Our government is getting back to work after more than two weeks of budget stalemate. One underlying cause of the impasse is the widely different views held by many on the more-government-versus-less-government debate.Whenever I hear that discussed in the news, I always think of Somalia – a country that had no government for more than 20 years.
I lived and worked in Somalia for three years during the mid-1980s. Being cynical, you can say those were the good years for the country, although we didn’t know it at the time. Actually, it was one of the toughest places I ever lived in my almost 20 years in developing countries before joining ChildFund. True, it was a peaceful time. Mohamed Siad Barre, the dictator in power, kept all political opposition under tight control. I remember one of my staff telling me about his visit home to his family’s village – and witnessing public hangings.
But the tight government control didn’t ensure public safety (as it did in some countries I’ve lived). Although violent crime was rare, petty crime was rampant. My house was broken into a few times. What made it a tough place to live was the combination of a poor infrastructure (roads were bad, electricity undependable and health services pathetic) and a disastrous informal economy based on the nomadic rearing of livestock. There was little to buy in the country – even if you had the money.
At that time, a Somali child never came home and asked her mom what was for dinner. Meals were always the same – spaghetti (southern Somalia was a former Italian colony), with a small spoonful of meatless tomato sauce and a banana. Expats working with NGOs bought a lot of the food we needed for our families from a catalogue company in Denmark. Deliveries arrived by ship three times a year. You really needed to plan in advance!
If Somalia was a tough place to live in the 1980s, image what it is like today – one year after the first permanent central government was formed following two decades of fighting. In those intervening lawless years, the country became famous not for its livestock but for its terrorists and pirates, the latter gaining publicity in the recently released movie, Captain Phillips, which chronicles the takeover of a U.S ship by Somali pirates.
The Human Development Index ranks countries based on the development of their people, using criteria such as life expectancy and education. But some countries are too chaotic to even survey. Somalia is one of them. If it was ranked, I’m sure it would be in last place. Although this debate about small versus big government will continue in the U.S., I know that the alternative of having no government at all damages the most vulnerable among us – children.
In Somalia, the prevalence of underweight children under 5 years of age has increased dramatically, from 18 percent in 1997, to 26 percent in 1999, to 36.5 percent in 2006, according to U.N. and UNICEF statistics. Somalia’s children also have stunting rates consistently above 20 percent, according to the World Health Organization. Stunting is a key indicator of endemic poverty and chronic hunger.
For the last 20 years, Somalis have had to endure strife, hunger and suffering. I’m sure there are still many mothers who would be thrilled to again make a meal of pasta, sauce and banana for their families – and many children who would be glad to eat it. A functioning government can help protect these children.