Poverty and political instability are endemic to much of the world.  Unfortunately for many people around the world poverty is a feature of daily life.  Political instability - meaning dictatorship, political violence and coup d’etat, - is also prevalent in many regions of the world.  Seeking to address the linkages between poverty and political instability, this essay will explore the relationship between these two diverse, although seemingly interdependent phenomena.

Does poverty breed political instability?  Are poor countries more prone to political violence and insecurity?  What good is democracy if people remain poor? These questions and many more will be addressed with reference to our analysis of the linkages between democracy and political stability.  An analysis of the political and economic situations of Somalia, our case study, will explore the relationship between poverty and political instability and demonstrate whether the absence of democracy and hence political stability, breeds poverty and economic stagnation. Poverty, it seems is a universal feature of the global community.  What are the global ramifications of extreme poverty?

Poverty, Democracy and Political Stability

What is poverty and how can it be defined? The term poverty refers a deprivation of some sort that affects one’s quality of life.  Poverty is often described in monetary terms and varies from country to country.  Poverty thus is environmentally specific as the idea of poverty will differ in North America and Africa.  Many developed countries use a low-income cut-off to gage poverty in their respective societies and a so-called poverty line can be useful for understanding poverty.  While very difficult to measure globally, the United Nations frequently uses the analogy of a dollar a day to refer to someone who is poor (for more information on the challenges associated with poverty measurement, see Amartya Sen’s Poverty: An Ordinal Approach to Measurement).

How does one define political stability?  Theoretically speaking, the term is notoriously difficult to define and definitions will necessarily vary (see Fosu 329-348). Nonetheless, it is integral that the concept of political stability be defined for the theoretical purpose of this essay.  Political stability in much of the world is defined as the establishment of democracy and democratic rules of governance.  By giving everyone a voice, the argument follows that the political regime will be perceived as being legitimate and political stability will be the result.  Furthermore, Leon Hurwitz explored four conceptions of political stability and defined it as: 1) the absence of violence, 2) the duration of government, 3) the existence of a legitimate political regime, and 4) the absence of structure change (149-163).   Since this definition is comprehensive it will guide an important component of this essay as well as complement the overall analysis of our case study (Hurwitz, 1975).


Situated on the easternmost tip of the Horn of Africa, Somalia is one of the world’s poorest countries with a per capita GDP of $600 (2007 estimate).  In fact, in a global GDP per capita ranking by the US Central Intelligence Agency, Somalia scored last out of a total of 216 countries.   Also that year, Somalia’s estimated official Gross Domestic Product was estimated to be a mere $2.483 billion (CIA World Factbook, 2008).

Political Situation

Following Hurwitz’s definition of political stability, Somalia today is an incredibly unstable country, beset by extreme violence and lacking central authority in the form of a national government.  Hurwitz explored four conceptions of political stability and as a refresher, defined the term as: 1) the absence of violence, 2) the duration of government, 3) the existence of a legitimate political regime, and 4) the absence of structure change (149-163).

Is Somalia a violent place?  Yes, in fact Somalia, along with Iraq, is one of the most dangerous and violent countries in the world.    The life expectancy of the average Somali today is 47 years for men and 49 years for women (BBC Somalia Country Profile, 2008).  According to Time Magazine:

Since the collapse of the last functioning government in 1992, Somalia has been a prisoner of bloody anarchy, a void filled by vicious and impressively armed chaos, as rival warlords, clans and sub-clans and Islamists prosecuted a series of civil wars — over power, over historic tribal animosities and over competing visions of Islam (Perry, 2008).

How durable is the Somali government?  According to Mohammed Hussein Farah Aidid, former warlord and Somalia's new Deputy Prime Minister, "It's a symbolic government. Permanence we do not have. We do not have institutions; we do not have a credible force. Unless [we receive outside assistance] quickly, we have no chance of building a nation." (Perry, 2008).

Is the current Somali regime legitimate in the eyes of the Somali public? The British Broadcasting Corporation reports that “Somalia has been without an effective central government since President Siad Barre was overthrown in 1991.” (BBC Somalia Country Profile, 2008).  In fact, chaos, anarchy and factionalized fighting between warlords have been the normative state of affairs in Somalis for more than 15 years.

The current government – known as the Transitional Federal Government - headed by former warlords President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed and Prime Minister Nur Hassan Hussein was installed in Mogadishu by Ethiopian forces in December 2007.  Ethiopia has historically been the traditional enemy of Somalia and this is certain to hurt the credibility of the current regime among Somalis.  It must be noted that chaos remains supreme and the transitional authority is unable to maintain law order.   Its current grasp on power is tenuous at best (BBC Somalia Country Profile, 2008).

Has Somalia experienced recent structural change?  The Somali state imploded following the overthrow of Siad Barre in 1991.  Civil ensued and resulted in total Somali institutional collapse.  All institutions of governance (the security services, the judiciary, the economy) ceased to function in any coherent capacity.  Recently, attempts have been made to install a Transitional Governing Authority but the traditional pillars of government (legislature, executive, and judiciary) do not presently exist in Somalia (BBC Country Profile, Somalia, 2008).  The Somali government is totally lacking in democratic credentials and is not conceived of as a legitimate political force.

Economic Situation

As with GDP, unemployment and inflation in Somalia are difficult concepts to quantify and measure.  While it is known that there is extreme poverty and unemployment in Somalia, actual numbers are hard to come by.  In fact, in its annual Human Development Report for Somalia, the United Nations was unable to measure unemployment in Somalis and listed it as “not available” (HDI, 2007/2008).  Despite this estimates exist and in 2005 the World Bank reported that Somalia's labor force was an estimated 4.6 million (or 56% of the country's total population) with a whopping urban unemployment rate of 66% (CIA World Factbook, 2008).  A figure for inflation, as a measure of the annual increase in consumer prices, is equally hard to measure and is absent in the literature.

Somalia’s total lack of functioning government and institutional capacity inhibits economic growth and the result is one of the world’s smallest GDPs per capita.     Accordingly, in its annual Index of Economic Freedom 2008, the Wall Street Journal and the Heritage Foundation made the conscious (and conspicuous) decision to omit Somalia due the complete absence of the rule of law, stating that “economic freedom in Somalia is impossible to analyze” (Holmes et al, 2008).  Internationally renowned and well-respected British periodical The Economist followed suit and omitted Somalia in its annual economic rankings, The World in 2008 (The Economist, 2008).

Concluding Remarks

There is a direct and very strong relationship between a lack of political stability, articulated in the West through democratic government and poverty.  The case of Somalia emphatically shows that the absence of democracy or the rule of law breeds poverty and overall societal deprivation.  Extreme poverty has is a feature of Somali life and this has been exacerbated by the lack of democratic governance or any overarching central authority in Mogadishu. This analysis of Somalia has demonstrated that political stability and democracy are integral to the alleviation of poverty.