Foreign aid blights rather than builds a nation – Somaliland showed what self-reliance could achieve while elsewhere western billions inflame corruption and division

By Ian Birrell

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 programs, 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 Organization 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 destabilizing impact of a flurry of foreign money lies at the core of this unrest by distorting relationships, fostering a fight for resources, and fueling 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.

About Ian Birrell

Ian BirrellAward-winning columnist and foreign reporter. Contributing editor of The Mail on Sunday and Daily Mail for foreign reporting and investigations. A weekly column in the ‘i’ paper. A regular columnist for UnHerd. Also written for The Times, The Washington Post, The Daily Mail, The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian, the Sun, The Spectator, Tortoise, and The Wall Street Journal among others.

Foreign correspondent who has reported from more than 60 countries from Albania to Zimbabwe.

Winner of The Orwell Prize for Exposing Britain’s Social Evils (2020). Winner of London Press Club’s Edgar Wallace Award (2013) for fine writing and reporting. Winner of Foreign Reporter of the Year (2015) and Columnist of the Year (2015) in British Press Awards – a unique double triumph. Winner of the Popular Journalism category in the British Journalism Awards (2018).

Winner of Health Reporter (2018) in British Press Awards. Winner of Amnesty International media award for news reporting (2019). Winner of Feature Writer of the Year (2020) in British Press Awards. Winner of Freelance Journalist of the Year (2022) in Society of Editors Media Freedom Awards. Highly commended as Foreign Reporter (2011), Feature Writer (2013, 2017, 2018 & 2022) and Reporting Diversity (2019) in British Press Awards. Shortlisted in 43 other awards since 2011.

Frequent broadcaster on television and radio, including Newsnight, Channel 4 News, The Andrew Marr Show, Dateline London, Today, PM, 5Live and The World Tonight. Presented & wrote BBC Panorama documentary on Texas prison reforms. Presented & wrote Tortoise podcast on Ukraine’s Stolen Children.

Held senior executive positions at The Sunday Times, Daily Mail and Sunday Express before becoming deputy editor-in-chief of The Independent for 12 years, leaving in March 2010.

Adviser and speechwriter for David Cameron in the run-up to the 2010 general election.

Founder and joint curator of Britain’s first Politics Festival, launched at Kings Place, London, in June 2017.

A regular speaker at events and adviser to clients on crisis management, media training, public relations, change and transparency.

Co-founder with Damon Albarn of Africa Express, which promotes African music and unites musicians from around the world. Organized trips to five African nations; staged acclaimed concerts in the UK, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Holland, Spain, Turkey, South Africa, and Nigeria; taken a train filled with musicians around Britain as part of the Olympic festivities; and re-formed a Syrian orchestra & choir to tour Europe.

Executive producer of five albums: ‘Africa Express presents…’, a compilation of African music selected by Western artists;  ‘Africa Express presents…Maison des Jeunes’, an album of new Malian music; ‘Africa Express presents…Terry Riley’s In C Mali’, the first African recording of the minimalist classic which was debuted at Tate Modern; ‘Africa Express presents…The Orchestra of Syrian Musicians’, a live album of reformed orchestra from 2016 European tour; ‘Africa Express presents…EGOLI’, an album of new South African music.

Married with two children, the youngest of whom has profound and multiple learning difficulties.

Twitter: @ianbirrell

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