A Comparativist’s Approach to Somalia

I am trained as a comparative political scientist, and it appears that some of my writing on Somalia from that perspective is creating misunderstanding among some Somali readers. This blog is meant to clarify what a comparative method to the study of politics is and why it’s such an important tool now for Somalis engaged in politics in the Horn of Africa.

Students of comparative politics appreciate the unique aspects of each political system but also look for points of commonality – point of comparison – across political systems in order to test propositions about political behavior, processes, and structures.  Since we can’t run experiments on politics the way a biologist can run controlled experiments in a laboratory, the comparative method is our principle tool for trying to move our study of politics beyond an interesting pile of anecdotes, opinions, and preferences toward something approaching an empirically-grounded “finding.”   One way or another, observers of politics have been using the comparative method as least as far back as Aristotle.

Comparativists don’t just focus on the politics of sovereign states.  We look at all manifestations and levels of political life, including local and municipal systems of governance, regional transnational governance like the European Union, and informal, non-state systems of governance and social organization. These all form part of the rich and complex set of practices, institutions, and social contracts that the seven billion of us living on this planet draw on to manage our endless disputes over resources and power and, hopefully, keep our societies from falling into armed conflict and  chaos. Comparativists are also pretty good at uncovering the interests at play in perpetuating armed conflict and chaos where it does occur.

The comparative method is also a critically important instrument for learning and sharing lessons about best practices and innovations in public policy and politics.  Central governments, regional governments, municipalities, and civil society groups all face similar sets of problems, and can and do learn from one another’s successes and failures.

I say all this because the Somali-inhabited eastern Horn is the site of many different Somali experiences with governance – thousands of them. Some, like Djibouti and the Federal Government of Somalia, are at the sovereign state level; others, like Somali Regional State, Puntland, and Garissa County, are at the regional level; and many, many more are at the city, town, and village level, or are part of the rich collection of informal systems of governance that prevail in much of the region.  Across the eastern Horn of Africa, over fifteen million Somalis, in very different, sometimes overlapping political settings, are trying to work out solutions to vexing political problems.

Whether one is an outside academic like myself, or a Somali living in the Horn or the diaspora, we all have an obligation to understand these different political experiences and try to learn lessons from them that might be of wider use to other Somali communities and to the donor agencies funding state-building. Otherwise we risk missing opportunities to help transfer valuable knowledge about what works and what does not work in governance in the eastern Horn of Africa. We simply can’t afford to keep making mistakes in state-building in Somalia, and one way to reduce the risk of mistakes is by learning as much as we can about political systems across the region.

Studying municipal and regional administrations in the Horn is not a reflection of a normative preference for “grass-roots” politics or federalism over centralism, nor does it in any way confer legitimacy on secessionist or irredentist claims. Studying the politics of Somaliland to learn about the pros and cons of its “hybrid” governance model in which elders have formal roles in the upper house of Parliament does not imply acceptance or rejection of Somaliland’s secessionist claim.  Comparing political structures in Puntland and the Federal Republic of Somalia is not a hidden agenda to equate Puntland with the SFG, any more than comparing the health care policies of the state of Massachusetts to those of the United States government is equating the status of those two polities.  Concluding that municipal governance has been the site of some of the most effective governance in Somalia is not an attempt to undermine state-building at the central level; it merely recognizes an important source of success in governance that can and should complement efforts to revive a central state in Somalia.

The Somali diaspora is now a rich additional source of knowledge about comparative politics. It actively participates in political life from Canada to New Zealand. That diaspora knows – or ought to know – that around the world, authority and responsibility for provision of basic public goods is split between different levels of government, and that much or most of that service provision is done at the municipal level. There are very few places in the world (that you would want to live in) where a central government exercises control over all policy, service delivery, and political appointments down to the municipal level.

Somalis are understandably apprehensive about any analysis that appears to reinforce fragmentation or clannism, and I share that concern. But we can’t let that fear prevent us from the essential task of learning best practices of Somali governance wherever we find it.  The comparative method is a tool with enormous potential for good in Somalia, not something to disparage or reject.


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