A Conversation With Somali Writer and Analyst Abdi Aynte

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In January 2013, the Heritage Institute for Policy Studies (HIPS) was launched in Mogadishu Somalia. The institute billed itself as “Somalia’s first-ever think tank.”

As a research and analysis institute based in Mogadishu, HIPS’ main interest is in the adoption and promotion of evidence-based public policies that affect the Somali people.

President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud welcomed the initiative at the time, saying: “Somalia needs fresh thinking and we believe this institute will contribute to the betterment of this country.”

Sahan Journal interviewed HIPS Director Abdi Aynte on the institute’s work, on harnessing the power of ideas, on their source of funding, and how HIPS intends to inspire a culture of reading and research.

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Heritage Institute for Policy Studies Director Abdi Aynte. [Photo courtesy of Aynte]

Q: The Heritage Institute for Policy Studies is largely publicized as the first think tank in Somalia. What significance does a think tank have at this stage in the country’s history?

A: Prior to HIPS’ advent in Somalia, policy was formulated with little or no debate and thought. During its young age, HIPS has been successful in fostering regular discussions and disseminating evidence-informed policy papers. As the country enters a recovery phase, it needs strong civil society organizations that can act as a sounding board for the government.

Q: Your slogan reads that you want to harness “the power of ideas for a better Somalia.” How do you intend to do that in the long run?

A: We aim to achieve this goal by doing two things. First, we are carrying out research on a wide range of issues, but mostly around the issues of state-building, peace-building and nation-building. The research output on these issues will be informed by ideas and inputs collected from the Somali society.

Second, we organize regular “Forum for Ideas” – a unique platform that fosters open and honest dialogue. Taken together, these two steps, we believe, will produce powerful ideas that can contribute to the recovery of this country in the longer run.

Q: Once formulated, how do you intend to sell these ideas to policy makers for adoption and implementation?

A: We use a three-pronged strategy to sell our ideas. For one, we try to bring into the discussion and on the table, fresh, novel and bold ideas whose only objective is realizing “a better Somalia.” In other words, we believe in the “power of ideas.”

Secondly, as former media professionals, we try to effectively utilize the media for our advocacy, and for the first hundred days that we have been operational, we made great strides on this front.

Thirdly, we engage policymakers on a constant basis, and so far, we discussed policy issues with the [Somali] president, the prime minister, ministers, Puntland ministers, diplomats from other countries, AMISOM leaders, EU leaders, Somali university professors inside the country and from the diaspora, leaders of Somali Islamic movements, European foreign and international cooperation ministers, top business leaders, and other think tanks.

With these three strategies: by coming up with research-based, bold, Somalia-centric ideas; by using the media to make our case; and by engaging policy and opinion makers, we believe we can effect change and influence public policy.

Q: Since the launch in January 2013, your focus has mainly been on Somalia, with a specific focus on the politics of south-central Somalia. When do you plan to start covering the larger Horn of Africa region?

A: Actually, our research output focuses on the wider Somalia. We’ve just issued a briefing on the Somalia-Somaliland talks. We are also about to publish an assessment on higher education in Somalia (Somaliland and Puntland included) as well as a major report on federalism.

Moreover, we believe that Somalia’s affairs are interlinked with those of countries in the region, particularly Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti. We’ve written a paper on the Somalia-Kenya relations (unpublished), and we aim to do two big research works in Ethiopia and Kenya.

Q: How has the larger public both within and outside Somalia reacted to some of your publications?

A: The Somali people welcomed HIPS as well as our ideas. We are objective and professionals, but Somalia-centric, and thus, we consider ourselves as the voice of the silent majority who want a peaceful and prosperous Somalia. Our publications are widely disseminated in both Somali and English language – and hopefully soon in Arabic – and our media appearances further enable us to further elaborate our ideas.

Also and unsurprisingly, we managed to irk some people with our critical thinking and non-traditional ideas. While we never intend to upset people, we believe that it is part of our broader role to tell, as they say, “truth to power” and of course, we are realistic about the situation in Somalia.

Q: As part of your program of activities, you promise “a culture of research” in Somalia. How do you plan to do that?

A: We just obtained a formal permission from the Somali government to repair and reopen the Somali National Library (SNL) – a four-storey building at the heart of Mogadishu. We’ve mobilised substantial amounts of resources to achieve this vision, which is a public-private partnership.

We believe that the SNL could become a catalyst for a culture of learning, inquiry and research. More importantly, it could become a venue for the youth, who are used as instruments of war, to find solace by way of reading and learning, listening to poetry and watching educational documentaries.

Q: Launching and operating a research and analysis institute from Mogadishu must have been an uphill task from the onset. What are some of the challenges you faced?

A: We face immense challenges. Security is the main problem. The recent attacks in the capital are a constant reminder of the challenges we face. As a result, we often assess everything based on security considerations.

Moreover, we have to do a lot of heavy lifting to introduce the nature of our work to the larger society, which doesn’t quite understand the concept of think tanks. Finally, all think tanks and other nonprofit organizations face the reality of a dwindling resource base and donor fatigue. We share that challenge.

Q: Who currently funds HIPS?

A: HIPS is not a big organization, we only have five full-time employees. In the beginning we fundraised among our friends and ourselves and came up with the initial setup costs, basically five computers, one printer, an office space, a vehicle and modest remuneration from our staff.

Later on, we got some partners and small money, but from reputed centers such as Oxford University and University of Pennsylvania. Now we want to approach traditional funders of think tanks such as foundations, individuals and even governments. We have also  approached the Somali business community to support projects such as the library project.

Q: Where do you see HIPS in the next few years?

A: Our vision is to make HIPS a primary policy research and analysis institute in the Horn of Africa. We aim to continue facilitating open dialogue and scholarly output.

This interview has been lightly edited for consistency, flow and coherence. You can follow Abdi Aynte on Twitter @Aynte and the Heritage Institute @HIPSINSTITUTE

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