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Nations must learn from past mistakes in helping Somalia

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Past initiatives, led by the United States, the United Nations, and other members of the international community, have repeatedly attempted to impose a centralized bureaucratic governing structure on the country, a structure ill-suited to Somali society. Such efforts have never been effective and have only aggravated domestic tensions.

Decentralization is the key.

The population of Somalia is divided into four major clans and a number of minority groups, all of which consist of sub-clans and extended family networks. Loyalty to these groups overrides any sense of a common identity. Although these ties are not as strong as in the past, social relationships and customary law still have much greater relevance to Somalis than any government in Mogadishu.

While the country would benefit from some central institutions – such as a central bank and a mechanism to resolve disputes between clans – Somalis have no successful experiences working with these entities.

Therefore, Britain and others trying to help Somalia must focus more on the local or regional level. Clans have helped destroy Somalia's centralized governments, but clans can be instrumental in helping rebuild national governance. Indeed, the few places in Somalia where there is some semblance of workable rule depend on traditional systems of governance rather than on a centralized authority.

Somaliland, the breakaway northeastern section of Somalia, is the best example. It is an island of stability in the midst of chaos. Somaliland has held a series of free elections unprecedented in the Horn of Africa, and attracts migrants from around the region.

In eastern Somalia, Puntland and Galmudug have established local peace deals and set up self-governing administrative districts. Despite – or, perhaps, because of – a dearth of assistance from the international community, these regions have been able to provide their residents with some public services by taking advantage of traditional Somali concepts of rule by consultation and consent.

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