Humphrey School News—February 26, 2015

Humphrey School Researchers Call for U.S. Government to Expand Role in Helping Rebuild Somalia

Interviews with Somali diaspora show need for infrastructure, health care, education

(Minneapolis, 2/26/2015)—As Somalia continues to rebuild after a prolonged civil war that began in the early 1990s, researchers at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs recommend the U.S. government consider shifting its work from peacekeeping to rebuilding in ways that will help grow Somalia’s economy. In a unique collaboration with the Peace Research Institute Oslo in Norway and The Heritage Institute in Mogadishu, Humphrey School researchers interviewed members of the Somali diaspora who had returned to help their home country rebuild. Despite a deep desire to help, the Somali diaspora reported considerable barriers to their work, and researchers have identified several ways the U.S. government and nonprofit or nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) could help create better opportunities for growth and stability.

“Tremendous investments made by the U.S. and governments of other countries have helped create a more safe and stable environment in Somalia, and it’s time to take the next steps,” says Ryan Allen, Humphrey School of Public Affairs associate professor, who worked closely with Humphrey School associate professor Carissa Slotterback and the Mogadishu and Oslo research partners. “Without investments in infrastructure—roads and sewer systems, medical clinics, and schools—it will be hard to help get the economy on better footing, and the U.S. should consider joining other nations currently offering that kind of support.”

Through more than 80 interviews with members of the Somali diaspora who had made a return trip to Somalia, researchers gained deep insights into the personal experiences and observations of the return migrants. Of Somali-Americans living in the Twin Cities of Minnesota who made a return trip, the vast majority stayed in Somalia for less than a year and returned to their jobs and families in Minnesota. While in Somalia, many worked in government or civil society sectors including health care and education. They also attempted to share ideas and experiences from their time in the U.S. in ways that could impact Somalia’s long-term success, such as leadership. (PDF iconDownload somalidiasporahumphreyschoolpolicyreportfinal.pdf (74.47 KB))

One interviewee told researchers he wanted to develop “a plan where I educate the locals about different types of leadership… leadership that is compatible in the twenty-first century.” However, those who returned faced challenges such as difficulty knowing where or how to insert themselves into Somali institutions in order to make a contribution; lack of resources and capacity in institutions to make changes; and an on-going friction with non-diaspora Somalis.

“Several Somali-American returned to Somalia with ideas on how to start businesses and help grow the economy, but we found that because of these challenges, few actually did so or even worked in the private sector,” Allen says. “We’ve concluded that there are important roles for diaspora in the country, and that the contributions of Somalis who return could be strengthened by more support from the U.S. government.” 

Findings suggest a series of policy considerations for U.S. government and civil society institutions:

  • Vigorously support programs that provide short-term returns of highly skilled members of the Somali diaspora to Somalia for development efforts
  • Provide access to sources of venture capital to support entrepreneurs from the diaspora who would like to open businesses in Somalia
  • Under the auspices of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and aid organizations in Somalia, help improve relations between returning members of the diaspora and non-diaspora who live in Somalia
  • Increase support of such infrastructure projects as roads, health clinics, and water sanitation systems to improve the quality of life and increase potential for economic growth
  • Expand partnerships with local government offices and civil society institutions in the Twin Cities to deepen opportunities for diaspora to engage in Somalia

Allen says, “There is a lot of work to be done in Somalia, and there are many members of the diaspora who feel a deep sense of loyalty and commitment to helping their homeland, but they need the U.S. government to not only back their efforts, but create ways to help them do the work.”

With an estimated 30,000 Somali refugees living in Minnesota, the Twin Cities has the largest Somali population outside of Africa. When civil war forced them to flee Somalia in the early 1990s, thousands also settled in Norway. Many have a strong interest in returning to Somalia, sensing great economic opportunities, especially for those who have college degrees and speak English, as well as the opportunity to reconnect with family members and friends who still live there. Researchers found that diaspora experiences with local government, public safety, and nonprofit organizations in their host countries have helped develop certain expectations for how things should operate in Somalia. 

The researchers from all three partner groups collected data in the United States, Norway, and Somalia through interviews and focus group discussions with Somali community members, staff from nonprofit organizations, and representatives from local governments. Nearly all of the interviews were conducted by members of the Somali diaspora and took place between the summers of 2013 and 2014. In the fall of 2014, researchers from Oslo and Mogadishu joined the Humphrey School team in presenting their findings to various U.S. entities including the State Department, the National Security Council, USAID, and a variety of refugee serving non-governmental organizations.

The final policy report, PDF iconDownload somalidiasporahumphreyschoolpolicyreportfinal.pdf (74.47 KB),  is based on research conducted in partnership with the Peace Research Institute in Oslo, Norway, and Heritage Institute for Policy Studies in Mogadishu, Somalia. The research was funded by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

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