More than 50 heads of state and foreign ministers meet in London on Thursday hoping to seize on what some see as the best chance to fix one of the world’s most intractable problems: Somalia.

A failed state since 1991, the coastal country in the Horn of Africa is known for the al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabaab fighters who control most of its south, as well as violent piracy that costs the world an estimated $7bn a year. A famine last year put 4m lives at risk.

According to Henry Bellingham, the UK minister for Africa, the arrest of suspected Somali terrorists in the US and UK and the threat of piracy have created a sense of “added urgency” in the international community. The goal of the conference is to “act as a catalyst to really drive international action”, he told the Financial Times. “The timing is absolutely right,” he added.

The conference faces several challenges, including coordinating western and Muslim approaches to issues such as aid, politics and discussing how to elicit backing for more UN-funded peacekeeping troops when many states are hard-pressed for cash. The conference must also overcome suspicion from some Somalis that it is a western plot.

Participants in the conference include representatives from Turkey, Qatar and east African presidents, Ban Ki-moon, UN secretary-general, and Hillary Clinton, secretary of state for the US, which has shied away from setting foot in Somalia since 18 US soldiers were killed in the attack that inspired the film Black Hawk Down, on the capital Mogadishu in 1993.

“The international community has just left Somalia on the too-difficult pile for too long,” said Sally Healy, fellow at the Rift Valley Institute. “It’s been festering and festering for 20 years with halfhearted, half-baked activities – road maps, documents, timetables, processes – and there’s a huge price.”

There are signs of progress on the ground, primarily in military terms. Fighters from al-Shabaab have been pushed out of the capital Mogadishu and Kenyan troops who crossed into Somalia last year now hold territory in the south while Ethiopian troops have invaded to the west. Last year’s famine has also brought new approaches from Muslim donors such as Turkey and the Gulf states.

However, a string of Somali interest groups have criticised the conference for a number of reasons including “western imperialism”, failing to include enough Somali representatives and overriding existing protocols.

Some argue the UK is playing embarrassing catch-up to Turkey, which has established an embassy in Somalia, partly in response to its efforts to tackle the famine, and now offers direct flights to Mogadishu.

Others argue that the conference could deliver lasting change. “For the first time here is an important power convening and calling heads of state that goes beyond what the UN can do, exclusively to discuss Somalia. It is really a [unique] chance in 20 years,” said Augustine Mahiga, UN envoy to Somalia.

Early drafts of the post-conference communiqué address how to tackle security, international co-ordination and humanitarian needs, backing greater donor oversight of revenues and establishing a stability fund to support local peace deals. Participants are expected to back moves for a swift transition from the donor-backed administration, which is plagued by allegations of corruption, to more representative forms of government.

Donors have long been frustrated by the aid-dependent government and other transitional institutions set up in 2004. These groups are internally split, soak up money, rely on UN-funded African Union troops for protection and control no turf outside the capital. They also deliver little and have repeatedly extended their numbers and mandate beyond their expiry. The UK wants them to keep to an August 20 expiry date, preventing the repeat of last year’s 12-month extension. The US says the international community “will not tolerate spoilers”.

Hope comes in the form of a new political process, to which the Mr Mahiga is a signatory along with four Somali regional representatives. The “Garowe II” process agreed last week aims to draft a new constitution, reform parliament and establish a national constituent assembly that represents Somali’s four major clans and a coalition of minorities.

The conference may also seek support for donor cash to boost UN-backed troop numbers from 12,000 to 17,731, including transferring 4,731 Kenyan troops to the African Union peacekeeping mission, which may cost $500m a year in UN contributions alone. The EU also spends $148m a year on salaries and the US uses the same amount on equipment and training. The US says there is an “urgent need for new, significant donors” to cover the costs of an expanded peacekeeping force.

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