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World's Donors Ignore Flashes of Hope in Somaliland

By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 26, 1999; Page A01

HARGEYSA, Somaliland—Second of two articles

Perched atop the Horn of Africa, the farthest outpost in a forgotten place, Somaliland is trying to get the world's attention.

It has been nearly five years since civil war ended here and traditional clan leaders made good on their decision to declare independence from Somalia--the land to the south that has been synonymous this decade with wasted international aid, vicious warlords and dead American soldiers. Even as fighting in Somalia continues, peaceful Somaliland has a representative, functioning local government and an eager capitalist outlook.

Amid the dull brown rubble left by decades of war and neglect in this capital city are flashes of vitality as bright as the riotously colored scarves local women wrap themselves in. A downtown morning market thrives. A new restaurant, built by returning exiles, is surrounded by a carefully watered papaya grove. Microwave towers stretch above makeshift shacks, offering $1 a minute telephone calls to anywhere in the world.

In an earlier decade, Somaliland might have been welcomed as an up-by-its bootstraps place where Western governments were eager to provide money and expertise for the kind of help this arid land now needs most: for housing, for textbooks and medicine, and for training to harness its entrepreneurial energy for rebuilding. But today, both the funds and the will of First World development programs, international banks and multinational private investors are in short supply.

The plight of Somaliland, and the larger tragedy of Somalia, illustrate some of the realities of foreign aid in the post-Cold War world. Even as the amount of money the world's richest countries are prepared to spend on aid has dropped precipitously, an ever-smaller share has gone to the world's poorest. And as many of those poor countries--particularly in Africa--remain sunken in seemingly senseless internal wars like Somalia's, fatigued and exasperated donors have gradually lost interest in funding programs of the kind that might help Somaliland.

Among the world's largest donor countries--the members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development--aid to Africa fell by 22 percent between 1990 and 1996, decreasing by 18 percent to sub-Saharan countries between 1994 and 1996 alone. Contributors to United Nations aid and development programs have provided slightly more than half of the $800 million requested this year for African countries suffering from "complex emergencies"--the term applied when war and failed institutions, often combined with a natural disaster, leave vast numbers of people homeless and starving. Specific programs for some particularly problematic areas, such as the Great Lakes region of Central Africa including the two Congos, Rwanda and Burundi, have fared even less well.

Steven G. Wisecarver, the Nairobi-based deputy regional director of the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID), said after a visit to Somaliland in September that he would try to pitch Washington a development program to help consolidate Somaliland's "fragile process during a very critical time."

"They have a stable environment that it's important to support," Wisecarver said. "We have the good will of the people there, and have to realize that the government has no resources. Peace is their outstanding achievement, but it's not going to last forever."

Asked later whether a proposed development program for Somaliland was likely to fly, a senior AID official in Washington laughed ruefully and said, "Not anytime soon."

The aid-averse Republican Congress in recent years has kept a tight lid on foreign assistance. But the United States long ago began moving away from all but emergency relief except in a handful of strategically significant countries. Nowhere is that decline more noticeable than in Africa, and nowhere are the reasons for it clearer than in Somalia.

Somalia Unique In some ways, Somalia is unique among Africa's problem countries, the extreme example of how bad things can be.

Cobbled together as a country by departing European colonialists in 1960, embroiled in war with Ethiopia through much of the 1970s and '80s, and ruled by a military despot who was overthrown in 1991, it has been at war with itself ever since. Somalia has no national government, no central bank, no representation in international institutions, no embassies.

Last spring, the U.N. Security Council expressed alarm over Somalia, largely out of concern that it was becoming a haven for arms and drug smugglers, a base of terrorist operations for Osama bin Laden and others, and a surrogate battlefield for combatants in other African wars. It ordered Secretary General Kofi Annan to investigate.

The lengthy document Annan delivered in August described a place convulsed by waves of violence, where life has regressed into an atavistic past in which "most children receive no health care . . . two generations have had no access to formal education," and life expectancy, at 43 years, is the lowest in the world.

"Virtually all the infrastructure of government--from buildings and communications facilities to furniture and office equipment--has been looted," Annan reported. "In most of the country, there are no police, judiciary or civil service. Communications . . . is nonexistent. Electricity is not available on a public basis . . . there is no postal service." At least a quarter-million Somalis live in refugee camps in neighboring countries.

In the southern two-thirds of the country, where the capital, Mogadishu, is located and nearly three-quarters of the population lives, little has changed since the departure in 1995 of UNOSOM, the multinational military force that for more than two years tried, and ultimately failed, to separate clan-based armies while it delivered food to their victims. Today, roving armed bands trade control over huge swaths of territory, answering to local warlords when they are paid, and resorting to banditry and kidnapping for ransom when they are not.

Although most aid agencies moved their Somali headquarters to neighboring Kenya after the departure of UNOSOM, aid programs continued. Twelve U.N. organizations with 170 foreign employees, the European Union, AID and its Danish equivalent, the Red Cross and Red Crescent and as many as 60 other non-governmental agencies such as CARE operate in Somalia, delivering food and medical care when security permits.

But as the situation has shown little improvement, money has become increasingly scarce. Continuing trends over the past several years, donors pledged this year to spend $70.1 million in Somalia, down from $95 million last year. The United Nations requested $64 million for emergency programs in fiscal 1999, but by late October only about 55 percent of the total had been funded by donor nations.

The United States, whose 1999 bilateral contribution was programmed at $22 million, initially responded to budget restraints this year by proposing to "zero out" Somalia as a hopeless case for all but emergency food relief in fiscal 2000. The European Union is at a similar crossroads in funding under the Lome Convention, its international aid and trade agreement with the developing world. The current 10-year convention was agreed to in 1990, when Somalia had a government. With negotiations underway for the next Lome agreement, there is no one in Mogadishu to talk to.

"We're an international organization, and we need at least a government," said Joao Duarte de Cavalho, the head of the European Commission's Nairobi-based Somalia Unit.

Yet even as the future seems bleakest, one player in the Somalia drama has stuck its head above the parapet and issued a challenge to itself and others. Rather than winding down, the United Nations has proposed more than doubling its efforts, with a fiscal 2000 appeal totaling $124 million.

Singling out Somalia as a test case for whether the world has learned anything about how to deal with collapsing states, the new U.N. appeal proposes abandoning, for the moment at least, the idea of reestablishing Somalia as a functioning entity. Instead, it hopes to rebuild pieces of it one by one, with small, targeted projects and a lot of cooperation from local people. When there are enough places where aid has been used to build local schools and health clinics, help plant crops and vaccinate livestock, when local economies and governmental institutions are in place, then the Somalis may want to talk about putting their country back together again.

Market Whirlwind Saturday morning market in downtown Hargeysa is a whirlwind of dust, confusion and commerce. Thousands of people--many returned from years in refugee camps in Ethiopia, others more recently arrived on the run from fighting in southern Somalia--jostle along unpaved streets lined with tables piled high with second-hand shoes and T-shirts. Rows of money-changers sit on upturned boxes behind stacks of Somaliland currency offered for the dollars, marks and pounds sent to relatives by Somalis living abroad.

Goats and donkey-pulled water carts scramble out of the way of trucks and Land Rovers, and even the odd automobile, careening around potholes and people. Horns are honking, children are shouting, people are smiling.

In a drab, bullet-pocked building above the cacophony, an unarmed policeman stretches his leg across a narrow stairway, trying to keep out a horde of petitioners seeking entry to city hall. Behind a heavy door at the top of the stairs sits a former political prisoner and refugee, Abdiraham Ismail Hussein, 51, the mayor of Hargeysa.

"It's not easy to understand the real situation in my town," says Hussein, his gold teeth winking. "If you came here five years ago, you would have seen 10 percent of the town standing and the rest destroyed. There were no institutions, no police, no municipality. Nothing. We started from scratch, from zero."

Nearly all of what Somaliland's people have achieved thus far has been accomplished without much foreign help. Some residents believe that has been "a sort of a blessing," said Mohamed Fadal, a Somalilander and researcher for the War Torn Societies Project, a foreign-funded program helping to build Somaliland Institutions. "Aid corrupts. People fight over it."

But now, Somaliland fears its stability is endangered unless it can show citizens that peace offers tangible benefits.

"My resources are very small, says Hussein. "Water is short, sanitation is poor--there is no garbage collection. But people are coming by the thousands." A good portion of those on the streets, he says, are beggars from the refugee camps.

Many of the estimated 350,000 residents of this capital--out of a population estimated between 1 million and 2 million people--live in stick and trash-bag huts strewn across the vast emptiness surrounding the city. Hundreds are camped in the bombed-out shell of the palatial British state house, once the seat of colonial rule, or in shacks scattered through its long-untended gardens.

In the city's 13 schools--about one-third of Hargeysa's children attend--students are packed 85 to 100 to a class. Health care is minimal. An estimated $500 million in annual remittances from Somalilanders living abroad and sales of nomad-raised livestock to the Arabian peninsula are the only outside sources of money. Somaliland's flat, semi-desert expanses grow little food, and most must be imported. Former militia fighters roam the streets or sit in demobilization camps, waiting for the life they have been promised in exchange for their guns.

"We need to start building the administration, the courts of law . . . and what we used to call in the old days the nomadic police force--which used to keep the peace among the tribes of the area," Somaliland President Mohamed Egal said in an interview last spring with Africa News Service. If the former militia members "who we promised we would put in vocational training schools . . . are disappointed and feel they should go back to . . . living by the Kalashnikov, well, then all the things we have built up here will go down the drain.

The road to a peaceful, functioning society has not always been smooth.

The Ogaden war with Ethiopia left Somalia's northern and western borders lined with mines. After he lost the war, Somali President Mohamed Siad Barre took out his frustration here, killing thousands and mining the interior of the country. In 1991, when Barre was overthrown, Somalilanders started fighting with each other, following the pattern that continues in the south.

Although clan elders declared independence that year, civil war among Somaliland's three main clans lasted until 1995. That was when the elders decided to try to make peace stick in their would-be country. So far, they have, and militias in the rest of Somalia fight their own wars.

Somaliland still disputes a border with Puntland, a Somali region just to the east. People there resent Somaliland's claim of independence--even though the claim is recognized by no country in the world.

Work on a new constitution and legal code by the Somaliland parliament is behind schedule, as are promised elections. Egal is under sporadic fire from the remnant militia leadership and public opinion for suspected flirtation with foreign proponents of a quickly reunited Somalia, who tempt him with the possibility that he could lead it all.

On the plus side, Somaliland has a long coastline, a good port and a belief that oil lies under the sea. There is a lively daily newspaper that freely criticizes the government and everyone else. Local entrepreneurs, most of them returning exiles, have brought a frontier vitality, investing money saved abroad in things like the five microwave telephone systems in Hargeisa.

One of the entrepreneurs is Abdi Hakin Saeed, 38, who returned here with his family last year after 13 years in the United States.

"People really believe in this place," Saeed said. "I was at the point of deciding to stay in America for good, to become an American, buy a house, and be like everybody else."

Instead, Saeed and his wife, Deqa Arab Essa, 32, like him a U.S.-trained accountant whose family fled Somalia in the late 1980s, decided to come home and raise their American-born daughter in Somaliland. They have invested their savings in a furniture store and, on Hargeisa's main street, a "Dollar Store" selling U.S.-made sundries.

But the Saeeds, living in relative comfort behind heavy concrete walls, ask every day if they have made the right decision in returning to a place where their child cannot play outside and few have money to buy the goods they sell in their stores.

Little has been built here since the decades of war and much of what existed before lies in ruins. Mines blanket much of the countryside and roads and surround water sources, and unexploded bombs and grenades are scattered through virtually every town. Government regulation, taxation and banking systems are embryonic. Somalia was long ago written off by international lenders such as the World Bank or the IMF and no foreign company wants to risk putting money in a place that appears on no international map.

Although there are small development projects and an incipient mine removal program funded through international or non-governmental organizations, no country has a bilateral aid relationship with Somaliland and U.N. programs are limited by the need to spend scarce resources on emergency programs in the south.

"We are very grateful for the crumbs we are given here," said Egal. But "nobody asks us what we need or how we want to be helped."

That is precisely what the United Nations is proposing that donors now do in Somaliland. Nearly $60 million of the U.N. 2000 request for Somalia is designated for economic and infrastructure development, much of it in the north, and reestablishing the refugee population.

But first, acknowledged David Stephen, the secretary general's representative for Somalia, "we have to convince them it's not money down the drain." Donors can continue to "write Somalia off," he said, "as long as it's a basket case."

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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