Somali Success Story

Does anarchy mean chaos?


The West African country of Somalia has lacked a nationally recognized central government since Siad Barre's dictatorship collapsed in 1991, and it has been without large-scale American intervention since 1994. A supposed national government run by former warlord Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed operates out of Nairobi, Kenya, not in Somalia itself. The country is notorious as an anarchic zone where ruthless warlords push around pitiful peasants and government is completely absent.

That chaotic picture has elements of truth; a recent BBC report on urban Somalia found no shortage of people lamenting the lack of free passage down roads and the amount of their income paid as kickbacks to armed gangs. But in a recent study two World Bank economists found a surprising side to Somali statelessness. Its "private sector experience," Tatiana Nenova and Tim Harford write, "suggests that it may be easier than is commonly thought for basic systems of finance and some infrastructure services to function where government is extremely weak or absent." They report that "Somalia boasts lower rates of extreme poverty and, in some cases, better infrastructure than richer countries in Africa."

Areas where Somalia is doing as well as or better than neighboring countries include the percentage of population living on less than $1 a day, roads per capita, and telephones per thousand people. (Somalia's highly competitive, cheap, and thorough telecommunications industry includes many functioning Internet cafés in the capital city of Mogadishu.) Areas where Somalia lags behind–sometimes far behind–include literacy and access to safe water.

The study (available at 280-nenova-harford.pdf) doesn't advocate statelessness as a positive solution. But it does note that people have a tenacious ability to figure out ways for life to go on, no matter what the governmental circumstances. It outlines three chief methods by which Somalis have addressed their large-scale social and economic needs without government: traditional clan systems (which provide services such as savings, insurance, and legal dispute resolution); simple market transactions (for small-generator electricity, among other things); and foreign sources (for example, airplane crews are leased from international suppliers, and the U.S. dollar provides monetary stability).