Learning in context

Research and knowledge systems in difficult places part 3: Somalia and Somaliland

By 20 October 2016

This is part three of Jon Harle’s series presenting learning about doing research and using evidence in “difficult places”. With new papers on South Sudan and Liberia. Today he turns to the Somali regions.

Looking beyond the headlines

Somali has become almost synonymous with the term “failed state”, and Somalis have certainly suffered years of conflict and hardship.

But the label of failed state, and the stories of war and refugees disguise a region of complex, adaptive and resilient political, social and economic systems.

Similarly, there is more going on in research and higher education than I’d certainly imagined.

In our latest viewpoints paper, Faduma Abukar Mursal considers the South-Central and Puntland regions of Somalia, while Abdullahi Odowa explores the situation in the self-declared Republic of Somaliland. Jason Mosley provides an introductory piece of political analysis, which places the subsequent accounts of the research and knowledge systems in their broader context.

Going deeper

Of the “difficult places” we’ve explored in this series, we decided to go deeper in our exploration of Somalia and Somaliand. Building on Faduma and Abdullahi’s analysis, in March we joined forces with the Rift Valley Institute in Nairobi to host a roundtable on research and knowledge systems in the Somali regions, bringing together a group of Somali researchers from think tanks and universities.

Taken together, this analysis and debate have helped us understand more about how and where and why research is done in the Somali regions, and how institutions of knowledge and higher education and analysis are being developed or rebuilt.

Research demand in difficult environments

In some cases this is within an environment of fierce political competition, particularly clan politics, difficult relationships between the federal states and Mogadishu, and in some areas considerable insecurity as a result of Al-Shabaab.  In other parts of the region, such as Somaliland, greater political stability and security offers different possibilities.

But despite these considerable challenges, it was clear during the roundtable that there is a real energy in the region for doing research that can really contribute to Somali needs, and for building the system to enable this. What does seem to be lacking is the demand from those who might use it – particularly decision makers in government, but also the communities who are often the subjects of research, but rarely see its results.

Donor-driven research in an eroded state

There are some clear – though perhaps unsurprising – similarities with the accounts of South Sudan and Liberia: notably the extent to which an eroded state has left UN agencies, donors and NGOs to shape the ways how research and knowledge are pursued.

Research is generally not a priority for government, there is relatively little interest in evidence within government agencies, and as a result there are no national or sub-national agendas for research.  “Research for development” can easily become “research for development partners” as a result, and for the communities that researchers visit on monitoring and evaluation contracts to gather data and conduct interviews, fatigue begins to set in.

Too often, research is done by foreign academics, is written in English, and Somali researchers are relegated to the role of data gathers. International NGOs tend to be most active and as a result they and their work are often far better connected to policy and practice than Somali institutions and individuals.

Even where local universities are involved in research as consultants, it often doesn’t get published because the “donors take it with them”.

A further side effect of donor driven agenda is research that is uncoordinated and scattered – giving little opportunity for Somali researchers to build up expertise in specific areas. Instead their attention has to follow the next consultancy contract, and often good teams are lost as projects come and go.

Somali foundations

A number of Somali NGOs and research institutes have nevertheless emerged and survived over the years, and developed a good reputation for the quality of their analysis and research. While still working predominantly to donor contracts, and while there are evident weaknesses in capacity, they demonstrate that some of foundations for a stronger research system do exist.

Even without a strong central state, there has also been huge growth in higher education, with many, typically private universities opening up. Mogadishu alone has around 40. In Somaliland there have been greater efforts to regulate the growing university system, with a commission for higher education established and 26 universities formally registered.

Quality is often poor, however, with limited facilities and under-qualified staff and with universities often seen as a business enterprise rather than as institutions of education and scholarship. Research activity is limited and there are no PhD programmes, but centres of research are beginning to emerge within the universities.

Where to next?

We’ve only just begun to learn about the Somali context, and we’re deliberately publishing these reports to enable others to help us fill in some of the gaps in our knowledge. But if one thing’s clear it’s that there’s an energy in Somalia for developing its research and knowledge, and that’s something we think we can contribute to, albeit in modest ways.

This blog was originally published on the INASP website.

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