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Out of Africa

June 6, 2006


There are several items in the news today that raise the issue of stability and development in Africa. The first big story is the takeover of Mogadishu, Somalia, by the Islamic Courts Union, a group with alleged ties to al-Qaeda. Although the Somali population in rural areas has made some strides since the country disintegrated some 15 years ago, Mogadishu has remained a mess. Ruled by warlords, it has remained in a state of chaos and poverty. That is what made it such an attractive target for radical Islamists.


According to an Associated Press story carried in the Washington Post (“Militia Seizes Somali Capital: Islamic Group Ousts U.S.-Backed Warlord” by Mohamed Olad Hassan) the Islamists now control an area within a 65-mile radius of the capital. Another interesting point made by the article is that the “membership [of the Islamic Courts Union] transcends the clan lines that traditionally dominate Somali politics.” Normally, one would applaud a movement capable of breaking down traditional barriers to progress (like tribal politics), but clearly this is an unwanted result. Unfortunately, it is one that was almost guaranteed by the Somali cut and run policy adopted by the international community (including the United States) over a decade ago. As the old adage says, you reap what you sow.


If the Core is serious about fighting terrorism, this outcome will not likely go unchallenged. Whatever response is forthcoming, it will cost money — probably more than it would have cost to invest in nation-building a decade ago. This pattern is destined to repeat itself until a process like Development-in-a-Box™ becomes a permanent kit in the international community’s bag. We can’t change the past, but I believe we can still positively influence the future. The AP story makes the point that this pattern is not new:

Omar Jamal, director of the Somali Justice Advocacy Center in St. Paul, Minn., called the Islamic militia’s victory in Mogadishu a turning point in the country’s history. “It is exactly the same thing that happened with the rise to power of the Taliban in Afghanistan in the 1990s,” he said, adding that the extremists are “using the people’s weariness of violence, rape and civil war to gain support for a government based on Islamic law.” When in power in Afghanistan, the Taliban allowed al-Qaeda to operate training camps.

The citizens of Mogadishu are unlikely to view this latest twist as the disaster it is likely to become. A New York Times article on the takeover (“Somali Islamists Declare Victory; Warlords on Run” by Marc Lacey) relates the feelings of one citizen:

“The people of Mogadishu have finally gotten some peace today,” Ali Mohammed, 32, a schoolteacher, said in a telephone interview from the capital on Monday night. “We’ve had war for so long, and we’re tired of it.” But he also said he and others feared that the Islamic courts might clamp down and impose a stricter form of Islam on residents. “We don’t know what’s next,” he said.

In another Post article discussed below, a Somali living in the DC area reached his mother by phone and asked her, “How do you feel about the ulama [the leaders of the Islamic Courts Union]?” She answered, “Whoever brings the peace, we support.” Fear of the future always takes a back seat to relief in the present. The Somali situation has parallels to Palestine as well as Afghanistan. Hamas became a political force on the strength of its social agenda more than its political agenda. The New York Times article notes the same thing is happening in Somalia:

But some analysts were not surprised that the battle for Mogadishu turned out as it did. “The so-called Islamists provided a sense of stability in Somalia, education and other social services, while the warlords maimed and killed innocent civilians,” said Ted Dagne, the Africa analyst at the Congressional Research Service in Washington. He expressed doubt that the takeover indicated the rise of extremists in the capital. “Somalis are secular Muslims, and the presence of the so-called Islamists is not an introduction of new ideology or religion,” Mr. Dagne said in an e-mail message.

I doubt others in Washington will see this takeover in the same benign way. The New York Times article reported the radio message delivered to the people of Mogadishu after the takeover. Its reasonable tone is punctuated by a message aimed squarely at America:

“We want to restore peace and stability to Mogadishu,” Sheik Sharif Ahmed, chairman of the alliance of Islamists, known as the Islamic Courts Union, said Monday on a radio broadcast, according to The Associated Press. “We are ready to meet and talk to anybody and any group for the interest of the people.” Still, he made clear the religious nature of the rule to come. “We won the fight against the enemy of Islam,” he said.

No one doubts to whom “the enemy of Islam” refers. It hasn’t helped that the U.S. has allegedly been paying the defeated local warlords. The implication is that if America wants to influence the emergence of Somalia from instability and poverty, it will have to work with surrogates who haven’t raised such animosity among the Somali people. If Dagne is correct and secular Somali Muslims are able to prevent a Taliban-like government from emerging, there may be an opportunity to put a Development-in-a-Box like approach into action. The New York Times article offers a bit of hope for such a course noting that among the Islamic Courts Union supporters were “business leaders eager to end the arbitrary rule of the warlords.”

These business leaders are anxious to achieve stability, establish rules, expand markets, and increase profits. They are good candidates with whom to work. They are also probably not anxious to have Sharia law imposed since such laws tend not to be free market friendly. They generally put constraints on what women can do and own as well as make credit more difficult to obtain. Another group that can be used to promote a non-kinetic (i.e., military) response to these events is the Somali expatriate population. A related article in the Washington Post discusses how expatriates in the U.S. are following the crisis via the web (“With Web, a Lifeline Home Technology Advances Help Immigrants Track Somalian Crisis, Aid Families,” by Sudarsan Raghavan).

The article points out how connectivity is increasing and making things better, even in the midst of chaos and conflict. It also shows that expatriates are willing to get involved and invest in the future of their homeland.

Today, several dozen Internet sites follow every twist and turn of the conflict. They post digital photos of the chaos, blogs and round-the-clock news. It’s easy to listen to online radio and video broadcasts from the BBC and Voice of America. Expatriates have bankrolled Internet cafes in Somalia and helped build one of the most reliable and inexpensive phone networks in Africa, where cellphone and online use is rapidly growing. It’s cheaper for Somalis in Mogadishu to phone the United States than the other way around, said immigrants here. And they use text messaging, e-mail and instant messaging to further cut costs.

This story highlights two key characteristics of the Development-in-a-Box approach. First, indigenous populations must be empowered by technology (in ways they decide and take ownership of). Second, take advantage of accepted standards to foster the process. Some critics of the Development-in-a-Box approach believe that we are pressing for negotiations during which international debate and vote on new standards that should be used by those involved in development work. Nothing could be further from the truth. In the case related above, Somalis were able to “build one of the most reliable and inexpensive phone networks in Africa” by simply using standards that have already been agreed upon and widely used. No one had to strong arm them into accepting these standards because they intuitively understood the benefits of adopting a system that connected them to the broader world. That is the beauty of a standards-based approach. The article goes on to relate the story of a man named Abdul that further makes this point:

Before he left [for Somalia], he deposited about $10,000 with a Somalian money transfer service in Alexandria, part of an informal, ancient global banking system called hawala. Each time Abdul needed money, he e-mailed the hawala broker, and the broker e-mailed him a password. Then, he went to one of the broker’s partners in Somalia to get the cash. … Abdul rented housing in a safer part of the country, bought airline tickets and evacuated his relatives.

Standard procedures allowed Abdul to conduct banking, exchange emails, conduct commerce, and travel internationally. Development-in-a-Box isn’t about getting credit for establishing standards or about imposing them. The process is about helping local people understand how standards can help them improve their lives. It’s another way of breaching tribal boundaries, but in a very positive way because it is voluntary. The way ahead for Somalia is not to outfight the Islamic Courts Union but to out-develop it.


The Ford Foundation announced today “the creation of a new philanthropic venture, led by Africans and based in Dakar, Senegal. The project, Trust Africa, aims to strengthen an expanding network of nonprofit groups across the continent that seek to hold governments accountable, whether elected or dictatorships. Ford has committed $30 million to this new foundation. Half the money will finance a permanent endowment, and the other half will be used to provide grants to many groups over the next five years.” [“Ford Foundation to Announce Africa Initiative,” by Celia W. Dugger, Washington Post]. The hope is that by establishing an organization that monitors performance, governments will maintain certain acceptable standards conduct.

Thomas O. Melia, deputy director of Freedom House, a research group that monitors political liberty, said efforts like those of Trust Africa represent the next frontier in deepening democracy in Africa and elsewhere. “What has been missing, even in places establishing electoral democracy, is independent voices — think tanks, nongovernmental organizations, university centers — able to monitor government performance,” he said. “It is the next step.” [Akwasi Aidoo, Trust Africa’s executive director], said credible local groups capable of attracting international attention are needed to check repression, corruption and other ills. Groups in one country also should be connected to like-minded outfits in other countries.

These are exactly the kinds of groups we would expect to sign-up to a Development-in-a-Box approach. They involved likeminded people, willing to get involved, who understand that certain standards are necessary for countries to progress. As Mr. Aidoo puts it, the new foundation would establish the connections among actors who can carry the work forward on their own feet.” Such connections make up a community of practice.


One last article I would like to mention is Nicolas Kristof’s column in today’s New York Times. Entitled “In Praise of the Maligned Sweatshop,” Kristof starts off the column by writing, “Africa desperately needs Western help in the form of schools, clinics and sweatshops.” Kristof’s point (obviously) is not that he favors people working in poor conditions for meager pay just so that he can wear a cheap suit. He understands that the path out of poverty begins with a job — any regular paying job. He writes:

Well-meaning American university students regularly campaign against sweatshops. But instead, anyone who cares about fighting poverty should campaign in favor of sweatshops, demanding that companies set up factories in Africa. If Africa could establish a clothing export industry, that would fight poverty far more effectively than any foreign aid program.

If globalization was just about cheap labor, one would think that Africa would be a prime spot for exploiting. The truth is, according to Kristof, that Africa isn’t a prime spot.

The problem is that it’s still costly to manufacture in Africa. The headaches across much of the continent include red tape, corruption, political instability, unreliable electricity and ports, and an inexperienced labor force that leads to low productivity and quality. The anti-sweatshop movement isn’t a prime obstacle, but it’s one more reason not to manufacture in Africa.

I discuss Kristoff’s column to the end of this blog because it underscores what I have been trying to stress about the importance of a standards-base approach to development. All of the obstacles discussed by Kristoff (red tape, corruption, political instability, unreliable electricity and ports, and inexperienced labor) can be improved by the implementation of standards. Africa needs them and the sooner standards are embraced the faster the continent will progress — that’s what Development-in-a-Box is all about.

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