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Will a London conference help set Somalia on path to peace?

Somalia aid groups and experts welcome renewed international attention, but warn that a focus on either state-building or military action alone could make things worse rather than better.

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For aid groups and Horn of Africa experts, the London Conference is both an opportunity and a cause for concern. Humanitarian groups welcome the renewed interest in Somalia after decades of inaction and torpor, but some aid workers fret that an action plan that relies on military force instead of political negotiation could actually make things much worse in Somalia, and for the hundreds of thousands of Somalis who rely on aid for their survival.

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“It is time for a new vision of engagement that meets Somalis’ immediate and future needs, while providing the space for a negotiated peace process that puts Somalia on the road to recovery," said Barbara Stocking, Oxfam's chief executive, in an emailed statement. "Those attending the London Somalia Conference must seize this opportunity and help start the process to address the causes of the conflict in Somalia and put the interests and aspirations of the Somali people centre stage.”  

In a report issued Wednesday, Oxfam called for less reliance on military solutions and more reliance on negotiations to ensure aid work can continue.

“The perception in many of the world’s capitals is that military action will improve security both in the region and for Somali civilians, but the reality to date has often been very different,” says the Oxfam report, “A Shift in Focus.” “So far, moving front lines, a wider area in open conflict, and shifting control of populated areas by the various parties have in many cases had the effect of jeopardising an already precarious and limited space for providing humanitarian assistance to those in need.”

The West has renewed its attention on Somalia in recent years because Somalia’s dysfunctionality has finally begun to spill over its borders to affect the outside world. Lack of job opportunities in Somalia has pushed a generation of young men into criminal activity, including high-seas piracy and kidnapping for ransom. Lack of effective law enforcement on Somali territory has forced the international community to solve this problem by patrolling the waters off the Somali coast and key sea lanes of the Indian Ocean. But patrolling hasn’t solved piracy, notes the East African Seafarers Association. In fact, pirates have merely moved farther out to sea, and the number of attacks has actually increased.

More recently, a domestic Islamist militia group, Al Shabab, has aligned itself with Al Qaeda, and carried out a number of suicide bomb attacks since July 2010 that indicate the group is prepared to wage a terrorist war abroad.

Yet, neither of these problems – piracy or terrorism – can be solved through mere military action, says the International Crisis Group. In a report issued Wednesday, Crisis Group argues that the solution is the creation of an effective and inclusive government in Somalia that can establish its authority and begin to chip away at problems of lawlessness, poverty, and conflict.

“The root cause of Somalia’s many troubles – terrorism, piracy, periodic famine and constant streams of refugees – is collapse of effective governance, with resulting chronic conflict, lawlessness and poverty,” says the report, “Somalia: an Opportunity that Should not be missed.” “The most effective and durable solution to these ills is to build gradually an inclusive, more federal government structure that most clans can support. Otherwise, Al-Shabaab (or some similar successor) and other disparate groups of would-be strongmen with guns will exploit continued dissatisfaction with Mogadishu and innate Somali hostility to ‘foreign occupation.’”

RELATED: What is Somalia's Al Shabab?

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