Olivia Roberts: Somaliland: no aid, no problem?

Somaliland doesn’t exist, officially. But a new paper suggests that there is still a lot for the international development community to learn.

Somaliland has been unrecognised under international law since its secession from Somalia in 1991. And the ex-British colony isn’t just subject to the ire of cartographers, as its status as a country-in-waiting means that it technically isn’t eligible for international aid.  Primary health, education, infrastructure projects, everything must be funded from the national coffers. This makes it unique – with the billions of aid spent in the region every year, a country receiving none presents an interesting contrast, particularly when it manages to function despite the looming presence of its nearest neighbour Somalia, one of the poorest and most unstable countries in the world.

The new paper proposes that this state of isolation has actually been for the best and resulted in increased local accountability and political compromise. That doing without (a model of frugality in these austere times) has meant that non-traditional actors such as the business community have played a role in providing services. Priorities are also devised locally, not at arms-length at a donor’s headquarters.

Whilst appealing, there are a number of problems with this hypothesis: one is that Somaliland hasn’t been abandoned by the international community. UNDP and other agencies are actively involved in a range of projects . There is also a black hole of meaningful data on what is actually going on. The first behavioural HIV surveillance survey only took place in 2008 and most of the health data from Somaliland is self-reported, but health services are independently reported to be weak.

There is no doubt that a huge amount has been achieved in Somaliland, but there is a pressing need for agencies to provide support in a number of neglected sectors and ensure a rights-based approach. But Somaliland’s status provides serious problems – as a donor how do you work with financial systems based on a currency that doesn’t exist, or how do you protect your project staff under a judicial system that won’t be signatory to any international agreements because, well, no-one’s asked them to sign?

Nevertheless, it is still an interesting proposal that, in the footsteps of the brilliant Simon Reeve (world traveller and presenter of BBC 2’s Equator), there are lessons to be learnt from places that don’t exist. The Select Committee on International Development is looking into the UK Government’s commitment to official development assistance  – should MPs be considering a trip to Transniestria or Nagorno-Karabakh?

Olivia Roberts is a senior researcher, BMA international department