Argument

Somalis Need More Than an Election to Lift Them Out of Economic Despair

Somalis are having the wrong national dialogue.

A girl walks toward her tent at a displacement camp for people affected by intense flooding in Beledweyne, Somalia, on Dec. 14, 2019.
A girl walks toward her tent at a displacement camp for people affected by intense flooding in Beledweyne, Somalia, on Dec. 14, 2019. Luis Tato/AFP via Getty Images

Somalia is on borrowed time. The fabric of its society is in tatters due to ceaseless clan-based political conflict that has hindered economic and social development for almost three decades. Since 1991, Somalia’s civil war has brought, among other things, political instability, famine, and terrorism. The country goes from one disaster to another, and that cycle must end. It is time for real change—and Somalia must start with economics.

Since Somalia established a transitional government in 2000, Somali politicians have consistently lacked the will to lift millions of Somalis out of insecurity, instability, and economic despair. Instead, they continue to have the wrong national dialogue, motivated by clan-based politics, and the Somali people fall prey to their tactics. Somalia’s economic problems cannot be cured by the Band-Aid of politics as usual. Regardless of which president Somalia elects on Feb. 8, the new leaders have a moral duty to come up with a viable framework of sustainable economic development that prioritizes inclusivity and shared prosperity. Millions of economically and socially disenfranchised Somalis want to get educations, feed their families, and live peaceful lives with dignity. That is possible, but it will take a firm dedication and sincere commitment on the part of the country’s decision-making stakeholders—something Somalis have yet to witness.

Because the country’s divisions are numerous, rewiring Somalia’s economy to benefit all citizens is a tall order. Somali society is structured largely by clans. And since 2000, its political system has been based on the “4.5 formula”—a power-sharing arrangement among the four large clans and a cluster of smaller ones—that has led to political stalemate and further divides. Instead of having a collective identity and shared goals, Somalis harp on their perceived differences—however insignificant they may be. This trend has worsened with the democratization of the internet. Although the media has played a positive and important role in informing Somalis worldwide of national affairs, fringe segments of the media often benefit from both peddling misinformation and enflaming the country’s divisions—and Somalis avidly consume content on social media and spread what they see.

As Somali women economists, businesswomen, and mothers who are the backbone of our society, we believe Somalia can strive to rebuild its national allegiance that was once the envy of Africa in the decades before the civil war through economic development and an equitable resource-sharing strategy. Nothing is more important than the pursuit of prosperity at the local, regional, and national levels. Only once that’s achieved will Somalia create the peace and political stability that has long eluded it.


During the last decade, Somalia has seen many encouraging economic developments. Those include the creation of regional states, such as Hirshabelle, Galmudug, South West State, and Jubaland, in a system that was designed to decentralize power from the central government. Somalia has also undergone a stringent debt relief process overseen by various administrations under the International Monetary Fund’s guidance to help Somalia repay its loan obligations. Furthermore, the past three administrations have formed various institutions to replace the old ones—from large ministries to district-level institutions—that have been destroyed over the course of the civil war. These include educational, health care, consumer protection, and military institutions.

But each of these developments has its drawbacks. Despite the long-awaited consensus on the formation of regional states, the lack of political cohesion between those states and the federal government continues to hinder economic growth and both domestic and foreign investor confidence. Debt relief is only a short-term solution that will not grow the economy and attract the kind of private equity investment that Somalia needs; the country should not rush from repaying debt to taking on further debt and should instead leverage its resources to bring long-term private equity stakeholders. The new institutions do not have clear mandates and oversight. Meanwhile, the private sector needs stronger regulation because Somalia currently operates on free-market principles that have led to further inequality, and NGOs have built parallel institutions that encumber the government’s ability to provide essential services.

If Somalis as a whole have it bad, women suffer disproportionally.

The country’s economic and social potential gives Somalis reasons to be hopeful but so far, Somalia’s efforts to build strong institutions that tap into it have failed. As Somalis say, “jug jug meeshaada joog” (“you take a step forward and two back”). Somalia has been blessed with an abundance of resources and industries, including oil and gas, minerals and mining, and agriculture and fisheries. Entrepreneurial prowess among Somali men and women worldwide continue to coexist with abject poverty and its consequences: high unemployment, a low literacy rate, high rates of internal displacement, and a deteriorating environment. In 2015, 67 percent of Somalis ages 14 to 29 were unemployed, and in 2018, about 62 percent of Somalis were illiterate. Up to 70 percent of Somalis live in poverty, and more than 2.6 million Somalis are estimated to be displaced within their own country.

If Somalis as a whole have it bad, women suffer disproportionally, especially when it comes to violence, education, work opportunities, and social protections. Women are the main contributors to small- and medium-sized businesses and petty trade, which form the engine of the country’s economy. They are often the sole providers for their families and play a pivotal role in the peace process by providing a voice of reason. Yet they are not included in government or policy in a meaningful way. Instead, politicians throw around “female empowerment” as a buzzword. And although politicians pay lip service to women’s contribution to Somali society, women do not have a seat at the table where decisions are made that harm them the most and the future generations they are raising. Currently, women occupy a small fraction of government positions and even fewer corporate ones.


Amid political strife, it is essential to still have hope. Yet many Somali youth are hopeless. In their society, picking up the pen instead of the gun does not translate into a sustainable livelihood. The Somali economy must serve the young so they can reach their potential and become productive members of society rather than a societal burden falling into destructive activities such as violent clan wars, piracy, terrorism, and drugs.

Since political will is the crux of any economic development plan, Somalis have to urge their politicians to prioritize and implement effective policies. Inclusive policies and shared growth need to be at the center of all this. Regardless of age, gender, clan, political affiliation, or region, all citizens of Somalia should be included in the national economic agenda. Women especially need to be represented throughout the country’s socioeconomic structure: They should have more seats in the Parliament, Senate, and cabinet, as well as in board rooms and executive suites in the private sector. One way of getting there would be to instate a quota that requires women to fill 50 percent of government roles. The government should also establish incentives for corporations to hire and promote women. And the government should have women empowerment financial funds that provide women capital both to start businesses and to help existing businesses flourish.

Somalia’s resources have to benefit the country’s vulnerable populations who need a safety net.

Similarly, shared growth should extend to all members of society and not just elites. Somalia’s resources have to benefit the country’s vulnerable populations who need a safety net too. Whether through national revenue or foreign aid, the government needs to work alongside all stakeholders—the private sector, NGOs, and civil society—to form an economic development plan that allows the country to achieve specific developmental goals that will help it emerge from poverty. Those goals should include, for instance, transitioning from an import-based economy to a food-secure economy, bringing manufacturing and technical jobs to Somalia, and investing in free, quality health care and education.

Otherwise, Somalia will continue to fall into the stereotype of a deeply corrupt state where political standing and connections ensure social and economic comfort. This will continue to harm the country’s image worldwide and divert divestment to other more reliable and transparent African nations.

Without these changes, Somali society will never be an equitable or sustainable model, and there will be further social and economic strife. Therefore, in the lead-up to the elections and beyond, the Somali people must demand their future leaders have the ambition and courage to promote inclusive policies through equitable access to economic opportunities that will restore the dignity of the citizenry.

Hodan Isse is a clinical assistant professor emeritus in finance and economics at the University at Buffalo School of Management and a former first lady of Somalia. She is a FGM UNICEF goodwill ambassador, a UNFPA maternal and child mortality goodwill ambassador, and a research associate at Tangaza University College in Kenya.

Sagal B.H. Musa is a managing director of BHM Holding, Ltd with a focus on East Africa real estate development and private equity investments. Musa has more than sixteen years of corporate finance and business development experience working for and alongside institutions such as Merrill Lynch, HSBC, Orange, World Bank-IFC, United Nations Development Program, and Credit Suisse.