Daron Acemoglu’s and James Robinson’s research agenda is to emphasize one overarching factor in the prosperity of nations: inclusive political institutions. In Why Nations Fail, especially, they seek to underscore the idea that a successful economy requires centralized, but not authoritative, governments. In a recent piece for Foreign Policy, Acemoglu and Robinson produce a list of failed states to illustrate several reasons why a lack of a stable, centralized government will undermine efforts to achieve the accumulation of wealth.
One example is Somalia. The authors write,
One must-have for successful economies is an effective centralized state. Without this, there is no hope of providing order, an effective system of laws, mechanisms for resolving disputes, or basic public goods.
A cursory glance at the literature on post-Siyad Barre Somalia shows that this statement is palpably untrue. After the initial years of violent civil conflict and relative chaos, Somalia began to gradually settle. We see during the late 1990s and early 2000s a decentralization of power, in fact stripping it away from the mythical warlords that many imagine Somalia ruled by, and the restructuring of a system of social order and law. Christian Webersik’s 2006 paper, “Mogadishu: An Economy Without a State,” explains the process of the diffusion of power well; he also explains how businesses, in their own interests, began to provide security around the Mogadishu area. They provided these public goods so that their firms could thrive in an environment of extreme uncertainty. This spontaneous order, of sorts, began to externalize its fruits.
Around the same time, businesses and clan elites begin to favor the establishment of Islamic Courts, ruling by Sharia Law and the local Xeer. These institutions of law did not exhibit the extremist tendencies that are sometimes attributed to the former (Sharia). In fact, prior to the arrival of Ethiopian troops in Somalia, the Islamic Courts were moderate. By the middle of the first decade of the 21st century, the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) had done quite well towards stabilizing the middle and southern regions of the country. They were providing the goods and services that Acemoglu and Robinson so vehemently claim cannot be provided without the State; see Webersik (2006) and Ken Menkhaus’ 2003 essay, “State Collapse in Somalia: Second Thoughts.”
Sometime during and after 2006, the UIC quickly loses control. What causes this failure? The Ethiopian invasion in 2006 leads to the dismantling of the UIC, splitting its moderate membership from the more extreme sect. The moderates decide to join, or support, the Transitional National Government (TNG), and the extremists resist. Like previous attempts, the TNG does not appear to be succeeding. Much of central and southern Somalia have fallen under control of extremist organization Al Shabaab, although surely the occupation by part of the African Union has helped the TNG remain relevant. But, what’s important to note is that it was the international push to establish a central government which undermined the gradual stabilization of Somalia, and this trend continues today. (See David Shinn, “Al Shabaab’s Foreign Threat to Somalia,” Orbis 55, 2 (2011), pp. 203–215.)
We see, therefore, that not just is the State unnecessary for the provision of security, and therefore the existence of the basic institutions that allow for prosperity (e.g. property rights), but that sometimes pushing for a State can actually undermine the spontaneous efforts by part of society to provide these kind of public goods. Menkhaus (2003) notes a correlation between attempts to support the TNG and escalations in violence. In fact, notes Menkhaus, that while the late 1990s saw a gradual death to the civil violence, the 2002 attempt to establish the TNG causes a radical increase in resistance and clashes. This is also consistent with the story in Shinn (2011), where southern and central Somalia have deteriorated since the orchestrated move to replace the UIC with the TNG.
Yet, while the evidence suggests exactly the opposite, Acemoglu and Robinson continue to peddle the same story about the need for political institutions. I emphasize ‘need,’ because for our authors a wealthy society is impossible without these institutions (for a more academic, although no less erroneous, exposition see Daron Acemoglu, “Politics and Economics in Weak and Strong States,” Journal of Monetary Economics, 52 (2005), pp. 1199–1226). In Somalia, private spontaneous order provided institutions of law and order, only to be undermined by the international community’s efforts to prop up a central government that few Somalis actually want or trust.
Somalia is a tragedy, but it is a tragedy that has been made much more acute by the persistent efforts to impose a social structure that foreigners see as beneficial. But, that outsiders perceive benefit does not imply that Somalis acknowledge the same. Whatever the motivations of political actors in Ethiopia, or those which decide the interventions of the African Union, and the United States (who have intervened extensively in Somalia, and still do — American drones continue to patrol Somalia), it is just as tragic that academics advocate these policies on the grounds that establishing a central government is the only means of providing social stability. Somalia is a failure because no one has trusted its ability to succeed, and this is the real tragedy.