Somalia’s First Think Tanker on His Country: It’s a ‘Researcher’s Gold Mine’

This week, for the sixth time in a row, Somalia topped Foreign Policy’s Failed States Index, reinforcing its image as “the most failed of failed states.” And while it’s true that the country remains fragmented, with two autonomous breakaway regions, a persistent terrorist threat from al Qaeda-linked al-Shabab fighters, and foreign-financed warlords in the wide swaths of the country beyond the sovereign control of the central government, Somalia has taken tenuous steps toward asserting self-governance in the past year. The mandate of Somalia’s transitional government ended in August 2012, and since then the country has come under the control of a new government in Mogadishu, formed under the auspices of a constitution approved in 2012.

In step with these developments, the new Somali political scene is quickly acquiring the trappings of other, more functional governments — including the country’s first think tank. Established in Mogadishu in January 2013, the Heritage Institute for Policy Studies (HIPS) has begun writing reports and policy papers to advise the nascent Somali government, international organizations, and other local actors. In its first six months, HIPS has provided commentary and guidance on topics as diverse as Somali refugees in Kenya, educational opportunities in Somalia, and domestic diplomatic initiatives in Kismayo and the self-declared state of Somaliland.

“In Somalia, everything is a priority and it is a researcher’s goldmine,” Abdi Aynte, the institute’s director, told Foreign Policy by email. “Everything that affects … the national fabric is hugely and manifestly under researched.”

“They’ve made a strong start,” James Smith, a Nairobi-based researcher who has worked with HIPS, told FP by email. The institute has drawn together a staff “comprised of mostly Somalis returning from the Diaspora,” Aynte notes. Aynte himself is Somali-American and a former journalist who worked for Voice of America, BBC, and Al Jazeera English; others have come to HIPS after spending time in Britain, Canada, and Sweden. Their publications also draw on conversations during monthly forums with policymakers and stakeholders.

“I think the assessments made thus far in the policy briefings have been fair,” Smith writes, though he notes that some Somalilanders may have chafed at HIPS’s position that the semi-independent state’s “quest to leave the union is growing increasingly untenable.”

Aynte stresses, “As to ideological or political leaning, we are a nonpartisan and research driven institute.” And HIPS hasn’t shied away from critiquing the new government. The institute’s assessment of the government’s first 100 days in office, published in April, pointed out “an unhealthy imbalance between the presidency and the cabinet” and inadequate measures to address corruption, going so far as to call the official response to the country’s currency crisis “incoherent.” An upcoming report will address federalism, Aynte tells FP, calling it “the most controversial issue in Somalia.” HIPS is making “a genuine effort to spark debate and to get people discussing issues,” Smith writes.

And after only six months, HIPS is gathering an audience. They meet regularly with Somali government officials and international diplomats, and Smith tells FP he knows “individuals in the diplomatic and aid communities here in Nairobi that are keeping a close eye on HIPS outputs.”

The real test — for HIPS, the new government, and Somalia as a whole — lies ahead. Aynte is still concerned by the level of violence in Somalia — which has spilled over into Mogadishu in attacks on a judicial complex and a U.N. compound in recent months — and the fractious state of Somali politics. “Somalia is a fragile state,” he tells FP. “If Somali politicians lose sight of the fragility of the situation and indulge in political bickering as some are doing now, the ongoing international support and optimism of all things Somalia could disappear — a prospect Somalia cannot afford let alone entertain.”