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Why can’t you send money home to Somalia? Because your politicians want sharia banking first

September 8, 2014

The fairy tale is that existing financial channels from conventional Western banks in England and Minnesota can create a new, “safe corridor” for high-tech, well-screened remittances from the Somali diaspora back to their families with an eliminated risk of financing terrorism or corruption in the process. The sharia banking plan is to leapfrog over the creation of a conventional, interest-based banking sector in Somalia by establishing sharia financial sector based exclusively on Islamic law. The word on the street is that the notorious money transfer company Dahabshiil is peddling influence with Somali politicians to ensure that no new financial institution cuts into their racket—a charge which (like every other mounting charge against it) Dahabshiil denies.

The result of all this is that there has yet to be a conventional bank in Somalia that can provide banking and money transfer services.  Thus it is becoming increasingly clear that Western banks should not be blamed for the inability of Somali leaders to authorize their own private banks and remittance channels.  The next time you hear somebody demand Western banks to keep the “lifeline” of Somali remittances open, ask yourself why Somali politicians won’t create a lifeline of their own.

The following excerpt from an Aug. 25 Foreign Policy article entitled, “Franchise Opportunity: Western Union in Somaliland” (hat tip Sal) goes a long way to explain why:

…For the past year, Somaliland’s parliament has failed to enact legislation allowing the creation of a commercial banking sector. The reluctance, government insiders say, is rooted in the belief that sends the muezzin’s call to prayer echoing from every corner of Hargeisa five times a day: the Islamic faith. Mindful of a constitution explicitly drafted according to Islamic principles, Somaliland’s parliamentarians have approved an Islamic Banking Law, but have yet to pass its commercial equivalent. They fear it could introduce the charging of interest on economic activity, which is unacceptable under sharia law.

“We’ve visited parliament; we have sat down with the chairman to explain how important this is, how much we need these foreign banks. We push and push and push,” says Abdilahi Hassan Aden, director general of Somaliland’s (unrecognized) central bank. “But we are still waiting.”

A Western advisor to the government sees parliament as ultimately persuadable, but not without work. “A lot of this is about changing the narrative when it comes to religion, changing mentalities,” the advisor says. “Islamic countries like Malaysia or Indonesia, for example, still manage to have commercial banking sectors.”

In private, some officials voice the suspicion that a commercial banking law has been so long in coming because the MTOs, influential local economic players that they are, until recently preferred the remittance system to remain just as it was. It’s a charge Dahabshiil, for its part, rejects. Abdirashid Duale, chief executive officer, insists the company is keen to see legislation allowing commercial banking passed. “Dahabshiil is very supportive of any law or other initiative that supports the commercial banking sector,” he says.*

Dahabshiil, which says it does background checks on all the customers it can, sees itself instead as a victim of world events. “All of this started because of 9/11,” Duale says. “Before then, there was no difference between us and a grocery store opening a bank account to deposit its earnings. With 9/11, the world changed, especially for Muslims.”

MTO operators say Barclays’s move would do the opposite of improving competition on a continent whose inhabitants already pay well over the odds for their money transfers. U.S.-based Western Union and MoneyGram, which the Barclays decision would not affect, charge far higher fees than Dahabshiil, which prides itself on being the cheapest MTO in the world.

Dahabshiil has now applied for and been granted a banking license under Somaliland’s existing Islamic banking legislation. But if that materializes, there would still be an open question of how thousands of rural families who will never see the inside of a bank — too far away, too expensive — would survive financially.

After a spirited lobbying campaign by the Somali diaspora, fronted by Olympic sprinter Mo Farah, whose family lives in Somaliland, the British government set up an action group in the fall of 2013 to try to hammer out a solution. The Department for International Development (DFID), alongside the British Treasury, is working on establishing a “safer corridor” for remittances. Its feasibility study explores ways of improving customer due diligence, from biometric fingerprinting to PINs to bar codes, and the establishment of an independent “trusted third party” to audit transactions. But more than a year after the remittance issue first blew up, the “safer corridor” remains a distant aspiration.

British consultants who were in Hargeisa to address a conference on money laundering, attended by Somaliland government ministers, remittance companies, the local Chamber of Commerce, and the World Bank, dismiss the “safer corridor” idea as a non-starter. (They have been commissioned by Dahabshiil to carry out a regional banking survey.) “It’s a Hans Christian Andersen story concocted by DFID, a case of the emperor’s new clothes,” says Peter Norris of Obiter Consult. “It’s been very unhelpful in luring everyone into a false sense of security.”

“The idea that you can have some massive computer system and somehow feed all this information in … and the computer will somehow work out which clients are dodgy and which are clean is a nonsense,” he adds…

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