Roots of Somalia's Crisis in the International Effort to Assist Somalia's Reconstruction, the Focus of Aid Should Be on the Rural, Pastoral Sector, Not on the Cities

By Bruce Byers. Dr. Bruce Byers, an ecologist, is a member of the Ecological Security Commission of the International Peace Research Association. | The Christian Science Monitor, December 24, 1992 | Go to article overview

Roots of Somalia's Crisis in the International Effort to Assist Somalia's Reconstruction, the Focus of Aid Should Be on the Rural, Pastoral Sector, Not on the Cities


Bruce Byers. Dr. Bruce Byers, an ecologist, is a member of the Ecological Security Commission of the International Peace Research Association., The Christian Science Monitor


THE belief that the vast human tragedy in Somalia will finally end now that American troops are restoring order and speeding the delivery of relief supplies assumes that political anarchy and clan feuding are the cause of the violence and starvation there.

This assumption may be correct, but shortsighted. A long-term view is that the crisis is caused, not by a temporary breakdown of Somali political institutions, but by a century of economic "development" that was disastrous for Somalia, both ecologically and socially.

Unsustainable "development" began in Somalia at the end of the last century, when Great Britain and Italy imposed colonial economic systems on the traditional nomadic herding culture. The British redesigned the pastoral subsistence economy to produce a surplus of livestock for export to the port of Aden. This commercialization of the pastoral economy expanded during the colonial era, and still more after Somalia became independent in 1960. Since 1955 exports of sheep, goats, and cattle have increased at least tenfold, and of camels twentyfold. Livestock now account for about three-fourths of the country's export earnings. This production of a surplus of animals has led to overgrazing, soil erosion, and degradation of Somalia's range lands.

After Somalia became independent, well-meaning international development aid paid for the drilling of wells in the arid range lands. This frequently induced nomads to settle around the wells, which in turn led to local overgrazing and desertification. Such "development" showed little or no understanding of the ecological sophistication of traditional pastoralism.

Ethiopian expansionism also changed nomadic life for Somalis. Between 1887 and 1904 the Ethiopian Emperor Menelik conquered the Somali-inhabited Ogaden region. With the concurrence of the British and Italians, national borders were drawn up, splitting the ecologically and ethnically uniform region between Ethiopia and what later became Somalia. The result is an unnatural border that has restricted the traditional migrations of Somali herders to this seasonally lush region.

The settling of nomads increased population growth in Somalia. One demographic study found annual population growth rates of 1.7 percent among nomads, 2.2 percent among settled people, and 4.9 percent among city dwellers. The country's overall population growth rate is now about 3 percent a year. At this rate, the current population of about 7 million people will double in less than 25 years.

The current Somali conflict is also a legacy of the cold war. Because of its strategic location near the oilfields of the Middle East, both superpowers formed military alliances with governments in the Horn of Africa, and poured weapons into the region for almost four decades. …

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