“Give us money and leave us alone”

No, UN Dispatch has not been mugged (Brian’s previous adventures notwithstanding). This particularly blunt advice came from a Somali woman at an all-day Somalia conference I attended here in Washington yesterday and is not nearly as craven, aggressive, and ungrateful — at least in the case of Somalia — as it may sound. Her point was simply that Somalia is certainly in need of foreign investment and assistance, but that international meddling in its domestic politics — ahem, ahem, United States policy of the past 18 years — is tremendously counterproductive, particularly now, when Somalia is finally showing some signs for optimism.

Her comments drew applause (and chuckles, of course), and were pretty much echoed by most of the experts and the Somalis in the audience. A Somalia-based NGO leader attested that a major problem for the international community’s take on Somalia was its seeming “sense of ownership” of the country’s problems. Longtime Horn of Africa scholar Ken Menkhaus affirmed this view, reminding that, while Somalia’s state-building processes may not look like those that the World Bank and UN Development Program would typically prescribe, they still represent a possible avenue for a peaceful and stable state. “Foisting solutions” on Somalia, he added, will not accelerate — and will likely only retard – the progress along this path.

In this light, there is little need for panic over a headline — “Somali cabinet backs Sharia plan” — that might instinctively inspire fear, or at least discomfort, in many U.S. lawmakers. To try to control Somalia’s internal political maneuverings, just as its new government is getting off the ground, would be more detrimental, to both Somali and U.S. interests, than Sharia law possibly could be. In fact, this move, conducted without interference, will likely undercut support for extremists, something that heavy-handed foreign intervention (yes, including deploying UN peacekeepers) would almost certainly just inflame.

And on the “give us money” side, there’s certainly a right way to infuse capital and a wrong (i.e. potentially hugely destabilizing) way. A right way would be to build on the substantial resources, both human and material, that Somalia, with its large coastline and war-weary but earnest population, could take advantage of. But, as a State Department representative gravely warned at the conference yesterday, the influx of literally millions of dollars of untraceable American dollar bills (hint: look for the shiny new Benjamins) from pirates’ ransom decidedly falls into the potentially hugely destabilizing category.

UPDATE: Presumably most Somali-Americans who agree with this sentiment are going to go and do something like this.