“Somalia’s greatest resource is its people” – an interview with Ilwad Elman

Somali activist Ilwad Elman runs the Elman Peace and Human Rights Center in Somalia with her mother, Fartuun Adan. A recipient of the Alternative Nobel Prize and FCA Expert Seminar panellist, she sat down with us to discuss her passion for Somalia.

A rich culture

What is something you wish more people knew about Somalia?
When I do advocacy around the world, one of the things I do hope to leave behind is the spirit of the Somali youth and for that to be the first thing they think of. Then, I want them to know how digitally connected we are – Somalia is the seventh cheapest place in the world for high-speed internet. People don’t even brand their livestock or their goats that go missing any more with burning them, they write their What’s App number on them and that really speaks to how digitally connected the community is. Also, Somalia has the longest coastline in all of Africa, so there’s a rich culture around the ocean as well too. So, I think that Somalia’s abundance is something I wish people would look at and see as an opportunity for investment.

In your opinion, what is Somalia’s greatest resource?
Somalia’s greatest resource is its people and I can’t overemphasise the opportunity that exists with such a young population. There’s a demographic dividend for peace, prosperity and stability. The human capital that exists within Somalia, and also the critical mass that we have in the diaspora, really is something that can bring stability to the entire region.

Investing in resilience

FCA works in the regions of peace, livelihoods and education. Is one of those areas more important to emphasise in Somalia?
What I think is really interesting about FCA’s approach is investing equally across the different sectors, because they are all very interdependent – but also evolving with new needs. It’s really refreshing for me to learn about FCA Investments, the engagement with the private sector and looking at investing in resilience, as opposed to just responding to fragility. I think this is a shining example of what aid and humanitarian actors need to adopt as well, too.

You’ve spoken about the need to rethink the development approach – what do you mean by that?
I think that the message of rethinking development is recognising that while there are crises – whether they’re man-made or natural humanitarian situations – that the moral obligation is to save lives and respond to that, but we should also be already forecasting an exit strategy which invests in resilience, in empowerment and institution structures. That can only happen if development is on the agenda at the very beginning. The nexus between humanitarian intervention and development, but also environmental issues and security, is the sweet spot that I think development actors need to work between.

A woman holds a microphone mid-speech. A man listens to the side.
Ilwad Elman took park in an FCA expert seminar on where to find hope and solutions among global crises .
Photo: Ville Maali/FCA

Social peace as well as political peace

You’ve also said that sub-Saharan Africa is now the epicentre of violent extremism. That’s a problem that has plagued not just Somalia, but also many countries in the world. In your research, what approaches have you found most effective to combat its spread?
This realisation now of sub-Saharan Africa being the new global epicentre of violence extremism is concerning. Firstly, because the porous borders of African mean that it is susceptible to extremist ideologies, but there’s also an absence of state services and functions to call for a comprehensive approach that military solutions alone cannot pacify. We’ve found empirical evidence to support being effective is a combined approach of investing in not only political peace but also social peace. Looking at tackling the underlying grievances of those very communities that have been affected by violent extremist attacks but have also been conscripted and recruited. And this means engaging unconventional actors in the dialogue process too, be it religious and traditional actors, be it youth or women.

We have an overwhelming amount of evidence that a whole of society approach will lead to durable and sustainable solutions to peace. Yet, what still remains is actually financing that and it’s been a difficult argument to make when conventional programmes – the success of them – is nothing happening. But that is what we’re hoping to achieve – no more violent attacks, no more senseless loss of innocent lives. The threat is rising, the evidence is also rising about the need for comprehensive strategies that include development, but the action and the resourcing and the funding of it is steadily decreasing.

What does social peace look like?
Social peace is something that also looks at the social contracts in society. Re-establishing protection structures, initiating hyper-localised reconciliation efforts that create synergies within community duty bearers, but also civilians; that re-establish methods for justice, really creating order in society that is not political but a covenant, if you will; and a pledge to each other where people are all able to meaningfully protect their environments. So social peace really needs education, it needs investments in understanding social norms and addressing those that are harmful to the social cohesion and are inclusive from the design to the enforcing of those strategies.

The role of women

FCA has worked through its peace programmes in Somalia with youth and women, supporting the government’s commitment to 30 per cent quota of legislative seats to be held for women. Have you seen a change in the role of women in Somalia in recent years?
Absolutely. It’s often debated in the global context how effective quotas are, but in places like Somalia where there is patriarchy and historic subjugation and marginalisation of women’s role in the public space, a quota creates an entry point for participation. And what we saw in Somalia in 2016 when the international community made their support conditional to the transitional federal government of Somalia to have this quota, we saw twenty four per cent reached, which was a huge rise from the eleven per cent political participation we had of women beforehand. That wouldn’t have been possible without the push, the concerted effort in having this quota in place.

I think that since then there has been progress in the number of women, but that’s just only the beginning. We know that now that if we have more women in, the next phase really is filtering who those women are. Are they representing women’s rights? Are they representing the most marginalised and destitute women in the community that are so detached from government? Or are they seat warmers? So, it’s a step in the right direction.

Torch of activism

In the Elman foundation’s long history in Somalia, can you pick a moment that has touched you the most?
I’m very fortunate to be inspired almost every day that I’m in Somalia where I can tangibly seesolutions that once started off as ideas that are now creating impact into the community. But I find the most joy and maybe affirmation of the direction that we’re heading and of our cause when I see someone that has been able to become a leader in their community that not only champions our message but is also becoming a support system for someone else. And this is really important for us because there’s one thing that Somalia teaches you, which is everyone is expendable, and the only constant is change. So, when I’m able to see someone carry the torch of activism forward, when they take it upon themselves without an institution behind them to help someone in their community it gives me great hope that even if I personally don’t live to see all of things that we hope to put out that it will be carried forth.

Interviewer: Ruth Owen
Photography: Ville Maali

FCA conducts EU-funded peace work building strengthening local governance structures for more accountable and inclusive Federal Member States in support of the Wadajir National Framework.

Find out more about FCA’s work in Somalia