Rethinking State-building in a Failed State

Somalia is, in short, a nightmare for its own citizens and a source of grave concern for the rest of the world. Ironically, however, the international community bears much of the responsibility for creating the monster it now fears. Previous attempts to help Somalia have foundered because they have been driven by the international community’s agenda, rather than by Somali realities. The UN, Western governments, and donors have tried repeatedly to build a strong central governmentthe kind of entity that they are most comfortable dealing within defiance of local sociopolitical dynamics and regional history. Not only have these ill-judged efforts met with inevitable failure, but they have also endangered the traditional social structures that have historically kept order. Instead of repeatedly trying to foist a Western style top-down state structure on Somalia’s deeply decentralized and fluid society, the international community needs to work with the country’s long-standing traditional institutions to build a government from the bottom up. Such an approach might prove to be not only Somalia’s salvation but also a blueprint for rescuing other similarly splintered states.