Somalis living abroad send home more than US$1 billion – perhaps even as much as $2 billion – every year, and they have kept on doing so, despite bureaucratic obstacles. Now a report commissioned by the UN Development Programme (UNDP) considers how the outside world can help Somalis abroad contribute to the country’s development.
Almost every member of the Somali diaspora sends money home to their family, to help with food, rent, school fees and other daily expenses. But clan and hometown groups also collect money to build schools and clinics, even hospitals and universities, and to repair damaged infrastructure. Professionals in the diaspora support their colleagues back home with money and expertise. And investors help entrepreneurs, large and small, to create business ranging from tea stalls to international mobile phone companies.
The study was written by Ali Ibrahim Dagagne, an agriculture and livestock specialist who used to work with UNDP, and Laura Hammond of London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies. Hammond hails the effectiveness of diaspora support as one of Somalia’s success stories. “The Somali diaspora have succeeded in some ways where the international community has not been able to succeed,” she says. “Over the past 20 years, since the state collapsed, the diaspora has been a lifeline really for the country, and one of the reasons why we haven’t seen much more suffering.”
While the international community has concentrated predominantly on humanitarian relief, the diaspora is more engaged in reconstruction and development, and their money reaches parts of the country where international organizations and foreign-supported NGOs find it very hard to work. Most of the money sent home goes through kinship and similar networks and because people are personally known to each other, the level of trust between donors and recipients is very high.
The money is usually sent via the hawala system of money transfer agents, some of which, like Dahabshiil, have grown into major international companies. “One of the amazing things,” says Hammond, “is that the transfer industry has moved with the people, and so even if people have been displaced, you are still able to reach them, because the agent on the receiving end has moved as well.”
The report identifies various problems, some related to the marginalized nature of diaspora communities. Somalis tend to have to wait longer than most migrants for their status to be recognised, they struggle to find employment and stable housing, and low wages mean they have little money to send. Once communities get more settled and better integrated, their ability to help increases; the authors think the countries where they settle could do more to speed up this integration.
Even where help might be available, Somalis do not always use it. Some community associations, for instance, are registered as charities in Britain, but many more are not, simply because their founders do not understand this means they would get substantial extra funds from tax rebates. The authors also found suspicion and mistrust of international organizations, which prevented what could be useful collaboration on projects in Somalia.
Finally, the Somali diaspora and their money transfer companies have had to cope with the fallout of 9/11. Banks in the US have stopped dealing with them, and compliance regulations have become ever stricter. Individuals and community groups fear falling under suspicion of fund-raising for Al-Shabab or Al-Qaeda.
Dagagne and Hammond say the challenge for the international community is to work out how to help without interfering. They can provide a more enabling environment, encourage collaboration, and seek to create a multiplier effect.
Making a difference
At the launch of the report, Safi Farah and Sahra Abdillahi, both from Somaliland, a self-declared independent northwestern province, spoke to IRIN. They work with Somali women’s groups in the UK and collect money from the community for clinics and hospitals. Abdillahi said: “We raise money to build hospitals, to build schools, to train midwives. And when something bad happens, like the recent drought, we clubbed together with Islington Council and we raised half a million.” They say they want help in the form of training and funding, so they can do the work rather than using outsiders who do not understand the language or the culture.
Mohamed Abdulkadir is a young mental health worker. He told IRIN, “My parents and four of my young brothers and sisters are in Kismayo, which is still in the hands of Al-Shabab, and I was glad this study has come out really, because it will make the western world understand that we are sending [money] to our parents, not to Al-Shabab. Because here when we send money they will say, ‘Where does it go?’ There is suspicion about where the money goes.”
Abdulkadir would like to visit his parents, but feels he cannot because, as a young man going to an Al-Shabab area, he would fall under suspicion.
Mohamed Keenan said he was one of those who struggled to find the money to send to his aunts and sister in Mogadishu. But for him the only thing that can really help is political stability. “As long as it is politically stable, then people can go out and get a job, and I can save my [$100] a month and go back there myself and contribute.”