When less is more: external assistance and the political settlement in Somaliland

Sarah G Phillips


This article uses a political settlement framework to explore the configuration of power that underpinned the establishment and maintenance of peace in Somaliland. It explores the ways in which the country’s isolation fostered mutual dependence between powerful political and economic actors for their survival and prosperity, and challenges underlying assumptions of western statebuilding and post-conflict transition models. It argues that the case of Somaliland shows how allowing space for local agency and the mutual dependence of key stakeholders may have long-term political benefits in developing states. However, this is at the expense of external actors’ need to demonstrate their worth in the process of developmental change and their standard structures and procedures.

Somaliland is an example of peace and relative order in the absence of a government with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. The absence of external actors also means Somaliland presents a case in which domestic drivers of peace and development may be examined in the absence of aid and other forms of international intervention as significant variables. While the country’s independence was announced in 1991, Somaliland has never been formally recognised. As a result, the government has had limited ability to generate wealth and negligible access to external capital, including:  natural resources, multilateral loans, and international private investment due to a lack of commercial insurance and the protection of international commercial law.

Less external involvement has meant a greater need for local elites to work together to retain their positions of power, and greater political space for local solutions to emerge in a way that is much more autonomous than the ‘local ownership’ rhetoric in contemporary statebuilding and development discourses. The broad tenets of Somaliland’s political settlement were negotiated almost entirely outside the political economies of international aid and finance, challenging the assumption that external assistance is necessary to end large-scale violence in developing states. They were also negotiated without externally-driven expectations or benchmarks drawn from the Weberian logic of effective governance institutions as a pre-requisite of enduring peace. Rather than lead to failure, the weakness of Somaliland’s institutions appears to have created a logic upon which order rests.   The highly exclusive implicit bargain between political and economic elites laid the foundations for the concentration of economic opportunity in the hands of the few undermines the notion that a more inclusive political settlement means greater popular legitimacy.

The inherent fluidity and indeterminacy in establishing a durable political settlement may be incompatible with the structural requirement of donor agencies.  The case of Somaliland suggests that if donors wish to engage more effectively in developing contexts they need to take a longer term view of political transformation. This requires moving away from an expectation of tangible positive results within the time-frame of a donor funding cycle or the tenure of members of staff. Questions of control are at issue: Is external actors’ need to be visible compatible with their objectives to facilitate peace and development?  If not, can they step back from control while maintaining funding? Internal and external structures are often seen as mutually exclusive, but the political economy of donor countries and agencies influences the structures of international assistance.


Phillips, S.G. (2016). When less was more: external assistance and the political settlement in Somaliland. International Affairs 92 (3), 692-645.