Earlier this month, the British government hosted a conference on Somalia, together with the Government of the Federal Republic of Somalia, the African Union and United Nations. The conference was timely: Somalia’s recovery from decades of civil war is being held back by ongoing terrorist activity and a food crisis in much of the country.
Previous conferences have featured pledging rounds, in which donors compete to show their generosity, often by re-announcing pledges of support already given elsewhere. This one was different: instead of pledges, donors agreed a ‘New Partnership’ that marked a shift from the ‘what’ to the ‘how’. The outcome document stated:
Through the New Partnership for Somalia, the Federal Government of Somalia and the international community reaffirm our commitment to work closely together in a transparent, mutually accountable and coordinated manner . . . We recognise the importance of accountability including to the Somali people.
On paper, this looks like a big change from the civil war years, when most aid circumvented the government and was delivered by UN agencies and NGOs from Nairobi.
The agreement promises aid operations that are designed and delivered in partnership with government institutions and that use the country’s financial management systems. The language is fully consistent with the Busan Partnership for Development Effectiveness, which remains the best statement of principles on how aid should be delivered, despite many donors still yet to fully deliver on it.
However, on closer inspection the document becomes less convincing. For example, principle E, paragraph 3 states:
Donors fully disclose spending plans and commitments through the Aid Information Management System (AIMS) on an annual basis.
This is a disappointingly weak commitment.
The food crisis in Somalia is evolving by the day: the latest situation reports from the United Nations show that heavy rainfall is leading to flooding in some areas. Donors in other countries are able to update their data monthly, sometimes even daily for fast-moving emergencies.
They must do the same in Somalia.
Moreover, neither this document nor the 2017 Somalia Aid Report acknowledge that there is already a global data set on aid and development finance, published in the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI). Development partners should work with Somalia’s Aid Coordination Unit to adapt the local AIMS so that it can import data straight from IATI. This has already been done in Bangladesh and Myanmar, and saves both donors and government from having to publish and find the same information twice.
Publishing aid information in the IATI standard allows everyone to get the full picture of aid and development finance going to Somalia, which supports better coordination and ultimately a greater impact for those in need. It also allows civil society organisations in and outside of Somalia to see where the money is going and how it is being used.
The document also fails to provide a timeline for debt relief. As Kevin Watkins from Save the Children has noted, Somalia is still carrying around $5 billion of debt, most of it incurred by a military dictator in the 1970s and 1980s. Most other countries in this position had the debt written off a decade ago. The partnership agreement commits to debt relief in principle, but gives no timeline and puts the onus on the fragile Somali government to achieve it. During this time they are unable to access even the World Bank’s East African crisis funding.
A final concern is on the role of civil society. The conference communique recognises the role of Somalia’s vibrant civil society, including diaspora and refugee groups, in preparing the National Development Plan and holding government to account.
However, it does not recognise that civil society also has a role in holding donors to account. This is particularly important in areas where the federal government is struggling or absent, such as refugee camps and autonomous regions. It is essential that Somalia’s revised NGO Act protects civil society space and does not try to close it, as other governments around the world have been doing.
The New Partnership is an important step forward for Somalia. Coupled with improved donor transparency, it provides an essential step to building a more stable, inclusive society. If donors are serious about that, they should practice the same levels of transparency and accountability as they are preaching to the Somali government.