Somalia’s National Economic Council: Form over Substance?
Somalia’s National Economic Council (NEC) initiative appears to be a last-minute grasping at straws. It remains to be seen whether the NEC turns out to be a useful vehicle for change or prove to be another passing curiosity at reform.
There are two ways to look at the rationale for the formation of the NEC: a hint (albeit, a late one) of a more sensible approach to governance in order to enhance the credibility of the government’s economic and financial reforms thinking; or an attempt at window-dressing in the hope of easing mounting donor pressures over overdue reform milestones. Whichever way one looks at this, it appears to be a last-minute grasping at straws to be seen to be doing something.
The NEC’s objectives are as wide-ranging as they are complex and disparate. It is to advise the government on the country’s economic and financial strategy reforms, national resources matters and help set the economic and financial policies needed to develop the leading sectors of the economy. The NEC will also be expected to help with the best way of delivering the myriad of national and international (long overdue) reform milestones in order to unlock the tightening strings
attached to donor support.
Getting under the skin of these complex and disparate priorities in NEC’s in tray does of course mean years, if not decades, of sustained heavy lifting with the support of effective central leadership that can simultaneously embed significant change within government institutions. In that context, the scale of NEC’s delivery ambition, which requires a level of policy cohesion across government departments that is probably too unrealistic to pull off, has not been thought through properly
to make sure it was realistic and achievable.
“ Getting under the skin of these complex and generic priorities in NEC’s in tray does of course mean years, if not decades, of sustained heavy lifting with the support of effective central leadership that can simultaneously embed significant change within government institutions. In that context, the scale of NEC’s delivery ambition, which requires a level of policy cohesion across government departments that is probably too unrealistic to pull off, has not been thought through properly to make sure it was realistic and achievable."
Add that to the concerns about policy succession planning, opaque accountability in national interest matters and committee transparency and it is understandable why the NEC would have an obvious and difficult credibility challenge.
Poor policy succession planning will frustrate sustainable reforms
In Somalia, the concept of policy succession planning is alien to many and that is the reason reforms never take root. Even if the NEC were to be successful in formulating long-term economic and financial policy goals, it is something that will require several years of planning and implementation through the machinery of government - an early warning indicator of the difficulties ahead. And there is of course the inevitable change of a government’s political colours or the almost monthly ministerial revolving door which all mean one thing is almost certain: the assumption of a continuity of NEC’s economic
thinking and analyses, long enough to make any meaningful impact, is simply illusory.
The NEC can not also be a substitute for good economic stewardship, nor produce on demand solutions for the government’s policy priorities. That is a responsibility of the government which can not be outsourced to a committee of experts. The issue in Somalia is not about shortage of ideas on what to do, it is the lack of willingness and integrity to deliver
even the most basic of reforms. The NEC would not change that reality on the ground.
Without a clear plan on how to deliver sustainable reforms across key government institutions, the NEC’s contribution and
efforts will be akin to trying to flow water uphill with predictable results.
Trust but verify: opaque accountability in national interest matters is another concern
A key implicit rationale for setting up the NEC is to increase the public’s trust in the economic/financial justification for the policies adopted by the government. This is to demonstrate that decisions taken by the government are justifiable on value
for money / public interest grounds. Indeed, a noble intention.
Paradoxically, NEC’s policy-advisory and delivery framework remit indicates that the substance of important national policy-making seems to have shifted at the expense of accountability through parliament, which raises a number of important
(1) what would NEC’s priorities be in terms of advising on policies? Would the NEC be pursuing options that add public value or on more questionable grounds (e.g. putting an expert analysis spin on the Executive's demands)?
(2) what would be the way of assessing whether the NEC’s analyses and recommendations meet propriety and national
interest tests before they are implemented?
(3) who will apply the checks and balances to NEC’s potentially contentious policy ideas (e.g. those that may be widely regarded not to be in Somali national interest) , or scrutinise the analyses used to justify government deals that could have
long-term negative impact?
Clearly, if the intention of NEC’s formation had been to put the government’s decision-making on a professional and more transparent footing, we would have expected to see its governance framework, performance objectives, budgets, vetting standards and accountability mechanisms written into legislation and put through parliament to ensure the reform was credible and sustainable. More importantly, it would have also meant policy reforms could be carried forward to successive
governments through appropriate scrutiny and oversight.
Committee Transparency : mind the distinguished expert adviser badge
Also notable are the gaps in our understanding of the specifics of the experts’ roles, incentives, their budgets, vetting standards, how any conflicts of interest will be managed and the methods of disclosure of NEC’s expert analyses and research. The NEC will be at the heart of the government's decision-making, opining on and assessing sensitive national
interest matters on the economy and financial/fiscal policies.
Against this background, it is vital the "distinguished expert advisers” badge should not let one off the transparency hook, nor inhibit frank and critical discussions about their roles, competence and the authenticity of their research which is used to inform key government policies. Given recent events, gaining and maintaining public trust will require a culture of
openness on decisions in relation to matters of national importance.
Making incremental reforms will be key
A properly constituted and transparent NEC with the right level of governance frameworks would be a step in the right direction and may provide much needed joined-up thinking to make incremental progress on key fronts. The NEC’s intention should not be to attempt to solve all of Somalia’s problems simultaneously at a stroke – that is just impossible. The focus should be on translating the current all-purpose priorities in tray into a handful of core economic / financial specific
objectives that are important and easy to do. And then build on that incrementally.
The acid test is how the issues about policy succession planning, accountability and transparency are addressed. The NEC
could become an important harbinger of transformation or prove to be another expensive false dawn.
(Headline picture: NEC's expert advisers with the Somali PM. Courtesy: Office of the Prime Minster)