Conflict Resolution Studies Faculty Articles


Tribalism, Governance and Development: Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen

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United States Agency for International Development


Government, Development, Tribes


Development assistance has faced many challenges and achieved limited impact in heavily tribalized, Muslim societies. This paper suggests ways that development assistance can better support effective governance and dampen conflict in these societies. Our principal focus is on three highly tribalized countries that are facing notable governance challenges and high levels of conflict: Afghanistan, Somalia, and Yemen. We examine the role of tribes in governance at the village, urban, regional, and national level in each country to identify how tribes factor into governance problems or possible solutions. In all three countries, tribes are most active and easily mobilized as political, social, and economic entities at the village level. That is where the development community must be most acutely tuned into tribal dynamics. In urban areas, state authority is more prominent and often usurps tribal ties, but with notable exceptions. At the regional and national level, commonalities across the cases falter. Tribal or clan influence is strong at the regional and national level in Somalia and Yemen, but less so in Afghanistan. The research also points to competition over jurisdiction among three justice and conflict resolution systems—customary tribal law, Islamic or shari’a law, and the legal-rational system of the state—as a fundamental governance problem in each of the three countries.

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