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Heritage-Djibouti: Not again, an Empty Wasteful Assembly!

By Abdelkarim A. Haji Hassan

I have recently posted a note on social media, critiquing the Heritage’s yearly conference about Somalia held in Djibouti. I have received a tremendous amount of feedback and many urged that I write about my take on such conference. After some research, this sheds light on the said topic.

Professional conferences have a purpose and specific objectives to achieve. Conferences are great settings to bring people to network, collaborate business opportunities, startups, be exposed to different approaches, and keep abreast of new ideas and innovations of any given industry or field. Conferences are therefore more than just listening to talks, and indeed they do matter. They are important venues for networking and making connections that can lead to new initiatives to address profound issues such as those that confront Somalia.

Organizers of the conference, photo courtesy twitter

It is common to expect from academic or professional conferences, where a good deal of efforts, preparations and funding goes into it, certainly to aim to produce publications as part of their outcomes. One thus expects conferences, upon completion, to issue important outputs, such as reports, communiqué, or policy briefs.

Somalia faces many of the challenges that confront post-civil war countries, chief among them insecurity, corruption and lack of government institutions that have the capacity to deliver the much-needed public services. These daunting tasks would require government, civil societies, and citizens to collaborate and put forth measures and initiatives aimed at addressing these political and development challenges to improve the living conditions of the Somalis.

For the past two years the Heritage Institute for policy studies, with the mission statement of:
“To inform public policy by providing independent empirical research and analyses, and creating an enabling environment for inclusive dialogue,” has been convening an annual conference called “Forum for Ideas” in Djibouti.

The first gathering took place on 18 – 22 December 2017 under the banner, “The State of Somalia toward peace, stability and prosperity.” The second one convened on 14 – 18 December 2018 and was about, “The impact of the Ethiopian reforms on the Somalis.” And its third conference is currently underway in Djibouti with the theme, “Role of Somalis in Peace in the Horn of Africa.”

Heritage’s initiative of Public Dialogue deserves to be commended as it attempts to bring forth issues that are important to Somalia and the greater Horn of Africa. The expectations from the Djibouti conferences were high to put forward policies that would advance the rebuilding of Somalia.

Group photo, of the 2018 Heritage Conference, Djibouti

The platform brought together notable Somali elites and politicians that could formulate policies and strategies to advance Somalia’s many challenges chief among the mere lives of the most vulnerable youth, women and the on going deadly insecurity the country faces. However, their exorbitant conference financed by Djibouti and other notable funders like Turkey, ignores the real issues and is deaf on the most daunting challenges the country has.  

In fact, Heritage equates its annual forum for ideas (AFI) to that of the World Economic Forum stating The AFI is a Davos-style roundtable discussion where the policy makers and opinion makers from Somalia, the diaspora and around the region gather to discuss strategic issues facing the country, the Horn of Africa and Somalis everywhere.  But thus far, there hasn’t been much output from this well-funded gathering of such magnitude, and it begs to remind Heritage that Somalia is not Switzerland and nor is the Heritage- AFI is Davos whose outcomes has global impact in Humanity, Technology, Human Rights, Environmental issue like climate change, Finance and World Economics and Poverty reduction. It’s not impossible to envision for Heritage to reach that global level of contributing to the worlds in a big way, but it must first take the proper steps to understand the ideas that impact Somalia in a meaningful way and do their due diligence to produce reports and publications of the conference.

The conference is convened in the name of Somalia, one of the poorest nations in the world, and the presenters and attendees who number 150 -200 fly to Djibouti to attend the conference. Having a conference of this magnitude outside of Somalia is clearly costly and a financial burden both to Djibouti and Somalia.

Common sense tells us the practice of attending a conference should be based on justification and cost benefit analysis but cronyism and nepotism, which are obviously the guiding principles of most Somali-run conferences is also a factor here.

The location of the conference is itself a concern. Although Djibouti is a neighbor and another Somali speaking nation (brethren), and a close ally, it doesn’t make sense a conference that is said to address the issues of Somalia to take place outside of the country for three consecutive years. One would wonder: what’s stopping Heritage to convene the conference in Hargeisa, Mogadishu, Garowe or other Somali cities? Is it because Djibouti is financing the conference and mandates its location? If that is the case, that alone is not a good and convincing answer.

Some people are in the opinion that Djibouti as a frontline state, which has troops in Somalia, is showing its muscles to have an influence in Somali affairs for generations to come, by investing and having so many Somali elites and people of influence come to Djibouti and afforded a red carpet treatment. Thus, one would argue that the Return of Investment (ROI) for Djibouti to influence and have an impact on the Somali affairs is worth peanuts.

It’s well noted that Somalia and Djibouti have special relationships owing to their brotherly ethnic composition, but the interest of a country usually overrides the common ethnicity. A case in point, if being ethnic Somali is the sole tipping scale, Djibouti has voted against the proposal when Kenya nominated its former Foreign Affairs Cabinet Secretary Amina Mohamed, an ethnic Somali to contest as the chairperson of the African Union (AU) Commission, voting with its allies, the Francophone countries on Jan, 2017.

Heritage 2019, Conference attendees Minister Baileh (left) Awad and President Mustafe of Somali State of Ethiopia

The question that sits in front of us is would it have served humanity and the many Somalis suffering in the face of poverty such as those in beledweyne who are still reeling from the floods that destroyed the entire city, or the thousands who lost their entire lives’ herd to the rains of 2019, or those living in such horrific conditions in extreme poverty. Maybe the Heritage missed an amazing opportunity to move the Somalia’s many deathly issues an inch to the positive direction by being proactive in moving the funds, or fund raise to help the Somalis in dire need.

According to UNOCHA , 2019 Humanitarian Overview, over 4.2 million Somalis require humanitarian assistance and protection. Out of the total number of people in need, almost two thirds are children and over 60 per cent – or 2.6 million people – IDPs have been displaced by armed conflict and violence, insecurity and/or drought/floods. Vulnerable groups, including female-headed households, children, the elderly, people with disabilities and marginalized communities are particularly at risk and face specific protection concerns. Somalia has the world’s highest child mortality rate and faces the sixth highest lifetime maternal death risk in the world, 1 out of 7 children die before the age of 5.

The point is Somalia is not Switzerland and while exchanging idea are a contributing factor to moving forward, you can’t call yourself an organization whose work impacts Somalia’s development and human rights and ignore the glaring deadly human needs of the people of Somalia.

We understand that the financiers are more interested and care about the photo ops, nevertheless, we hope that this time Heritage puts some efforts and hard work to share with those working on finding lasting solutions and others that are interested in Somali affairs, the outcome, in terms of reports (substantive) and publications of its conference and consider to hold the conference in Somalia in years to come.

As a non-profit institution, Heritage owes all Somalis to become a transparent, accountable foundation and declare the names of its funders and the amount of money they have contributed, whether it’s a government or an organization.

Abdelkarim A Haji Hassan
Email:[email protected]

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