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Drop the gun and take a pen

Countries have stepped up their efforts to fight piracy and warlordism in Somalia. The ILO has partnered with other UN agencies to address the root causes of the conflicts: chronic unemployment and a lack of prospects for youth.

Feature | 21 February 2013
"Put the gun and take the Pen", slogan of the ILO Youth for Change programme
BOSSASO, Puntland (ILO News) – Bossaso is the largest city in Somalia’s semi-autonomous region of Puntland.

The city’s economy depends on the port, sending tens of thousands of sheep, camels and goats to the Arab world each year and importing vast quantities of staple and consumer goods for Puntland and beyond. But pirates, clan fighters or simply unemployed youth are seriously hampering the expanding economy.

Hassan Abdikarim, a former pirate, has already spent three years in prison for piracy.

“I was a pirate. I come from a poor family so I would do anything for money,” he says.

As with many other young Somalis, the lure of the prosperity associated with piracy outweighed the risks. There was simply not much choice for him at the time. “I have never seen any government presence here and I have no education,” he explains.

“I went to sea several times, without much success. Finally, we were caught and I went to prison for three years.”
From pirate to apprentice
Hassan Abdikarim, a former pirate tells his story (Double click to switch to full screen)

After his release from prison, Abdikarim could have become a pirate again. Instead, he joined an ILO-supported reintegration programme called Youth for Change.

Although piracy may have become a lesser problem in the region than it was two years ago, there is still much to do and the ILO programme is working with different categories of youth at risk.

“We work with former pirates, school dropouts, clan fighters and other delinquents, to show them another way of life,” explains Mohamed Mohamud, Program Manager of a local NGO, Somali Family Services (SFS), which has worked closely with the ILO on this programme.

The programme depends on close cooperation with local authorities, including elders and councillors.

“We ask them to find participants… The idea is to select those who come out of jail, those who the police bring to us,” explains Jamal Mohamed Warsama, Chair of the Burao District Security Committee.

Since 2011, the ILO has worked with over 1,100 youth at risk, including former pirates, to provide immediate work, income, skills and business training. The ILO manages the job creation aspect of the Youth for Change Programme, while UNICEF focuses on children, and UNDP leads on governance and rule of law issues.

The programme supports civil society, local government and the state security sector, to strengthen peace and security at the community level as the Somali people seek to leave behind the ravages of war.

The main support comes from the Government of Japan, with other international partners now expressing considerable interest in engaging in an expanded programme.

Delivering Shaqo Hufan

“Piracy is the drama bringing the world to look at the seas off Somalia. Our project turns more to the question of why people turn to piracy, criminality and become tools for extremism. We are providing a positive alternative where young people become agents of change in a society that has been so negative for so long,” explains Paul Crook, the ILO’s Chief Technical Advisor in Somalia.

We may start war in a day but to create a professional plumber takes considerably longer.”
The positive alternative is Shaqo Hufan, meaning Decent Work in Somali. “The ILO-UNDP-UNICEF project shows how skills can unlock the entrepreneurial spirit that the Somalis are famous for, a spirit which has led them to trade with probably as many countries as there are members of the ILO,” Crook adds.

Through the ILO’s contribution to Youth for Change, young people are steered from being at-risk of becoming a pirate, a criminal or even an extremist, to working for themselves and their communities.

They attend classes addressing social skills, rule of law and peace building, with references to Quranic studies. After school, they work on employment-intensive projects planned by local communities. These jobs are paid and allow the young participants to make a living.

The ILO also promotes vocational skills and enterprise training to unlock the Somali entrepreneurial flair. “We may start war in a day but to create a professional plumber takes considerably longer,” says Crook.

“The training programme was good. I learnt how to set up a business. Before I was not even able to read and write in Somali,” says Ibrahim Mohamoud, a former unemployed youth from Burao, Somaliland.

A mentorship programme and a grants scheme help people like Mohamoud to master the difficult transition from classes and training to the world of work.