Yesterday UK Prime Minister David Cameron brought together world leaders in London to discuss the on-going crisis in Somalia. Somalia is a tragic case of state collapse, and looking closely at events there can tell us important things about the relationship between conflict and humanitarian crises, and how outsiders should respond to help. For this reason, a refocusing on Somalia’s multiple challenges is a positive step, and yet promises of aid and increased international support may prove fruitless if we cannot avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.

In the 21 years since the fall of President Barre, Somalia has attempted to form 14 governments, each of which has failed to extend their influence far beyond Mogadishu. Successive central governments have been rejected by the largely clan-based regional power structures which view them as corrupt and externally imposed. Donor money – largely from Western countries – has poured into supporting these governments and the AU security forces which protect them. These externally brokered state-building projects have proved time-and-time again to hold little currency in Somali society. Yesterday’s conference demonstrated few signs of this trend being reversed, with increased support pledged by donor countries geared towards supporting more of the same. This follows a familiar pattern of state-building deals that squeeze out Somali priorities and traditions in favour of international logic; the signing of the Garowe Principles in June 2011 in Kampala being the latest example.

The question now then is not if a Somali-led conception of 'statehood' can work, but rather if the international community is prepared to accept it
The failure of this state-building policy has led many to call for a fresh approach to supporting Somalia's fragile government, with the International Crisis Group recently suggesting that "the most effective and durable solution [to achieving peace] is to build gradually an inclusive, more federal structure most clans can support". The supporting evidence for this is strong. In 2005 Somalia formed an internally conceived government blending Islamic law with clan-based governance, and for 6 months established stability in large swathes of Southern Somalia. They were however swiftly dismantled by a disapproving US, who backed the Ethiopian army to intervene, perhaps unhappy that it did not fit the Western mould they had tried for so long to graft onto the country. Evidence too comes from the success of Somaliland in the North, which since declaring independence in 1991 has implemented a hybrid of traditional Somali and Western democratic traditions, and achieved a laudable degree of peace and stability.

The question now then is not if a Somali-led conception of 'statehood' can work, but rather if the international community is prepared to accept it, and then support and respect Somali-led decision-making and traditions. One way in which this can be done is by working in genuine partnership with local communities, and consulting local power brokers to help build stability from the bottom-up. Local dynamics are inextricably linked to how Somalia is governed, and perhaps more importantly – at least for those on the ground - how to build more peaceful communities after 20 years of conflict.

Engaging and supporting Somali ideas

We must lobby those at yesterday's conference in London to prioritise Somali voices and ideas, which remain far too often overlooked.
Important capacity for peace and stability already exists in Somalia, and by supporting it – whether it is through business, community groups or local NGOs – the international community will bolster the chances that any peace process will stick.

The first step in doing this is to move away from a conflict analysis which has been formulated through an external lens. Yesterday’s conference seemed to predominantly focus on the external symptoms of the crisis and the wider threats that Somalia poses to global security and commerce. Centre stage went to piracy, terrorism - in the form of Al-Shabaab and their rejuvenated declaration of links with Al-Qaeda - and the famine that currently blights southern Somalia and the wider Horn of Africa. The end of conference communique pledged to help Somalia 'help itself', yet the approach for doing so seems decisively outsider driven and security-led. But more "Western ships, U.S. drones, African soldiers and international money for the Transitional Federal Government in Mogadishu" will fail to bring about change in Somalia, as Alex de Waal argued in yesterday’s New York Times. This is because for most Somalis, focusing on tackling issues such as piracy is unlikely to muster much support, as it has little bearing in their daily lives. Instead, local drivers of conflict, such as how to maintain grazing rights for cattle or ensure the use of water points, are the most pressing issues for most. The Somali conflict has long-since conformed to an internal logic that has often been missed by outside observers, and it is those in the midst of the conflicts that can offer the insights required to bring about change.

The second step is to take this local analysis and then actively support existing peacebuilding initiatives that seek to address the issues identified, and which are already having a significant impact. Access will be a problem, as too will the continued concern that internationals are inadvertently supporting terrorism. However, peacebuilding organisations such as Saferworld have proved that supporting local groups in Somalia is possible, and within the next month, Insight on Conflict will launch a new section on Somalia, bringing together background information on the conflict, the country, and the local groups trying to stop violence and build peace. By mapping these grassroots peacebuilders, we hope to highlight a vital yet often underutilised constituency, and in doing so stimulate better collaboration between them and international actors.

The recent UK Government Building Stability Overseas Strategy argued that when building peace in fragile environments, working at the grassroots can have a sustained impact, and it would have been good have seen this better reflected in yesterday’s conference. As the pledges of support for Somalia are realised, we must lobby those at yesterday's conference in London to prioritise Somali voices and ideas, which remain far too often overlooked.