadly, this story has taken a turn for the worse in recent years. First came the development experts with their talking shops. Then foreign cash, with nations such as Britain signing deals to “promote long-term stability”. Instead, Somaliland was jolted by communal tensions, lethal clashes, presidential elections were postponed and at least 150,000 people driven from homes. Elders in one region sought secession. This year a British-funded police force was implicated in killing civilians. Now there are claims that the destabilising impact of a flurry of foreign money lies at the core of this unrest by distorting relationships, fostering a fight for resources and fuelling repression.

No doubt the apostles of aid will continue to ignore the saga of Somaliland. Just as they ignore how Haiti — nicknamed the Republic of NGOs for the number of charities jostling to assist 11.5 million citizens — descended into dysfunctional hell despite being given almost £14 billion this century alone. And just as they ignore the lesson of western attempts to build a new society in Afghanistan based on vast flows of aid and arms, which inflamed corruption, intensified divisions and empowered a mafia state, thus assisting the Taliban’s return as dismayed citizens turned to its insurgency.

It is deluded neocolonialism to think we can use our cash to impose stability in conflict-ridden regions, let alone to create millions of jobs or spread democracy. Thankfully, British aid spending has been slashed, although what remains is largely wasted beyond some successful health interventions. When aid groups squeal about cuts, it is worth noting that the sector is growing so much around the world that just the rise in global development assistance last year was bigger than the £12.8 billion we spent. The sector has become such a money-spinner that not only does David Miliband, the former foreign secretary, pocket more than $1 million a year from one charity, the International Rescue Committee, but Britain even sprays money on nations with their own aid and space agencies.

If we really want to help poorer parts of the planet, we should tackle the shameful laundering of stolen cash through our firms, institutions and tax havens. We should reform a costly and often racist visa system that does so much to deter African visitors, despite the continent’s rising global importance. We should do more to exploit our influence through arts, business, education, sport, the BBC World Service and the British Council. Above all, we should look hard at Somaliland and, while supporting its bid for independence, abandon our own arrogant salvation fantasies.

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