Jul 7, 2012
Center for Democracy and Civil Society

Is Capacity Enough? Puntland Edition

Earlier this week, my colleague, Andrea, had a great post about her experiences in Mozambique. She relayed some important stories and trends from NGO workers that engage journalists, as well the frustrations felt by those same development practitioners when they confront deep-set corruption within the media and government. Diligent monitoring, investigative reporting, objective research, and quality writing are all important, for both NGOs and members of the media. But skills are not enough, Andrea argues, particularly when the media’s “pay-for-play” culture combines with a powerful government determined to silence dissent — sometimes by paying a media outlet to not publish a story, and other times by inviting that outlet’s corporate owner to join the governing political party.

Capacity building as a mechanism for positive change has long been an attractive concept for the international aid community. But as Andrea rightly points out through her own work, capacity is not synonymous with efficacy, and much of the long arc toward development depends upon the system and its corresponding culture and constraints. Providing journalists with professional skills does not ensure that those individuals will wield those skills for the purpose we would hope. And the same is true in other areas often targeted for capacity building as well, such as political parties or state institutions.

This debate is also receiving new life in the northern Somali region of Puntland, a semi-autonomous state that has adopted its own constitution in the hopes of embarking on a path toward political and economic development independent of whether Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government in Mogadishu can negotiate a political confederation among Somalia’s three regions (Somaliland and South-Central being the other two). Puntland’s new constitution, designed in late 2009 but only recently translated into English, envisions a balance of Islamic Sharia and democratic liberalism. It establishes a multi-party electoral system for the first time, and delineates the government’s structure with corresponding provisions to protect individual rights and promote the economic and social well-being of all Puntland citizens. In many ways, the document goes much further than the U.S. constitution in explicitly laying out the state’s responsibility to provide for universal education, universal health care, employment opportunities for all, and a corruption-free government that places the public good over clan or provincial interests.

Yet, the opportunity created by this historic transition to democracy has also led to a flurry of opinion about how best to build the emergent Puntland State. And the conversation often breaks down along the familiar lines of capacity and skills versus institutional and political incentives — though with an additional flavor of vertical and horizontal approaches. With a framework for democratic pluralism in place, some propose to work with government to consolidate its new institutions and facilitate the distribution of services. Others, concerned first and foremost with social cohesion and the horizontal relationships among society, hope to target multiple points of social and economic vulnerability to empower communities and raise their productive potential. Examples of this include vocational programs for at-risk youth, training and micro-grants for ambitious entrepreneurs, and targeted education that seeks to impart new skills for traditional nomadic lifestyles. Civil society development is an oft-mentioned component as well, and neighborhood committees have been established to serve as semi-official liaisons between communities and their government. The hope is fairly conventional — that they will collect citizen concerns, organize them into specific policy areas, relay that information upward through both public and private advocacy, and transmit information about government policy back into the community.

In many ways, this programmatic mix of political, social, and economic development is a reasonable approach for something as ambitious as state-building in a place with a diverse clan culture, a largely traditional economy, and little history of strong governance. But it also raises an important question: Along the two spectrums of capacity versus incentives, and horizontal versus vertical, what is a reasonable approach for individual local NGOs that see massive opportunity for action, but hope to maintain strategic coherence?

For its part, the OECD views the state-building enterprise as, “purposeful action to develop the capacity, institutions and legitimacy of the state in relation to an effective political process for negotiating the mutual demands between state and societal groups.”  When pursued together, “capacity and resources, institutions, legitimacy and an effective political process combine to produce resilience.” This seems an interesting approach, using the implicit argument that capacity is only useful when it contributes to a constructive negotiation between society and the state to satisfy mutual needs. In this framework, state-building should serve the goal of building legitimacy, since the process of doing so indicates that the community has successfully petitioned the state to the point where the government has, to some extent, satisfied its responsibility to meet mutually agreed upon societal needs, which often double as targets for international aid. These might be anything from employment opportunities, to education, to health care, to simple security.

Or put another way — political development may lead to a reconfiguration of incentives, bringing true (domestic, rather than international) action to the principles enshrined in Puntland’s new constitution. How might one facilitate this political development? Perhaps this is where local NGOs might come in. And the neighborhood committees mentioned above are an interesting manifestation of this approach. They incorporate the capacity building component of development for the specific purpose of becoming effective citizen advocates.

There may be other useful programs to complement these committees as well, particularly with Puntland’s new multi-party system. Once political parties register with the government, perhaps aid organizations can work with these new groups to develop their capacity to build coherent agendas and communicate these platforms to the public using, in part, the neighborhood committees, which ideally will remain non-partisan actors and serve as neutral forums for public debate. Building upon the media challenges and constraints that Andrea referenced in Mozambique, community radio stations could be established to distribute unfiltered information about the government, advertise community events, and encourage citizens to engage in the conversation over community needs and opportunities.

Together, these programs and others might begin to create functional lines of communication and accountability between communities and their leaders, combining capacity with political engagement to exploit the new opportunities presented by Puntland’s new multi-party electoral system. Of course, much also depends on the specifics of this new system and its arrangement of political institutions. The new constitution does create a few dilemmas and potential roadblocks, but I’ll try to address some of those issues in a future post.



  • Very interesting post. Can you tell us more about the Constitution of Puntland though? And about the political incentives… for example, this part – “neighborhood committees, which ideally will remain non-partisan actors and serve as neutral forums for public debate”. If it was here in Mozambique, Im pretty sure it would get contaminated with party politics in no time. There are “cells” of Frelimo in most public forums and institutions. How much hope can we have of unbiased associations in Somalia? Im also curious about how to encourage change in incentives. Seems like a very arduous process. What do you think?

  • Ex ante, I don’t think we have much of an idea of what will work – I certainly have no idea. This is why ethnographic data collection is so important: who are the local actors and what are their incentives and capacities? Are there organizations whose work you can support? Also, I would not worry so much about finding unbiased organizations – I don’t think they exist. Political power is a finite resource. There is no way you can expand the power of all people in society. Rather, the challenge is to redistribute it from more powerful groups to less powerful ones.

  • […] Puntland is undergoing a democratic transition, sometimes the biggest challenges remain the most basic: creating […]

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