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A few years ago, Somalia had its worst famine in 60 years. Hundreds of thousands of people fled their dried up farms and ended up in cities, especially the capital, Mogadishu. The famine is over but most of those people are still displaced.

In collaboration with our Planet Money team, NPR's East Africa correspondent Gregory Warner reports on how powerful Somalis have turned these people into profitable commodities in a market fueled by Western aid.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Posted along the streets of Mogadishu in Somalia, you'll find wooden signs hand-painted in English, each with the name of a camp and someone's phone number.

(Foreign language spoken)

Is this your email address and your phone number?

ADAD HASSAN JIMALI: (Foreign language spoken)

WARNER: Next to this sign, I meet Mrs. Adad Hassan Jimali. She's a stout woman in a black headscarf, super friendly, quick to give us a tour of her camp, past tight rows of tents, some old latrines, a very bare bones school: there's no books, no pens, no chairs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING CHILDREN)

WARNER: But Mrs. Jimali is not a professional aid worker. She's actually the widow of a powerful government official who gave her this land. And she paid to have it cleared to make space for the tents. So I wondered why, 'cause the U.N. wasn't paying her a salary to help these people. The people are mostly too poor to pay rent. When I ask her how she pays for this, it's awkward. She says she's doing it for Allah - no money at all.

JIMALI: (Foreign language spoken)

WARNER: Then she says OK, if there's some extra food from the delivery left over, she might take some of that and sell it for cash. But a clue to how this camp really operates comes when she tells me about a deal that she struck with another landowner.

JIMALI: (Foreign language spoken)

WARNER: She put some families on his land and in exchange...

JIMALI: (Through Translator) We have to pay him 10 percent.

WARNER: Ten percent of the bed nets, the paraffin, the bags of rice. Whatever you've seen on some glossy photograph in a U.N. brochure, 10 percent of that goes not to the poor but to the landowner.

And is that a common deal around here, that to rent the land and then 10 percent (unintelligible)?

JIMALI: (Through Translator) That is common deal for everywhere.

WARNER: You might realize this is basically stealing. Stealing food meant for poor people, paid for by Western taxpayers. Somali landlords will resell some of this on the open market. Obviously this is against United Nations rules. But Edem Wosornu, of the U.N., says sometimes humanitarians have no choice, especially in 2011. That's when they were facing the worst famine in a half century.

EDEM WOSORNU: And all we could think about was save lives. Get the assistance in. We knew that some of the assistance would be diverted but what could you do? In the absence of a perfect system, assist the people, save lives. That was your mantra.

WARNER: And Somalia is too dangerous for aid workers to set up their own camps, so entrepreneurs like Mrs. Jimali could set up private camps and stock them with people. She would go to villages affected by famine and say: Hey, you people come with me, I got some land for you. Or she would actually purchase the people from other camp owners.

JIMALI: (Through Translator) You see these orphans, some of them I have collected from other camps. Some of them I have collected from their villages.

WARNER: And this business of collecting and trading displaced people is so common that aid workers have a name for these camp owners. Consultant Erik Bryld says they're called gatekeepers.

ERIK BRYLD: Because if you wanted to reach out to these segments of society, this was the only way you could do it; which was practiced and accepted but sort of with closed eyes. You would need to go through the gatekeepers.

WARNER: Gatekeepers, he says, can make aid delivery possible in an impossible situation. They have connections in the complex clan networks that keep them safe. And it's true, no matter what violence happens in Somalia - grenade attacks and suicide bombs - they stay open for business. But as a business, gatekeepers are completely unregulated and unmonitored.

In a different camp I meet Halima Sheikh Ali, a displaced person outside her tent.

HALIMA SHEIKH ALI: (Foreign language spoken)

WARNER: She says that an aid agency distributed 100 ration cards. These are cards that give very desperate people access to daily food distributions. The gatekeeper kept 85 of those cards to give to his militiamen or sell on the open market. And that's way higher than the 10 percent cut that Jimali said was standard.

So what happens if you complain to the camp leader?

ALI: (Through Translator) He will not speak to you. He's the one who takes these things.

WARNER: Last year, Human Rights Watch put out a report, bluntly titled "Hostages of the Gatekeepers." It described growing sexual violence inside these camps. And other camp residents have reported that gatekeepers will confiscate their ration cards, hold on to them to make sure the people don't escape.

Justin Brady was formerly head of U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, also called the U.N. OCHA in Somalia. He was coordinating the distribution of aid throughout the country.

JUSTIN BRADY: These are people who have come into the city because of famine, because of armed conflict. They might have been shepherds who no longer have a flock and, in fact, they become the flock. They are now the sheep who are herded around this city and used for the gain of others.

WARNER: And Justin Brady also found that some gatekeepers would exaggerate the size of these so-called flocks. Because if your camp gets more aid for having more people, a simple way to cheat is to build fake tents.

BRADY: And the one we're staring at here right now seems to have a sheet with red and blue flowers on a pink background and, to the side of that, a green towel. So, you know, I'm very skeptical that this has really any inhabitants in it.

WARNER: In Somali language, these fake tents are called rice huts. That is, they're meant for no poor people, only the bags of rice that say: Gift of the U.S. Government.

Mark Yarnell is an advocate for Refugees International. He says that aid agencies have tried lots of ways to reduce the stealing. But they can't get around this basic fact that gatekeepers are on the ground and, because of insecurity, aid agencies are just not.

MARK YARNELL: So how do you actually stop this system that's so deeply entrenched in Mogadishu? You cut off the flow of resources. You cut off the supply and they'll have to look for other business opportunities.

WARNER: Now, this may sound pretty drastic but Yarnell is not saying stop aid to all of Somalia. He's just saying don't send aid to the camps that are wildly abusing the system, where you have gatekeepers who are committing rape or stealing 85 percent. But even this is not a message that the U.N. is ready to hear.

WOSORNU: I think it's not possible. The humanitarian imperative means that you have to assist people.

WARNER: Edem Wosornu has replaced Justin Brady as the new head of the U.N. OCHA in Somalia. And she's the one you heard at the beginning of this story, saying she was sending aid to Somalia in 2011. Saving lives, that was her mantra even though she knew that aid was being diverted. And the agency that she runs now would be the one that could conceivably redirect aid away from the bad gatekeepers and send it to the good ones.

WOSORNU: But do I know who the gatekeeper - a list of gatekeepers in Mogadishu? No way.

WARNER: Do you think it would help to be more honest about the fact that gatekeepers are part of the system? And maybe say: OK, but at least this one is a pretty good one, he only steals maybe 10 percent but this one's stealing 80. You're shaking your head.

WOSORNU: I'm shaking my head because I'm thinking, then it would be accepted that they should be there. They shouldn't be there.

WARNER: But saying they shouldn't be there doesn't help them not to be there.

WOSORNU: I know. I know.

(LAUGHTER)

WOSORNU: I know. But I guess maybe I'm stuck with the perfection.

WARNER: And perfection to her means that Somalia get what most other countries in crisis have. That is: government-designated land where aid agencies can safely operate just to see that aid goes where it should. In Somalia today that seems ever less likely. The business of displaced people is just too profitable.

Gregory Warner, NPR News.

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