ISTANBUL The United Nations should beef up its operation in Somalia, and other countries who want to help the war-torn state should actually move in and set up bases there, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said on Friday.
Erdogan's direct remarks at a international conference on Somalia in Istanbul, the second hosted in Turkey in two years, were a sign of his administration's growing clout and ambitions in Africa.
"Without living there you cannot devise the correct policies and you cannot help. I invite the international community to open representative offices," Erdogan told the conference attended by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the Somali interim president and delegations from more than 50 countries.
"We have really struggled to make Somalia's voice heard, to make those who do not see or feel what's going on in Somalia, see and feel," he said.
Most aid agencies funding projects in Somalis are actually based in neighboring Kenya or further afield.
Many moved their headquarters out of the country years ago to avoid kidnappings, looting and fighting between al-Qaeda allied militants and Somali troops backed by African forces.
Somalia has been mired in turmoil since the 1991 overthrow of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre.
Erdogan made a high-profile and whirlwind visit to the Somali capital in August last year, bringing his family and a plane full of ministers and consultants. For all its brevity, the trip was still the first time a non-African leader had visited the country in almost 20 years.
While the visit was aimed at drawing attention to the famine that swept across the Horn of Africa nation, it was also part of Ankara's wider strategy of positioning itself as a growing regional power and influential voice within the Muslim world.
Turkey has since opened an embassy in Mogadishu, built hospitals and schools and started direct flights between the two countries. It has also sent hundreds of Somali students to study in Turkey.
While Turkey has been largely applauded for its assistance in Somalia, critics say Ankara's headfirst policy and relative inexperience in the region leaves it vulnerable to manipulation by different political factions.
Erdogan, who has previously lashed out at the international community over Somalia, accusing the "Western world" of ignoring the poor, on Friday urged nations to act together.
"There is a problem in Somalia, but arguing over 'you' or 'I' instead of solving the problem will only prolong the problem," Erdogan said.
The Turkish leader also called on the United Nations to review its mission in Somalia and strengthen its presence there.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who has visited Somalia since Erdogan's trip, said the world body was relocating more staff to the country and also called on international donors to work together.
"Here in this room we are partners who can join forces, who can make a major difference for Somalia's future," he said.
"Today I ask all of you to make this happen, in memory of those Somalis that have died and in service to those who deserve to live in peace and prosperity for generations to come."
Delegates at the conference discussed ways to support Somalia during a transition period that will see the creation of a new constitution, parliament and president.
(Editing by Andrew Heavens)