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Gatekeepers in Mogadishu

Summary of report1

Summary prepared by Dina Sinigallia. Report authors: Erik Bryld and Dina Sinigallia (Tanya Copenhagen), Christine Kamau (iDC)


Location: Mogadishu, Somalia

What we know: Gatekeepers – people or structures that control access to something, such as information or services – are an important consideration in aid operations. In challenging environments such as urban Somalia, the nature and influence of gatekeepers on protecting internally displaced persons is complex.

What this article adds: The gatekeeper system is significant in Somalia and has grown in response to the need for large scale assistance but lack of access. Gatekeepers in Somalia may exert a positive (enabling access to services, land or security) or negative (e.g. diverting resources, taxing resources received, mis-targeting). Actions to minimise risks include continued movement away from remote management, expand the use of IDP feedback and complaints mechanisms, premote public recognition of well performing gatekeepers, and more transparent operational procedures.

Tana Copenhagen (a Danish based professional consultancy) and iDC (a Kenya based consultancy firm) were commissioned by the Cash Consortium – a group of four NGOs (ACF, Adeso, Danish Refugee Council (DRC) and Save the Children) who have been implementing large-scale unconditional cash transfers in South Central Somalia since 2011 – to carry out a study on gatekeepers in Mogadishu. The aim of the study was to identify possible strategies that aid agencies could use to mitigate the negative impact gatekeepers can have and improve their role in protecting internally displaced persons (IDPs).

The study team used a perception-based approach, triangulating information gleaned from a literature review and key informant interviews in Nairobi and Mogadishu. A total of 39 individuals from 24 different organisations working in Mogadishu and 52 other Mogadishu-based stakeholders (gatekeepers, IDPs and community leaders) were interviewed in December 2012. The investigation covered 11 IDP sites. Due to the complex nature and sensitivity of the subject matter, the study focused on qualitative data collection methods. While a number of limitations must be acknowledged (the timing of the study and the sensitivity of the topic), the findings are believed to be a good representation of the challenges presented by the gatekeeper system.

Interviews highlighted the fact that aid organisations use the term gatekeeper generically, to refer to various levels of actors or power structures involved in working with IDPs, or who have a vested interest in them. The team adapted the following definition of the term to the Mogadishu IDP context: a gatekeeper is ‘a person or thing that controls access to something, or that monitors, selects, and can withhold, information, etc.’2

Gatekeepers exist at various levels. In Mogadishu, with relation to IDPs, the most direct and obvious gatekeeper is that person that allows or denies access to IDPs. At district level, there are other gatekeepers in place who allow access, but only when certain conditions are met. Based on this study, gatekeepers at this level include:

For the sake of clarity, the team used the term gatekeeper to refer only to the overall IDP site leaders whom other camp structures report to. The other actors mentioned above are referred to as ‘power holders’.

Gatekeepers are not new to the Somali context, and especially the urban environments of South Central Somalia. In 1992, when members of the population started fleeing to Mogadishu to escape the conflict (and subsequently became IDPs), some individuals stepped up or were selected as representatives of their IDP communities. When aid agencies and UNOSOM came to Mogadishu in ‘93-‘94, they needed to engage with some form of IDP representation, and this is when the phenomenon of gatekeepers is said to have started to develop, especially as these representatives began to realise that they could use this system to bring in income for themselves. With the departure of UNOSOM in 1995 and the coming in of the Islamic Courts Union, the system weakened, reportedly leaving the IDPs and IDP committees to arrange matters on their own. Gatekeeping, however, resurfaced with the return of aid agencies in March 2007 and the existing IDP leadership systems and committees were quickly taken over by these so called ‘gatekeepers’. The large-scale arrival of IDPs between 2010 and 2011 (and to some extent in 2012), their critical need for assistance, and the continued approach of remote management, allowed the gatekeeper system to develop further in Mogadishu.

This study found that gatekeepers come into being in three main ways: (1) Inhabitants of Mogadishu who, on a speculative basis, search for and identify an empty plot of land and - through connections with influential personalities in the area - establish sites to attract IDPs to settle; (2) Existing land owners who set up sites to attract IDPs and aid; and (3) Individuals who are appointed to run the daily affairs of a site by the local leaders (most often the DC) of the area where the site is located. This third type is often drawn from the local host community, but occasionally, especially in the older sites, they are IDPs themselves.

What started as an attempt by gatekeepers to assist fellow countrymen in times of need, has evolved into a lucrative economic opportunity for individuals with equally limited avenues for making a living. Many respondents recognized that, given the significant gap in service delivery to the IDPs, gatekeepers can be seen as the ‘private sector’ stepping in to provide services. Consequently, the majority of the IDPs interviewed considered the gatekeepers as a positive phenomenon as they provide them with services (especially land, security and access to some basic services). However, the gatekeepers’ significant power can also lead to abuse, and gatekeepers have also benefitted from aid by diverting it before it reaches the intended beneficiaries. They do this in a number of ways: by force, by negotiating with humanitarian actors or by influencing the targeting of beneficiaries. Even when the aid safely reaches the designated beneficiaries, gatekeepers have been known to accrue benefits by ‘taxing’ following aid distributions, through demands/negotiations for a percentage payment from IDPs. Some gatekeepers were found to genuinely want to assist IDPs while others were seen to be purely exploitative. Interviews with NGO staff also indicated incidents of sexual abuse and human rights violations of IDPs, though these did not come out directly in the interviews with the IDPs.3

The report describes a number of factors, which contributed to the emergence of gatekeepers. These include: The political and local governance context: the collapse of virtually all state structures in 1991, the protracted period of conflict and the split of leadership between informal institutions (such as clan leadership) and formal institutions (such as the Mayor and the DC).

The humanitarian context: fighting, compounded by natural disasters, led to massive displacement, with Mogadishu attracting large numbers of people, in addition to its resident urban poor.

The government’s response: three important elements were out of the control of the state and fuelled the gatekeeper system: the local governance (the DCs) system, persistent insecurityand access to land. The general climate of impunity further facilitated the process. Furthermore, the absence of a credible national entity responsible for dealing with IDPs - and hence the absence of a clear and strong interlocutor for IDP issues - further complicated matters.

The humanitarian community’s response: Somalia in general and Mogadishu in particular present a challenging operating environment. The decision to adopt remote management (i.e. withdrawing or drastically reducing international, and sometimes even national, personnel from the field and transferring greater programme responsibility to local staff or local partner organisations) had a number of serious implications (e.g. international staff losing familiarity with the field setting, difficulty of carrying out monitoring activities, limitations to providing guidance, technical support and capacity development of local staff and partners, and so on. Ninety six percent of the IDPs interviewed state having only an indirect relationship with humanitarian actors).

There are a number of actors who have an interest – humanitarian or otherwise – in the role played by gatekeepers. At district level, an IDP site is likely to have a variety of actors with some level of interest. Accountabilities lie at different levels, with each level having a varying degree of influence.

Gatekeepers are first and foremost accountable to the landlord from whom they rent the land, or, if they are landowners, to those power holders supporting them to remain in the gatekeeper position, e.g. local clan leaders, the DC or business people. Apart from a handful of cases, this accountability goes upwards, to the DCs. DCs, for their part, answer to the Mayor. The influence of DCs varies and some are more powerful than others. Having a strong clan and militia backing plays a key part in the level of power they hold. However, downward accountability - to IDPs - is virtually non-existent. This is illustrated by IDPs’ most frequent response to the question about what they would change within the camp. The most common response was, “That the gatekeeper would consult us more on issues that affect us.”

In the short-term, the report asserts that gatekeepers will continue to remain a fixture of the IDP situation in Mogadishu. The new government has few resources or capacity to institute and enforce measures that would ensure greater protection of IDPs. It falls to humanitarian actors and the donor community to look for ways in which they can continue providing much needed assistance while still adhering to humanitarian principles and principles of good donorship.

The report identifies a number of strategies the Somali government and humanitarian agencies can put in place that could have a positive impact on the environment in which aid is delivered to IDPs in Mogadishu. Revised strategies should lead to a progressive phase-out of gatekeepers, however, they need to be applied progressively and with caution, to minimise the risk of rejection of the approach by gatekeepers, which would negatively impact the protection and security of IDPs. The team suggests the implementation of the following short-term measures:

  1. Continue the move away from remote management. While security still remains an issue that affects access, the presence of NGO staff is a mitigating factor in the approach taken when dealing with the diversion of aid. Closer monitoring of activities and increased decision-making power of Mogadishu-based staff allows for immediate response and more context-appropriate approaches.
  2. In collaboration with the Disaster Management Agency (DMA), humanitarian actors should engage all gatekeepers in awareness-raising and training on aspects of IDP protection, human rights, good leadership, transparency, accountability and management. This will require an identification exercise of all gatekeepers and IDP management structures. In addition, IDPs and the local community should go through awareness-raising sessions on their rights and obligations.
  3. The camp committees should be reconstituted through a more transparent selection process as is, for example, applied by the Community-Driven Recovery and Development project (CDRD).5
  4. Humanitarian organisations should expand the use of IDP feedback and complaints mechanisms, as is already underway. This should also involve the (reconstituted) camp committees. These committees could form the first level of dealing with complaints, with the implementing agency being the second level. The aim of this approach is to gradually increase the capacity of IDPs to effectively handle arising issues.
  5. The humanitarian agencies and donors should assist the Government in developing the capacity of the DMA, clarifying its role vis-à-vis other government relief offices, and devising a framework to guide humanitarian aid delivery in Mogadishu.
  6. Undertake public information meetings before each distribution and involve local authorities and the DMA in order to minimise the power exerted by gatekeepers and the degree of ‘taxation’, which is also exacerbated by a lack of clear information.
  7. To encourage better uptake of good practices, and positive competition between gatekeepers in term of the services they offer to IDPs, humanitarian actors should promote public recognition of well-performing gatekeepers.
  8. The different actors working with IDPs and gatekeepers should apply a harmonised and more transparent approach, specifically, develop and agree on minimum standards and operating principles. The next step would be to review existing and past initiatives, identifying those appropriate to the present context of Mogadishu. This necessitates having greater input from the field staff on what could work on the ground.
  9. Promote open dialogue with the donor community to enable joint initiatives at policy and implementation level. For the above minimum operating standards to be fully taken up, there is need for transparent dialogue and a willingness to discuss these issues at donor level. The issue of gatekeepers will need to be addressed with the involvement of the National Government and Mogadishu administration. A joint effort on policy dialogue, combined with a revised implementation approach at local level is needed.

The team identified three specific recommendations for consideration in the long-term:

For more information, contact: Dina Sinigallia, email:

Show footnotes

1Bryld.E, Kamau. C and Sinigallia.D (2013). Gatekeepers in Mogadishu. The Somalia Cash Consortium. 31st January 2013

2Oxford English Dictionary

3More on this issue can be found in Human Rights Watch’s recent report: Hostages of the Gatekeepers, released on 29th March 2013. Available at:

4Even when institutions were set up to deal with IDPs, these lacked the resources, capacity and support needed to be effective.

5The CDRD programme relies on communities to drive development activities. It is a joint effort of United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Danish International Development Agency (DANIDA), the Department for International Development (DFID), Danish Refugee Council (DRC), European Commission (EC) and Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA).

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Reference this page

Erik Bryld, Dina Sinigallia, Tanya Copenhagen, Christine Kamau (). Gatekeepers in Mogadishu. Field Exchange 46: Special focus on urban food security & nutrition, September 2013. p25.



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