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Powerful networks impose taxes on aid in Somalia. It’s time for this to end

‘The humanitarian system must engage in a way that prioritises people’s safety, rights, and access to life-saving support as a foundational principle.’

People displaced by five seasons of drought settle in an informal camp in Baidoa, central Somalia, in 2022. Ezra Millstein/Mercy Corps
People displaced by five seasons of drought settle in an informal camp in Baidoa, central Somalia, in 2022.

The thorny issue of aid diversion in Somalia continues to gain attention, especially as Somalia prepares to co-host a global summit on food security in London this November. 

There are a wide range of views on the topic. In a recent opinion piece published in The New Humanitarian, Erik Bryld, who has researched urban displacement in Somalia for more than a decade, discussed one element: the role of “gatekeepers” – private individuals who manage informal displacement camps and take a cut of aid rations as a form of “rent”.

This fee can amount to as much as 50% of the aid allotted for each beneficiary – half of a ration that is calculated as the bare minimum a person can survive on. 

Bryld argued that, in at least some cases, this taxation can be mutually beneficial – gatekeepers can provide limited services in return, and there is a pooling and sharing of aid in the camps. He suggested that rather than considering gatekeepers as thieves, we should acknowledge this reality and work to improve what is an entrenched system.

Bryld’s piece was a reaction to a confidential UN report into aid diversion. Its findings noted the issue of gatekeepers, but also painted a fuller picture of the local power networks that benefit from aid distribution. 

With our combined 30-plus years of experience working to understand Somalia’s aid sector, as well as our relationships of trust with minority community leaders and local experts, we felt it was important that this broader context be addressed.

Power dynamics

First of all, it is crucial to appreciate Somalia’s underlying power hierarchies when it comes to displacement, and to understand how the country's four million internally displaced persons (IDPs) interact with the aid sector. 

People displaced to Mogadishu, the capital, predominantly come from within the Digil and Mirifle clan family, the Somali Bantu community, and other smaller minority communities – all of whom are structurally marginalised in Somalia. 

When they move to Mogadishu, they are entering the territory of powerful interest groups within the Hawiye clan. These networks dominate the local authorities, the local militia, the business community, and land ownership, and have a long history of exploiting minority and marginalised populations.

The UN study specifically alludes to this issue. According to one media report, it noted that gatekeepers – part of the network of clan-based power holders – give “preferential treatment to members of Somalia’s dominant clans, reinforcing a system of patronage, while minorities were denied access to the same level of care”. 

While there is growing awareness within the aid sector of majority-minority clan dynamics, far more progress is needed to achieve full and fair inclusion in current aid programming for all people in need. 

If these dynamics are ignored, it means the perpetuation of the discrimination and stigmatisation that targets the vulnerable, including minority groups, disabled people, women, and children. 

The ‘IDP economy’

The aid industry is an integral part of Somalia’s political economy. Research by the London School of Economics (LSE) points to the extent of business interests involved in Somalia’s “IDP economy”. 

This can result in IDPs being forced, pressurised, or incentivised to remain in camps. Within this corrupt system, “gatekeeper-ship” can even be bought and sold. 

Businesspeople who spoke to LSE admitted that “the more displacement, the more business”, and that “increased IDPs into the main cities is good business for us, but it is not good for the country”.

The aid sector must work to ensure that IDPs are not seen as a business opportunity. 

The burden of negotiation with these power networks falls to desperate and disenfranchised IDPs, who have been forced from their rural homes by conflict and climate disaster. They face an impossible choice: Either hand over a percentage of their ration, or be evicted from their camp and get nothing.

If, as Bryld suggests, we are to recognise the role of informal power structures, then aid agencies should explore developing formal contracts with the owners of the land where IDP settlements have been established. Rent could then be transparently paid – absorbed as part of broader programme costs – and fair and independent reporting mechanisms could be established to help check abuse.

This should only be an initial step to improve the prevailing system of aid malpractice in the short term as it risks perpetuating the profits made from the vulnerable. In the medium to long term, the aid sector must work to ensure that IDPs are not seen as a business opportunity. 

Lack of accountability

There has been a long-standing failure of accountability mechanisms in Somalia. Security constraints prevent a consistent or widespread field presence by aid staff: phone lines established to collect feedback are ineffective, either not working, inaccessible, or not trusted – especially among minority communities.

In an environment of heightened mistrust and widespread exposure to exploitation, it is imperative that reporting mechanisms exist that are independent of those who provide services – including the gatekeepers, local government authorities, and aid agencies.

This is a key element of risk mitigation when the legitimate fear of retribution – being removed from beneficiary lists, intimidated, or evicted from camps – is so real.

Such feedback systems do exist. One example is Loop, an interactive voice response and reply initiative that enables confidential reporting when exclusion, exploitation, and diversion occur – with referrals made in real time to appropriate focal points for assistance or further investigation.

Loop has been successful in securing specialised help for victims of sexual exploitation or abuse who were too afraid to go to a local non-specialist clinic. It has also triggered investigations by aid agencies after minority communities reported being blocked from relief distributions.

Rolling out these sorts of mechanisms is crucial work that must continue. 

Finally, the aid sector provides hundreds of millions of dollars each year to Somalia. The humanitarian system must therefore engage in a way that prioritises people’s safety, rights, and access to life-saving support as a foundational principle.

We must end practices that legitimise and perpetuate financial arrangements that enrich the few at the expense of the many, and that continue to expose the most marginalised to damaging exploitation.

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