Mired in Mogadishu: An Appraisal of UK Engagement in Somalia

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This paper examines the UK's efforts in Somalia and the ‘Global Britain’ agenda.

Executive Summary

Since 2016, successive UK governments have spoken of an outward-looking, collaborative and influential post-Brexit Britain. A series of speeches and policy statements emphasised the need to pursue future prosperity through overseas engagements, building on investments in diplomacy, trade, defence and development aid. In March 2021, the UK government published its Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, reiterating similar themes and referencing Eastern Africa as a theatre where the UK should increase its focus.

Against this backdrop, a RUSI research team examined how the UK has deployed its development, defence and diplomacy toolkit across the region since 2015. The project, entitled ‘Furthering Global Britain? Reviewing the Foreign Policy Effect of UK Engagement in East Africa’, identified factors helping or hindering the UK in its pursuit of a ‘Global Britain’ agenda across four countries in the region: Kenya; Ethiopia; Somalia; and Sudan. It tested common assertions about the effects of Brexit, reductions in the UK aid budget, and the merger of two government departments – the Department for International Development (DFID) and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) – alongside any wider enablers and constraints.

This paper sets out findings on the UK’s intervention within one of these countries, Somalia, from 2015 to 2022. Beneath an (erstwhile) ‘Global Britain’ rebrand, the aims and scope of UK activities appeared largely unchanged, with an emphasis on mitigating successive humanitarian crises and containing the regional threat of Al-Shabaab. Sharing links to conflict, violence and poor governance, these objectives have been integrated into a broader state-building approach to help improve Somali self-sufficiency, military capabilities and, by extension, stability.

From the low baseline of 2012, when the Federal Government of Somalia was first established, progress has clearly been achieved. Alongside other external partners, the UK supported the development of a new political framework, a national security architecture and the trappings of a modern administrative system. It has co-chaired key international conferences, championed the federal agenda and contributed to the formation and function of Federal Member States. The flexibility of UK programming, relationships at the subnational level, convening power and widely recognised expertise, especially in the humanitarian sector, have also allowed stakeholders to carve strategic niches in an otherwise congested donor landscape.

Similarly, the longevity and breadth of its coverage and permanent in-country presence afford the UK credibility and influence, and position its embassy as an information hub for international and local parties. Among other examples, this has fed into progress on debt relief and improvements in public financial management, acted as a catalyst for stabilisation processes, and proved critical in mobilising outside engagement during the 2017 drought.

Recent shifts within the UK have, of course, had an impact. Leaving the EU caused disruption, as did the creation of a new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), although the benefits of greater synchronicity of diplomacy and development is evident given the politicised realities of operating across the Horn. A larger problem was the reduction of Whitehall’s aid budget, which damaged the scope and reliability of interventions and the confidence of partners and local recipients. Perhaps most obvious is in humanitarian delivery, where inadequate levels of UK funding detracted from an already-lacklustre response, various workstreams faced cuts to activities and lags in follow-on programming occurred. Exacerbated by a preoccupation with the 2021/22 presidential election campaign, this confusion interrupted forward planning, sapped momentum for long-term structural reform and diminished the UK’s ability to translate influence into tangible change, whether multilaterally or at the national level. Should the fall in aid spending continue – as it is forecast to do – this trend will likely persist, making it difficult to rapidly upscale engagement later down the line as the UK’s networks, access and reserves of goodwill steadily diminish.

However, it is important to recognise that the main impediments to UK strategic goals predate these changes. Aside from the contextual difficulties of operating in Somalia, such issues are tied to disparities between donor expectations and capabilities, which stem from broader questions over the feasibility of Western state-building. Technical fixes and capacity-building have a limited shelf-life if there is little Somali agreement over fundamental issues of governance and authority. As illustrated by the UK’s stabilisation efforts, successes can be achieved at the local level, but sustainability and scalability depend on whether they can plug into legitimate, sufficiently resourced domestic infrastructure. Incremental advances have been made, but they are neither sufficient nor commensurate with the timelines imposed by weary donors. At the same time, external contributions are often enmeshed (deliberately or incidentally) in a political economy that incentivises and reproduces instability. As a result, the ‘Global Britain’ agenda remains subject to the same critiques of international state-building that have framed UK policymaking in Somalia for the past decade.


Michael Jones

Research Fellow

Terrorism and Conflict

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