Six months ago, the UN announced that Somalia was in severe humanitarian crisis, suffering the worst drought in 60 years. According to a UN estimate, 2.8 million people in southern Somalia alone required food aid. And the problem was greatly exacerbated by the Islamist militant group al-Shabaab, which controls much of the area. All UN agencies have been banned from operations by al-Shabaab since 2009, a ban that they refused to lift in light of the crisis. The UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) airlifted food supplies, but the delivery chain was problematic and relief efforts were severely restricted by security considerations.
Europe and America received criticism for their slow and wary response to the crisis, but their caution was not entirely unjustified: Somalia is one of the bloodiest places in the world for aid workers and the WFP has lost 14 people in Somalia in the last 3 years. Since a famine was declared, aid workers, accused of having a political agenda, have been bombed, shot at and kidnapped. In January this year, MSF, one of the few international NGOs still operating in Somalia, was forced to withdraw two of its key operations in Mogadishu following the assassination of two staff members in the organisation’s office.
Against a backdrop of declining security, one encouraging development has been the role Turkey has carved out for itself in the Somalia relief effort. Turkey, a Muslim nation with an identity that has long teetered on the edge of Europe, has found its political niche in straddling East and West. Turkey is a Muslim country that understands Europe and America's concerns but is independent of them. It has a strong economy and the ability to design a country-specific approach without the cumbersome behemoths of Western aid hampering its response.
Nowhere is its advantage better illustrated than in Somalia.
In August last year, Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan flew to Mogadishu in quick response to the famine, having arranged for the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation to make $350 million available for relief efforts in the country. Erdogan was the first foreign leader to visit Somalia in two decades. Not only did he visit, but he took his family with him. The people of Somalia responded with overwhelming gratitude; thousands of newborn children were reportedly given the names Erdogan and Istanbul after the visit.
Since then, Turkish aid-workers have operated freely and safely in the city with no incidents of conflict reported to date. Turkey has started a commercial flight path out of Mogadishu and is providing for Somali students to travel to Turkey to study. Turkey is also working on key infrastructural developments in Somalia, including hospitals, road surfacing, public buildings and sanitation. This is the kind of work that Western powers have been unable to do, and which many say is exactly what Mogadishu needs.
Many Western nations admire Turkey's approach, but have little hope of truly emulating its successes. Speaking to Foreign Policy magazine, Erdogan said that he believed Somalia had in fact been partly abandoned by the international community, citing the number of international NGOs working on Somalia but based elsewhere such as Kenya. Indeed, many aid workers are very reluctant to visit the country given the alarming and ever-increasing rate of kidnaps.
For Turkey, the success of its Somali aid programme is just one part of a new sense of confidence and ambition. As Turkey's reputation as a middle-man grows, so will its role in the international community. And having dallied on the edge of Europe for two decades, Turkey is watching the euro zone crisis unfold at a distance. According to government figures, Turkey's economy grew at a rate of 8.9% in 2010, far ahead of the OECD average for the 12 richest countries, which was just 2.8%. Under Erdogan, Turkey has successfully developed a new constitution that will usher in its development goal of becoming the tenth biggest economy in the world by 2023.
According to Foreign Policy magazine, Turkey is set to become a “global roundabout – a place where ideas, people, and goods flow from across the world”. Somalia may well be a trade and investment prospect as well as an opportunity for Turkey to increase its soft power. This may be the year that we see considerable foreign direct investment in Somalia for the first time. As Newsweek reports, a new banking venture has begun, two hotels are to open up in the capital Mogadishu and slowly, as African Union troops wrest control from al-Shabaab and work towards establishing stability under the transitional government, members of the Somali diaspora are beginning to return to their city.
Turkey is in a valuable position, both in terms of the benefits it can deliver to the rest of the world, and those it can reap itself. Somalia is the perfect example of how it can use its unique position to great advantage.
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