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Aid theft in Somalia is not what you think

The long-standing extortion of aid meant for the displaced is not a simple case of theft, it's part of a far more complex political economy.

This is a photo of five women taken in the daytime. The camera angle is low. They are all wearing head coverings and flowy fabric. Claudia Rosel/IOM
Displaced women at a camp in Dolow, in Somalia's southern Gedow region. Some 1.3 million Somalis were displaced last year after six seasons of failed rains that scorched farms and decimated livestock herds.

The UN has blown the whistle on “widespread and systematic” food aid diversion in Somalia, triggering the suspension of EU funding to the World Food Programme, and generating lurid headlines about the theft of aid meant for the starving.

The donor reaction is understandable – yet counter-productive. We all condemn corruption and waste in the aid system. But until we recognise and understand Somalia’s political economy, an aid freeze is unlikely to result in any significant improvement to the lives of the 3.8 million displaced people sheltering in the thousands of informal camps across the country.

And we have also been here before. Food diversion “revelations” emerge every few years in Somalia. A decision to shut down aid delivery usually follows, but then a few months later a U-turn is performed, with a re-engagement on roughly the same terms as before.

In this latest episode, the development news service Devex reported that a confidential UN investigation – commissioned by Secretary-General António Guterres – concluded that Somali landowners, local authorities, members of the security forces, and humanitarian workers are all involved in stealing aid intended for vulnerable internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the capital, Mogadishu. 

At the forefront of the diversion are the so-called “gatekeepers” – influential private individuals, linked to local clans, who run Mogadishu’s IDP camps. They deal directly with the aid agencies and, according to the UN, leverage their control over food beneficiary lists to extort payments from the displaced.

A complex relationship

Yet research shows that IDP payments to gatekeepers should not be seen as simple extortion. A much more complex – even mutually beneficial – relationship is at play.

It starts with the dynamics around vulnerability. Displaced people, and the broader urban poor, struggle with a desperate lack of shelter, security of tenure, and protection. The inability of both the government and aid community to effectively respond to these needs creates a vacuum – a business niche. 

Enter the gatekeepers, or as they are less pejoratively known, informal settlement managers (ISMs). 

Consultancy firm Tana Copenhagen has been researching informal settlements, ISMs, and access to shelter and services in Mogadishu since 2011. Our analysis questions the prevailing one-dimensional attitude that portrays ISMs as little more than aid “parasites”.

To enhance the integrity of the aid delivery system, we first need to acknowledge the facts on the ground – and take a far less simplistic approach. Only then can the system be reformed to make it more transparent and accountable. 

The IDP business 

To grasp the relationship between displaced people and ISMs – and the long-established system of payments, known as “rent”, that occurs – the following needs to be understood:

  • IDPs do not have access to formal camps. There are no settlements controlled by the city of Mogadishu, or the international community for that matter. Instead, IDPs reside on private land, or public land controlled by local community leaders.
  • The gatekeepers are in many cases former IDPs who have links to the local networks of landowners, clan chiefs, and business leaders. Their legitimacy rests on their ability to provide access to land and services, as well as security in the settlements – all vital needs for IDPs. If they fail to provide, IDPs will relocate. This means there is some degree of accountability in most settlements – although it can be significantly improved upon in many cases.
  • By providing shelter and security to IDPs, the gatekeepers believe they are providing a service. Therefore, as in any business arrangement, a payment is expected. 

Rent payments are a consequence of the fact that neither the government nor the international community has been able to provide a safe space where displaced people can settle.

The level of insecurity in Mogadishu – the result of the long-running insurgency by al-Shabab – also means that aid agencies pay at best only irregular visits to IDP settlements, and spend as little time as possible on the ground.

Displaced people are therefore forced to reside on land that others own or control, and where there is little to no oversight by aid agencies and government authorities.

The main issue, then, is the lack of formal acknowledgement of this political economy – either by the aid community or donors. The fact is, the gatekeeper system is entrenched. Donors and implementing agencies need to recognise this and work with the city of Mogadishu to bring in much-needed reforms.

The lack of a willingness to face this reality is a lost opportunity. It leads to the continuation of an opaque system in which IDPs and the urban poor can be overtaxed by ISMs. A better approach would be to work with those willing to improve the system’s accountability.

The city of Mogadishu, known as the Benadir Regional Administration, is aware of the situation and already has a policy in place to ensure enhanced transparency. This is a foundation to build on – recognising the role of informal power structures in Mogadishu, rather than denying their existence or labelling them as thieves. 

Would the implementation of such a policy solve all the problems? No, there remains a  perverse incentive to keep the IDP designation alive rather than recognising many of the displaced have been in Mogadishu for years and have no intention to return to their rural homes.

And there is also an urgent need to shift from a humanitarian paradigm, and work towards longer-term durable solutions. That would entail integrating the people living in informal settlements into the wider community, allowing them to become genuine Mogadishu citizens with all the legal rights that entails, including opportunities for sustainable livelihoods. 

First and foremost, this would require security of tenure – to prevent landowners, business people, and the clans forcing the displaced from the informal settlements when land values rise. 

And ultimately, humanitarian aid needs to shift to development support – the much-talked about “nexus” – enabling people to build a future and regain their dignity.

*This article was amended on 29 September to cite Devex as the original source of the news regarding the UN investigation.

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