Small Wars Journal

Al-Shabaab and Market-Based Development: When Social Protection and Service Provision Go Awry

Thu, 07/21/2016 - 8:20am

Al-Shabaab and Market-Based Development: When Social Protection and Service Provision Go Awry

Drew Calcagno


Cammack describes the World Bank’s social protection phenomenon as a mechanism to “enable, support, and sustain market-led development” (Cammack, 2012, p. 370) while also existing in a poverty reduction strategy that paradoxically “attack[s] the poor, by altering the structure of incentives they face in order to propel them into labor markets that are inherently unstable and exploitative, and presenting the outcome as empowering” (Cammack, 2012, p. 368).  This dichotomy of exploitation and empowerment clouds the debate of how best to manage the roles of markets and states – who decides and on what basis? 

Somalia is an example of a place that roars with chaos over the role of the state, if one even exists. In this piece, I will consider the function of social protection and service provision through the lens of an unconventional player – Somalia’s al-Shabaab – and how those phenomena relate to market-led development.  I demonstrate what happens when social protection runs awry – rather than enabling market-led development, al-Shabaab creates a structure that rejects it.   I begin with a discussion of al-Shabaab’s entry to providing services and protection to Southern Somalis.  I consider Cammack’s notion of risk and how al-Shabaab deals with risk management.  Then, to understand how and why al-Shabaab’s provision and protection actually reject market-led development, I consider a structural-psychological approach followed by a social movement approach.  Finally, I conclude that al-Shabaab – through political process and social movement in Somalia – utilizes social protection and service provision activities in ways that limit access to markets and denies market-led development, providing an alternative contribution to Cammack’s hypothesis in the specific context of a non-state actor rather than a state providing these services. 

Al-Shabaab’s Protection and Provision

Since its birth from the Islamic Courts Union in 2006, al-Shabaab has waxed and waned in its interest to be a popular alternative to the Somali Transitional Government.  Between 2008 and 2010 especially, the violent Islamist group focused on what tends to be the state’s job: social protection and service provision.  Surprisingly, the group worked to provide quite a number of services to the population of Southern Somalis over which it had control. 

Magouirk presents a common concern with which the West often wrestles.  “Pundits and policy-makers have long pondered how and why these groups remain popular despite their violent actions” (Magouirk, 2008, p. 371).  His reply sheds light on the success of anti-government forces like al-Shabaab.  “The answer is quite clear…service provision and anti-corruption strategies may help terrorist and extremist groups to send signals to the population about how they would treat the people if they took power. These signals can serve to mobilize support among the population” (Ibid). But the essential question remains – what does it look like when al-Shabaab is in the majority of power?  Through this piece, I demonstrate that when al-Shabaab holds the majority of power for Southern Somalis, it can manage initiatives with lower amounts of risk such as social protection for education.  However, the group stumbles when presented with roles implying higher amounts of risk such as social protection for famine and massive resource scarcity. 

Social protection aims to do just that – protect society – from risk.  Cammack considers risk on a spectrum, from personal risks of unemployment to greater societal risks of famine and disease.  However, there is a binary as well – positive and negative risks – each with their own spectrum.  Risk management as part of the the global liberal project considers both (Cammack, 2012).  An example of a positive risk might be the entrepreneurial risk of investing in a new technology that revolutionizes a business sector.  In the Somali context, negative risk is the predominant consideration, such as risk of famine.  

In the most efficient iteration of the global liberal project, citizens are entrepreneurial examples of the homo economicus.  These entrepreneurs “should be exposed to competition, and risk and suffer bankruptcy if they are unable to compete; and workers should be obliged to risk and endure periodic unemployment, and take responsibility for their income in retirement, rather than enjoy the capacity to avoid the risks involved by having their needs unconditionally met by the state” (Cammack, 2012, p. 362).  However, what happens when these market-based incentive structures are not properly functioning, and what happens when there is hardly a modicum of a state at all?  These questions come to play in Somalia where incentive structures go awry due to a rogue actor providing services.  Rather than the state controlling service provision and social protection as part of the global liberal project for market-led development, al-Shabaab started providing the goods through an anti-global structure with locally-led support.

Magouirk considers service provision by Islamist groups to be a salient topic, especially when they exist in states without much infrastructure.  Groups like al-Shabaab are often viewed by their respective populous as “more legitimate than their government counterparts, creating a dangerous situation. Such groups are adept at identifying social service and humanitarian needs and addressing them. Many are also adept at pointing out government corruption, while avoiding such corruption in their own ranks” (Magouirk, 2008, p. 371).  The Somali Transitional Government suffers Magouirk’s charges.  Rather than enjoying a history of being accountable to the populous, the Somali government’s corruption consistently disappoints.  All the while, the clan system throughout the country serves as the essential mobilization structure for services and protection before al-Shabaab.  Each of Somalia’s multifarious clans has its own regional power and responsibility.  Now al-Shabaab challenges the government’s effort to transcend the clan structure – and in the late 2000s did so quite well by highlighting the government’s failures and promising a less corrupt and religiously absolute alternative (Mwangi, 2012). 

Mwangi cites al-Shabaab as one of the only providers of the following services for many Somalis: “education and training, justice and security, food and alms distribution, local-level administration and public works, and employment” (Mwangi, 2012, p. 525).  Branching out into service provision establishes a sense of legitimacy as a stakeholder in the population’s well being.  Rather than the traditional sights of rebels holding up trucks full of food aid – although al-Shabaab is not above that – the organization coopts nearly every sector of Somali life.  Rather than using these methods to enable the populous to become more productive, liberalize trade, and flood the market with newly trained labor, al-Shabaab has manipulated the incentive structure away from Cammack’s suggestion of market-led development.

While the market-led incentive structure may be at work in advanced economies, especially those in the OECD, that benefit from social protection and service provision, Somalia’s context ripened for the Islamists to push the people towards increased local support and increased global hatred.  Cammack cites the World Bank’s notion of household vulnerability.  The prescription is to lower that vulnerability through investments in women’s health and labor market ‘activation’ programs, among other human and physical capital suggestions (Cammack, 2012, p. 370).  Unfortunately, that sort of prescription appears to be contextually unaware in Southern Somalia.  Rather than encouraging liberal trade, al-Shabaab provides for Southern Somalis but also discourages their access to any sort of markets outside their limited periphery.   

A Structural-Psychological Approach

Magouirk’s analysis tends toward the structural-psychological approach of understanding Islamist groups’ relation to development.  His efforts involve explanation of rational choice – why the group acts the way it does.  At the risk of presenting al-Shabaab’s actions as too linearly causal and lacking in political dynamism (Ashour, 2009), Magouirk explains the importance of al-Shabaab providing for the people.  He contests that service provision and social protection are types of “tool[s] that can effectively signal group intentions and lead to increased support. Social provision is particularly important for social groups because it serves multiple purposes—they are able to fulfill their religious = moral duties to the population, gain support which can be utilized to gain power, and make an investment in future governance” (Magouirk, 2008, pp. 368-369).  Bringing the analysis back to Cammack’s assertion of service provision and social protection enabling market-led development, al-Shabaab appears to reject the entrepreneurial market structure that Cammack considers to be the goal of the global liberal project’s management of risk.  The group rejects social protection as an inroad to more efficient markets and enforces social protection as a means of control and support for their own Sharia-style governance.   For the most part, Magouirk’s structural psychological analysis argues that al-Shabaab’s quid pro quo structure – provision for allegiance, protection for support – does accomplish the group’s goals in times of low social risk (Magouirk, 2008). 

Rather than the popular message surrounding the Islamic State – that Islamism is all about the global jihad – the message surrounding al-Shabaab is more local.  “In the end, most people in Shabaab are interested in Somalia. The leadership that is allied with Al-Qaeda clearly sees itself as part of the global jihadi struggle, but that’s not what gets them local recruits. It’s more dealing with local issues and claiming to fight for Somali pride” [emphasis mine] (Meleagrou-Hitchens & Gaffey, 2016).  Relating to market-led development, al-Shabaab interprets this Somali pride and local context as a means of shutting its people out from the global liberal project. 

Al-Shabaab rejects the notion that market-led development will progress Somalis, particularly global markets.  In fact, by 2010 al-Shabaab was able to claim credit for increasing crop yields to a seven-year high, contributing to a half million Somalis no longer needing food aid (Smith, 2010, p. 1).  In order to promote self-sufficiency, al-Shabaab shut down the Southern Somali region from most UN aid.  The UN and and donor countries made an effort to “‘explore every opportunity’ to return to southern Somalia from which it withdrew in 2010 because of threats to the lives of its staff and the imposition of taxes by the rebel al-Shabaab group which controls the area” but were largely rejected for over a year (United Nations, 2011, p. 1).  Al-Shabaab’s efforts ran counter to market-led development approach and continued their vise-grip on services and protection – and it worked for a while.

Al-Shabaab’s brand of social protection worked when shocks and risks were not catastrophic.  However, when risks turned bad – like catastrophic famine – cracks in the façade reveal how much of their strategy was cheap talk (Magouirk, 2008).  Losing control of Mogadishu in 2011, combined with the people’s suffering surrounding a famine demonstrated how attempting a monopoly on social protection did not have the teeth to really protect Somalis (International Crisis Group, 2014, p. 9).  Perhaps it functioned in a time when crops were flourishing with coincident rain patterns, but not in critical response to a high risk of resource stress with coincident drought.

While authors like Magouirk consider the structural-psychological approach as the most descriptive method for explaining relationships between Islamists, institutions, and the people, social movement theory “attempts to explain Islamist investigating the political environment in which Islamists operate, the mobilization structures through which they garner resources and the ideological frames through which they legitimize their actions” (Ashour, 2009, p. 16).  While less causal, scholars like Ashour present a potentially more culturally nuanced and environmentally sensitive approach to understand whether al-Shabaab’s methods of service provision and social protection agree or disagree with Cammack’s assertion of market-led development.

A Social Movement Approach

Ashour considers the value of social movement theory as a means of understanding al-Shabaab in the Somali context: “The political process model emphasizes the dynamism of the political environment and asserts the primacy of process over structure” (Ashour, 2009, p. 15).  Terrorist groups aim to create their own alternative to government via service delivery, maintaining relevance to population.  As such, Al-Shabaab first stood up their own khaki-uniformed police force to establish order and “deal with public services” (Khalif, 2011, p. 1).  Through Ashour’s analysis, service delivery spans various aspects of social movements, particularly in terms of political environment.  Al-Shabaab scholars consider social movements to be vital in understanding how the group operates and progresses through the political context of Somalia (Mwangi, 2012, p. 516).

While Ashour reminds the reader that social movement theory may be nebulous in describing trans-national phenomena, it can truly lend insight in domestic politics and conflicts.  In the case of service delivery, educational movements in Somalia demonstrate the terrorist’s influence. Al-Shabaab has its own narrow Islamist curriculum, influences education officials, and even collaborates with “sympathizers and members teaching in the more radical madrassas (Islamic schools) in southern Somalia, where children are indoctrinated in radical interpretations of Islam and encouraged to join the ranks of the movement” (Mwangi, 2012, p. 525).  Educational social movements in Somalia defer to religious authority and al-Shabaab has capitalized on that opportunity to exert its influence.

Ashour’s social movement theory lends an important contribution to understand Cammack’s context.  Ashour’s contribution is insightful because it can help explain why and how al-Shabaab takes political tools – service provision and social protection – and uses them in ways that produce an effect that is contrary to the state’s approach.  Rather than a state providing services and ensuring that roads get goods to market, ports remain open, and infrastructure enables stockpiles for times of emergency, al-Shabaab used the same tools and accomplished something very different in the Somali context.  Whether due to clan-based politics, colonial memory, poor resource endowment, or an amalgamation of those and more, Ashour’s analysis enables one to see the historical tapestry rather than the convenient, but often inaccurate, cause-and-effect mechanisms that can come from structural-psychological approaches (Ashour, 2009).

Scholars such as Magouirk and Ashour extrapolate their analysis to many Islamist terrorist groups, but Mwangi zeroes in on the Somali context.  Instead of a blanket analysis of ‘failed’ states, Mwangi considers how the inward-focusing social movement planted its roots well before al-Shabaab (Mwangi, 2012).  The Islamic Courts Union, al-Shabaab’s predecessor, was keen on providing rule of law, along with education and healthcare (Santoro, 1999). Mwangi continues regarding the theoretical approach to looking at al-Shabaab; “The insight, ingenuity, and outcomes of movement choices – their agency – is best understood and assessed by examining the political environment and the rules of the games in which those choices are made – that is, structure” (Mwangi, 2012, p. 516).  As a result, service delivery presents itself as a mechanism to provide for the population, create an alternative to the Somali government, and garner support for their cause.  This function should be considered as part of the greater Somali social movement as well as al-Shabaab’s -- the two are interlinked.  The fact that the Islamic Courts, and later al-Shabaab, provided services is clear.  However, why does this social movement reject Cammack’s notion that these tactics lead to market-led development?  The answer lies in its ability and choice to reject a global system that exploited them in the age of colonialism, invaded – for better or for worse – to rout warlords, and seemingly rejected the cultural importance of clan politics in favor of a democratizing Western ideal.  As a result, it is not terribly surprising that al-Shabaab has chosen to extend their anti-governmental themes to a rejection of those exact markets that Cammack agrees are anti-poor (Cammack, 2012, p. 368).

Cammack describes some requisites to effective implementation of the market-based development through the lens of the World Bank (World Bank, 1990, p. iii).  The first and most important initiative is deciphering a “‘productive use of the poor’s most abundant asset – labor,’ and called for ‘policies that harness market incentives, social and political institutions, infrastructure and technology to that end’” (Cammack, 2012, p. 365). Al-Shabaab did not neglect to use Somali labor, but it rejected the institutional development, the infrastructural support, and nearly all technological innovations that would advance Somalia's position in the marketplace.

So what does it mean to embrace social protection and service provision but somehow reject it as an enabling factor for market-based development?  In the late 2000s, Al-Shabaab did not embrace the underlying assumptions of the political economy approach that many Western theorists and practitioners purport.  Now resonating with Cammack, al-Shabaab considered the scales of neoliberal trade as tipped in favor of the rich outsiders, the urban centers, the far off nations and neocolonialists.  Rather than consider themselves a ‘failed’ state – failed only in the eyes of those exact capitalist ‘winners’ of the global system – al-Shabaab used a tool at their disposal to establish a modicum of internal protection.


Social protection and service provision can enable market-led development, especially in advanced economies.  However, in less advanced contexts the phenomenon may be less related.  Through an examination of social protection and service provision by an alternative to the state – al-Shabaab as an alternative to Somali government – I demonstrate how those mechanisms can actually inhibit market-led development rather than enable it.  I consider two different theoretical approaches for this analysis.  One is commonly used for thinking about Islamist groups: a structural-psychological approach.  This approach tends to consider why Islamists act the way they do through a give-and-take framework.  The structural-psychological approach is explanatory and can insinuate causal relationships such as al-Shabaab providing services in exchange for support.  The other approach regards social movements.  Rather than prizing the explanatory power of the former, this approach focuses on contextual political processes.  Social movement theory, especially when applied through an author intimately familiar with the Somali context, reveals a dynamism that appreciates nuances in how al-Shabaab’s efforts stymie market-led development.  I conclude that al-Shabaab’s social protection and service provision activities, particularly when viewed through the lens of social movement theory, show how a non-state actor can inhibit market-led development rather than enable it.


Ashour, O., 2009. Votes and Violence: Islamists and The Processes of Transformation, London: International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR).

Cammack, P., 2012. Risk, Social Protection and the World Market. Journal of Contemporary Asia, 43(2), pp. 359-377.

International Crisis Group, 2014. Africa Briefing 99: Somalia: Al-Shabaab – It Will Be a Long War, Nairobi/Brussels: International Crisis Group.

Khalif, A., 2011. Al-Shabaab militants branch out into public service provision. Africa Review, 14 June, p. 1.

Magouirk, J., 2008. The Nefarious Helping Hand: Anti-Corruption Campaigns, Social Service Provision, and Terrorism1. Terrorism and Political Violence, 3 July, 20(3), pp. 356-375.

Meleagrou-Hitchens, A. & Gaffey, C., 2016. Why Al-Shabaab Is Not Joining ISIS. Newsweek, 22 January, pp. 1-7.

Mwangi, O. G., 2012. State Collapse, Al-Shabaab, Islamism, and Legitimacy in Somalia. Politics, Religion, and Ideology, 13(4), pp. 513-527.

Santoro, L., 1999. Islamic clerics combat lawlessness in Somalia. Christian Science Monitor, 13 July, pp. 1-4.

Smith, B., 2010. Shabaab credit for Somali food boom. Aljazeera, 24 March, p. 1.

United Nations, 2011. Aid effort for drought-hit Horn of Africa must include long-term measures. UN News Centre, 13 July, pp. 1-2.

World Bank, 1990. World Development Report: Poverty, Washington D.C.: World Bank.

About the Author(s)

Drew Calcagno is a Fulbright Scholar at the U.S.-UK Fulbright Commission, earning a Master of Science in Violence, Conflict, and Development at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) – University of London. In the fall, he will join the Master of Science in African Studies program at the University of Oxford as a Rotary Scholar.  In 2015, he graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis and commissioned as an Ensign in the U.S. Navy.  Calcagno has performed field research in Turkey, Ethiopia, and Liberia regarding the security-development nexus and has worked with the Department of State, Department of Defense, and the U.S. intelligence community. He currently resides in Monrovia, Liberia where he researches the response to and the consequences of the Ebola crisis.  The views presented in his articles are those of the author alone and do not necessarily represent the positions of the U.S. government, the US-UK Fulbright Commission, or the Rotary Foundation.