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Understanding Policy: Collective Action in Somalia

Editor's Note: This brief series on Collective Action demonstrates how public policy can be analyzed through the lens of Mancur Olson's The Logic of Collective Action. Each piece looks at a specific humanitarian crisis and how the logic applies for that case. For a brief summary on the theory, see Understanding Policy: Collective Action

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By Emma Sopadjieva


The humanitarian intervention (HI) by the US and UN forces in civil-war-ravaged Somalia in the 1990s is one of the staple cases of unsuccessful multilateral initiative and ineffective collective action (CA). In the following memo, I will apply Mancur Olson’s theory on CA to the Somali intervention and will explain the reasons for the CA occurrence. I will argue that the HI failed primarily due to two inherent CA problems, which are 1) the ineffectiveness of intermediate groups who lose their main contributor, and 2) the concept of free riding. Furthermore, I will provide potential solutions for these challenges, such as equal burden sharing and the provision of “selective incentives”, which outweigh the costs of HI.


The 23-year Somali conflict began in the 1980s as a resistance to the Siad Barre regime and fully escalated to civil war in the beginning of the 90s taking the lives of thousands of civilians and leading to a widespread famine across Somalia. The horrendous consequences of civil war led to one of the most infamous examples of HI commanded by the United Task Force (UNITAF) and the UN Operation in Somalia (UNOSOM), which provided humanitarian relief supplies and tried to disarm the Somali warlords through military intervention. CA occurred, because apart from the common purpose of ending the civil war, each member had additional private incentives and pressures. Somalia's pro-U.S. President Barre had conceded valuable oil concessions (about two thirds of Somali oil reserves) to US oil companies and the US had an economic incentive to secure its dominance over Somali oil and the country’s other abundant natural resources (uranium and gas deposits) (Mustafa 2006). The US public influenced by media reports, pressured the Bush administration to intervene. The UN, acting on behalf of the world, wanted to 1) secure international security and contain the spread of instability to Somalia’s neighboring countries (Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti) through proliferation of weapons and influx of refugees, and 2) ensure the continuation of economic activities, trade and free movement of people, which would benefit its members (Laibuta 2005). The UN mission was formed of countries such as France, which also had a stake in the Somali oil reserves (Mustafa 2006). Therefore, apart from the provision of the public good of peace in war-torn Somalia, the US and UN both had private benefits that triggered the CA, in accordance with Olson’s theory.


The HI managed to minimize famine and to save the lives of thousands, however it failed to end the civil war and reinstate order in the country due to two inherent CA problems. First, the UN/US collaboration was an intermediate group where most of the groundwork was done by UNITAF. Even though there were 68 nations contributing to the peacekeeping operation - a large group in Olson terms - there was a disproportionate reliance on the US, which had about 30,000 troops deployed in the country (Glanville 2005). After the US suffered casualties during the Battle at Mogadishu and lost most of the domestic support fueling the initiative, President Clinton (who took over from Bush) was reluctant to accept the political and financial costs associated with the HI as they outweighed the strategic and economic interests for the US (Western & Goldstein 2011). He abruptly withdrew the US troops from Somalia, which caused a dramatic increase in the costs of HI and ultimately led to the collapse of all operations several years later. Thus, as Olson predicted, the inability of the US to contribute to the common goal caused a noticeable decrease in supply of the good and a rise in costs to other UN members. In cases when actors’ national security is threatened (i.e. during the Cold War), political will and domestic support for intervention is strong, individual incentives are high and collaboration between all members is effective. In Somalia’s case, the security of the external parties was not in jeopardy, and when faced with mounting casualties and strong opposition from the Somali warlords, the actors did not have sufficient incentive to continue incurring the costs of the HI.


This brings us to the concept of free riding, which is second major cause of the HI failure. The US had taken on so much of the HI costs, that members of the UN participating in the mission, were virtually free riders, reaping the benefits of a peace-keeping and the non-excludable good of international economic, social and political stability without incurring almost any of the costs of producing it, as most of their duties were realized by UNITAF. The excessive reliance on the US and “the small taking advantage of the large” situation was detrimental to the mission (Olson 1965). The US was incurring the bulk of the burden, and when the costs and casualties outweighed the private benefit of soft and economic power, the US withdrew. This transformed the organization from a group with a key actor who took care of the major organizational costs, almost to an ineffective latent group, causing collapse of operations.


In order to counter the above-mentioned problems the US and UN would have needed to secure a mutual commitment to enforcement and to minimize the overreliance on a single party. A prerequisite to the mobilization of political will is the early agreement among relevant actors on the scope and nature of a HI (Dantiki 2005). The HI would have been more effective had the parties equally distributed the burden sharing among all actors, which would have alleviated the costs incurred by the US and possibly prevented its sudden departure. In addition, the UN could have provided additional “selective incentives” to all members, either negative that coerce members of the group to act, or positive for members to act in the group’s interest (Olson 1965). UN member states with no private interests in Somali natural resources could have been coerced to actively participate through the implementation of sanctions within the UN for latent members. The UN could have also provided positive incentives strictly for active members such as command roles in peace operations, which would serve as national and service prestige as well as tickets to career advancement and power within the UN (Lepgold 1998).


In summary, Olson’s CA theory, the challenges associated with it and his proposed solutions have a direct application to the creation failure of CA in Somalia. The futile attempt to provide the public good of peace and stability in Somalia was ravaged by CA problems such as free riding and an over-reliance on a single actor in intermediate groups. These problems could have been mitigated by the provision of selective incentives and an equal cost-sharing structure.



Emma Sopadjieva graduated from Bucknell University in 2007 with a BSc in Business Administration and Management and a BA in Spanish Studies. At IR/PS, Emma is focused on developing her quantitative skills and is actively taking classes that enhance her analytical capabilities and her knowledge of Latin American politics and economics.  She is also a first year representative in PIASO - the student body government.









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Dantiki, Sumon. 2005. “Organizing for Peace: Collective Action Problems and Humanitarian Intervention.” Journal of Military and Strategic Studies, Vol. 7, Issue 3.  Spring 2005.

Glanville, Luke. “Somalia Reconsidered: An Examination of the Norm of Humanitarian Intervention”. The Journal of Humanitarian Assistance. September 1, 2005.


Laibuta, Imaana. 2005. “The Somalia Conflict and Its Effects in the Horn of Africa”. Free Republic Blog (www.freerepublic.com). January, 11 2005.


Lepgold, Joseph. 1998. “NATO's Post-Cold War Collective Action Problem”. International Security, Volume 23, Number 1, pp. 78-106. Summer 1998.


Mustafa, Abid. 2006. “The Great Game in Somalia”. The Global Politician. June 7, 2006.


Olson, Mancur. 1965. “The Logic of Collective Action”. Harvard University Press. 1965.


Western, Jon and Joshua S. Goldstein. 2011. “Humanitarian Intervention Comes of Age.


Lessons From Somalia to Libya”. Foreign Affairs. Vol. 90. No.6. November/December 2011.

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