Hope on the Horizon?

This week in London, there was a conference which you probably won’t even know took place. But it could turn out to be one of the most important meetings of our lifetime.

Somalia. The very symbol of anarchy? A failed state; a country in disarray. Conflict-ridden and in dire poverty, it is one of the most dangerous nations on earth. Interestingly, the international community have put a lot of time and energy into ignoring its plight. That is, until this week, when the London Conference on Somalia took place; a gathering of 40 high-profile delegates, including Hilary Clinton and Ban Ki-moon. The aim? To try and find a way to help Somalia end its status as a failed state.

Zoom in on Google Earth and you’ll see a capital city which, from above, looks similar to any other in the region. That is, until you look at the photos uploaded by users – a collection of crashed MiGs rotting in the sand, one crashed in the middle of a residential area, and various former diplomatic buildings with gunshot marks and blown out windows. But in aerial photos, Caribbean-esque beaches merely hint at the vast potential of this nation. This, combined with its geographical location, proximity to emerging markets in Asia, access to the Arabian Peninsula, the Suez and onwards to the Med, should tell us something: this country can develop, and it has the potential to be one of globalisation’s true success stories.

But this image is far from reality, and Somalia is not the first destination on everyone’s bucket list. It does, bizarrely, have a tourism minister in its mismatch of a government which effectively operates out of a hotel in neighbouring Kenya. He has, perhaps, the world’s hardest job, but very little to do. Ever an optimist, the minister Mr Jamale has said to The Economist “Tourists can still go and see the beautiful sights; the only problem is they’re all totally destroyed”, and on his quest to build a national park he said “Most of the animals have disappeared too, because we have eaten them”. Tourists would at least be able to pick up some unusual bargains – a grenade for $10, for example.

In its current state, Somalia is a huge threat to the international community. It harbours warlordism, terrorism and piracy, and is a recruitment ground for Al-Shabaab militants from across the globe. Pirates are travelling further and further from their shores, into one of the world’s largest shipping routes, the Gulf of Aden; the resulting annual losses to the international economy are between $6.6 and $6.9bn. And with Al-Shabaab formally joining Al-Qaeda, the international community have little choice but to act. It’s astounding that they have not acted sooner, for moral reasons, if nothing else. Despite the recent drought and famine in the country, Al-Shabaab militants have denied access to humanitarian agencies and are preventing any UN assistance in the country.

We can (and should) hope that the London Conference will make a difference. Sadly, the UK’s reaction has been all too traditional as they “weighed up air strikes against rebels”. Increased military action will solve nothing. It will actually strengthen rebel forces. Yet establishing a “democratic and stable government” is far from easy. I do not claim to know the answer, but I hope I am raising awareness of an issue which, although it seems so far away, should not be left unconsidered by Oxford students. Perhaps Mr Jimale offers some hope – “I’m sure tourists would leave Somalia alive and I’m hopeful they wouldn’t be kidnapped,” he says. “At least, we would try to make sure they were not kidnapped, although it can happen”. Ever an optimist? Nevertheless, what is clear is that Somalia cannot continue in its present state for any longer. Something must be done.

For more information on Somalia, and the London Conference, The Guardian has a dedicated web section on the country – http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/somalia

-Sam Iles