ESRC seminar - Bunkers, bubbles and body armour: "Knowing" Somalia from a distance

A seminar was held exploring knowledge production on/in Somalia[1] in Nairobi on 5 September 2017.

The aim of the day was to bring together scholars, practitioners and policy-makers from the region and beyond to explore the political economy of conducting research in, and on, Somalia. Presentations and debate focused on examining how knowledge on Somalia is produced and what kinds of information and narratives are privileged over others in the research and policy process.

The objective of the seminar was to interrogate an emerging paradox in the world of aid and humanitarian support: an ever-increasing focus by major development organisations on providing aid to ‘fragile states’, on the one hand, and a growing reluctance to allow aid workers and researchers to travel to and work in these states, on the other.

Somalia is perhaps the clearest example of this contradiction: it receives over US$1 billion in aid annually from the same donors who also advise their citizens against all travel there. Much international engagement on Somalia occurs at a distance, with direct engagement between local communities and those producing knowledge on them heavily restricted and circumscribed. This situation raises major questions about the evidence base upon which policy interventions are undertaken and, more broadly, how far what we know about Somalia reflects the perspectives and experiences of those living there. These questions were the focal point of the day’s discussions.

Funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (Award ES/N008367/1), the event was supported and co-sponsored by Somalia NGO Consortium and the Rift Valley Institute respectively and included input from colleagues based in Mogadishu, Hargeisa, Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, the UAE, US and UK. Contributors were drawn from a range of universities, research centres, policy institutes, consultancy groups and I/NGOs. Representatives from the African Union, Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, DFID Somalia, UK Embassy Mogadishu and UN Somalia also participated.

Key Findings and Implications

The political economy of research on, and in, Somalia distorts and restricts our ability to understand everyday livelihoods, experiences and needs on the ground. It is in the interests of international policy-makers and practitioners to help build capacity for independent, critical research in Somalia to avoid the production of knowledge which suits their agendas.

  • Much research on – and in – Somalia is produced in an echo chamber, driven by aid donors and their demands, agendas, funding, paradigms, timescales and dissemination protocols.
  • Research narratives on Somalia therefore reflect international policy priorities – security, counter-insurgency, piracy, migration, terrorism etc – with space for alternative perspectives and positive narratives closed-off.
  • Somali researchers’ ability to challenge this state of affairs is restricted by: heavy reliance on donor support as well as a lack of government funding and research capacity-building.
  • The production of nuanced analysis on, and in Somalia, is restricted less by issues of perceived risk or access and more these issues of agenda-setting, capacity and resources. The latter lead to some communities, themes and regions (eg urban sites) being over-researched, and others (eg gender dynamics, rural livelihoods etc) being under-researched.

Somalia’s Research Echo Chamber

Participants sought to nuance and challenge aspects of the ‘bunkerization of aid’ literature – which suggests that our ability to gather data on, and in, conflict-affected regions is now heavily-restricted as a result of donor and university security protocols, risk assessment procedures and insurance regulations. In the words of one participant:

You can pretty much find out whatever you like in Somalia. The problem is what to do with it – its useability.

A key point reiterated throughout the day in this regard was that the bulk of research on and in Somalia is commissioned and funded by external – primarily Western – governments and organisations and that domestic (government/university/foundations) investment in research and research capacity-building is limited. This means that:

  • Research agendas are driven by donor concerns and paradigms of what is ‘important to know’ about Somalia vis-à-vis policy. This entails a prioritisation of research into issues of interest to international actors – particularly around security, extremism and migration – and a focus on intellectual and normative frameworks designed and developed externally (eg security sector reform). It also means an imbalance in the production of research on urban areas and communities compared to rural areas and communities, and a lack of focus on other areas of research affecting Somalis and Somalia, including gender dynamics, everyday resilience and livelihood experiences, socio-cultural phenomena and Somali history and literature.
  • Somalia-based researchers have very limited capacity to set the research agenda, initiate research enquiry or challenge external agenda-setting on Somalia research. In the words of one Somaliland-based researcher:

There is a need for local organisations to speak up to donors as they are the local experts who know what does and does not work – but they are often worried about the power imbalance and the funding being withdrawn if they push back.

  •  Somali research institutions lack the ability to build longer-term capacity for independent, critical research within Somalia itself. Most research projects are short-termist, both with regard to their lifetime and remit, and lack capacity-building or knowledge transfer/institutional memory elements. Somali researchers are used primarily to gather data rather than to co-produce knowledge. ‘We are used just as data collectors most of the time’, noted one participant, ‘it is very extractive’.
  • Knowledge produced on Somalia is often inaccessible to Somalis, and wider audiences. Donors rarely permit the dissemination of research findings they have commissioned in/on Somalia, and often classify research products post-hoc when their contents are considered ‘confidential’, ‘sensitive’ or likely to lead to criticism of a particular programme. Even when dissemination is possible, such products are often written in English only or published behind journal pay-walls which are inaccessible to most Somalia-based researchers. ‘There is an issue’, one participant, ‘with the ownership of research on Somalia’.

The Diaspora, the “Local” and Somali-generated Knowledge

Participants cautioned against constructing a generalised, essentialised ‘Somali researcher’ in discussing the production of ‘local’ knowledge on, and in, Somalia. They noted that often those ‘locals’ commissioned by donors and international organisations to lead research projects in Somalia are members of the diaspora, who have been trained in Western universities in Western research methods and frameworks.

Participants highlighted the ‘epistemic community of Somalia diaspora experts’ and its role as a key gatekeeper in the production of global narratives on Somalia. This community, they suggested:

  • Shares common characteristics and experiences;
  • Works closely with international policy-makers and practitioners and is often a ‘go-to’ source of information for these actors in Western capitals, as well as within Somalia itself;
  • Are fully versed in policy language and priorities, able to translate complex research findings into brief recommendations for policy-makers;
  • Is composed largely of individuals educated and living outside of Somalia.

Participants argued for a more critical interrogation of the role of this community, and reflection on how far its members challenge or undergird the prevailing political economy of knowledge production on, and in, Somalia. They expressed concern that, at times, diaspora researchers are viewed externally as being a gateway to knowledge on local experiences (‘fetishized by donors’, as one participant put it) when, in fact, they sometimes lack the degree of local buy-in and indigenous knowledge required to engage substantively and meaningfully with Somali communities. As one participant reflected, ‘you have to know enough to know what kind of questions are important, and what kind of questions are intelligent questions’.

The group also emphasised the different versions of the ‘local’ in Somalia; an issue often obscured in policy and research analysis. They stressed the different experiences of urban and rural communities – noting that a ‘local’ of Mogadishu, is local only to Mogadishu and not, necessarily, to the rest of Somalia. They also underlined the heavily gendered nature of knowledge production in Somalia, arguing that most research projects there are led by men, who tend to focus on women as vulnerable and as victims rather than as actors with agency and as contributors to society and, indeed, conflict.

Finally, participants argued for a recognition of non-policy relevant knowledge being produced on, and in, Somalia – and the contribution it can and should make to our understanding of Somalia. This includes work on literature, history and poetry, for example, and challenges researchers to move beyond quantitative and interview-based data collection tools to incorporate other methodologies including the use of life stories. Doing so entails a greater recognition of the significance of embedded knowledge by external actors and a challenging of the current political economy of much Somalia research where, as one participant put it ‘researchers visit for two to three weeks and then return to Europe and call themselves experts’.

Embedded Knowledge:

In explaining the idea of local or ‘embedded knowledge’ in Somalia research, one participant told the following story:

A teacher in Somalia tells her class about a pen of five goats and asks how many goats would be left after one jumps out. In a European classroom, the children might answer ‘four’ but in a Somali classroom they would answer ‘none’ because they know that the other four goats will immediately follow the one jumping out!

Policy Implications

There is extensive, and growing, policy engagement on Somalia – in 2016-2017, more than USD 1 billion was provided to Somalia as aid.

Donors and practitioners want their programmes to be based on informed and accurate analysis of the evolving situation on the ground in order to ensure that interventions are feasible, deliverable and responsive to potential challenges - from the design stage through to the conclusion.

The current political economy of research on – and in – Somalia, however, is not aligned with the achievement of this objective.

This is because the production of knowledge on Somalia is largely extractive - driven by questions and concerns posed by external actors and mediated by diaspora communities. Somali researchers’ reliance on short-term, external funding means that space for critical engagement on the feasibility of programme objectives and plans between donors and Somalis is heavily circumscribed. Lack of domestic or external investment in longer-term research capacity-building in Somalia itself also means that a lack of independent, critical research on Somalia exists to question and challenge ‘what works’ and what does not in relation to international interventions. Where research should be helping to guide and improve the design and impact of international interventions it is, in fact, more often simply telling donors what they want to hear.

Major donors, including the World Bank and DFID, now agree that successful programming relies upon local buy-in, adaptive and learning-based approaches and a good understanding of local contexts, interests and challenges. The research landscape in Somalia, Somaliland and Puntland is vibrant and dynamic and offers a potentially vital source of support to international donors in this regard. To represent an effective pool of expertise, however, it must be empowered to develop and grow as an independent and critical network of scholars and institutions. Somali researchers and institutions are uniquely placed to offer informed advice and guidance on interventions in Somalia but require space and support to develop critiques of policy without fear that funding will be cut. Likewise, they require space to think beyond current donor-defined frameworks of Somalia’s main challenges.

The seminar’s findings therefore suggest a need for a recalibration of donor support for research on – and in – Somalia. To address the issues raised above:

  • greater support should be provided to Somali policy institutes, research centres and universities to train and develop their research capacity and, critically, to embed research time into academics’ contracts and workloads.
  • Donors should also reflect on the research ownership and dissemination strategies built into-their research projects, and ensure that building researcher capacity is incorporated into even short-term programmes.
  • Donors should seek to engender greater room for agenda-setting by Somali scholars by funding research ‘hubs’ based within Somali institutions. These hubs, which would be funded for a minimum of 3-5 years, would be focused on a general area of donor interest (‘livelihoods’; ‘security’) but the Somali institution would be empowered to design and commission the research projects being undertaken within this theme as part of the hub’s work. This is a model which has been used with much success by donors such as DFID and Australia’s Department for Foreign Affairs and Trade in its provision of funding to UK- and Australia-based. It is also a central research funding delivery mechanism of the UK’s current Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF).


[1] Unless otherwise stated, ‘Somalia’ is used as shorthand throughout this summary for Somalia, Somaliland and Puntland.