Can we (ever) have an honest conversation about corruption and accountability in Somalia?

The corrupt abuse and diversion of aid, and what aid agencies can do to mitigate, it is as topical as ever, given the suspension of food aid in Ethiopia, looting of aid in Sudan and current discussions in Somalia on this subject. We’ve been working on these and related issues for the last 10 years, including in a major study on corruption in Somalia in 2016 with Transparency International (TI), as well as through previous studies such as on Food and Power and in a Synthesis Paper of our previous programme.

What all of this work shows is that aid, in all of its guises, is a significant part of the underlying political economy of Somalia and that the corrupt abuse of aid is systemic, deeply embedded and happening within international organisations – it’s not just something that affects local actors and that INGOs and UN agencies are somehow immune to.

Somalia has a long history of aid. The Ethiopia-Somalia war of 1977-78 generated a large aid response, Somalia was one of the largest per capita recipients of aid in the Cold War era and humanitarian aid has been significant through the last three decades of civil war.

Aid in Somalia is critically needed and has played an important role in mitigating the worst impacts of famine conditions in 2017 and now in 2022-23 (and perhaps an even worse famine in 2011). It’s sorely needed and badly lacking in Sudan, and its suspension in Ethiopia is deepening suffering. But the effectiveness of aid is compromised by the extent to which it is being corruptly abused.

A crucial point in discussing and assessing corruption and aid diversion in Somalia (and in many other contexts) is that it is systemic; it pervades the entire aid system and has become part of the wider political economy of the country. In this light, there is a tendency when incidents of corruption become visible to look for scapegoats; typically, this occurs with international actors looking to blame local counterparts, whether government or local NGOs or both. In doing so, there is an underlying pattern of international actors absolving themselves of responsibility and accountability and assuming that mitigating initiatives that are then introduced will solve the problem. This is a practice we have observed at close quarters, particularly in some of the cases that occurred around the humanitarian response to the 2011 famine. This practice of scapegoating is not only inappropriate but does not reflect the reality.

Renewed focus on monitoring and accountability is often insufficient for addressing these systemic issues, because communities perceive these as preconditions to receive aid. Ongoing research from the Better Assistance in Crises programme (BASIC) on accountability for social assistance programmes in Somalia shows how community members and representatives prefer not to expose aid corruption, as a local researcher in Baidoa explained:


Even if people know the truth, they are scared because they might lose the little they are receiving. If they report [an issue], it might reach the upper levels and the aid will be stopped.


Corruption risks exist across the programme cycle. Identifying partners, awarding and pricing contracts, negotiating access, hiring staff, selecting and registering aid recipients and monitoring processes are all points at which corruption happens. Aid agencies and their staff are often seen as detached, distant and overpaid. International humanitarian (or developmental) aid is not associated with moral or ethical norms around assisting the poor or most vulnerable.

The first two factors identified above – the identification of local partners and the awarding of contracts (to private contractors and humanitarian agencies) – are two of the most pervasive corrupt practices and influence many others. For example, it is considered a widespread practice for staff of international agencies (UN and INGOs) to collude around the partnering or sub-contracting of local NGOs. This takes place in different forms. One version of this practice is that many local ‘partners’ have in fact been created by the staff of international agencies as a business enterprise, in order to gain contracts and make money. Some of these individuals are relatively well-known in Somali circles. A second variation of this relationship is that the staff of international agencies will ask for, or be offered, money by a local NGO in order to gain a contract – the instigation of such relationships can be from either direction. Once such relationships are established, the two parties work together, and the respective staff of the contracting agency works to ensure that monitoring and/or investigation processes within the organization are compromised and work in favour of maintaining this relationship. These practices are of course not unique to Somalia and even a cursory consultation with colleagues will reveal similar practices from other contexts.

Corruption is a global problem affecting the private sector as well as aid agencies. Commenting on the private sector for McKinsey, Ravi Venkatesan argues that the “hardest issues for ethical multinationals, regardless of their country of origin, are rarely the big-ticket scandals and scams that make headlines. Rather, it’s the subtler but more pervasive forms of fraud and corruption, such as pressures for payments on routine transactions, that often pose the biggest challenge”.  Venkatesan points out that “a company that is uncompromising in its ethics develops a reputation that serves as the best shield against bribery”, and that this reputation is influenced by “leadership or a lapse in leadership”. Local elders consulted for the TI study told us that they know which organisations stick to their principles and which ones do not, and they welcome both for different purposes; the former for the benefits that they will bring to their area in terms of good quality aid programmes that benefit their people and the latter for the personal benefits that come to them.

As one respondent noted during the TI study, addressing corruption in Somalia is not simply a question of “monitoring it away”. Another used the analogy of a balloon: “If you squeeze it, it will pop out somewhere else. If you want to, you can always outsmart the mitigation system we’ve put in place.” This is a critical point: while many systems have been implemented to improve risk mitigation and monitoring over recent years, there is limited shared learning to know which are more or less effective.

The most important message for us is that corruption and aid diversion must be acknowledged as a systemic problem and focusing on one or two prominent examples, particularly if they are local or national targets, is ultimately ignoring the deeper, systemic problem and deflecting blame. We would argue that perceptions of corruption and practices of corruption emanate as much from international actors as they do from the local level; corruption exists as a function of the relationship between the two. Neither are we suggesting that a perfect system is possible – indeed in extremis (i.e. averting a famine), and in order to reach structurally marginalised populations, trade-offs have to be made.

We are also not arguing that the entire aid system is rotten; there are examples of good practice. Addressing these issues requires a collaborative process across the sector, involving local, national and international actors. Tackling corruption more effectively requires sustained attention as well as willingness to scrutinize international organisations and to find ways to talk openly with the people affected by corruption about how it works, and with donors about what can be done about it. We have had some of these difficult conversations based on our research. We will continue to do so going forward.


About PeaceRep Somalia

Our Somalia research aims to deepen understandings of the country’s fragmented predicament, ten years after the establishment of the Federal government and in light of the continued pervasiveness of conflict and political instability, both domestically and regionally.  PeaceRep’s Somalia research will explore a number of themes, including how to build on the Galkaio agreement; checkpoints and sub-national governance; and justice and security. Read more about the Galkaio agreement in the report, Finding peace in Somalia: the Galkaio ‘local’ peace agreement, and this article in Peacebuilding, Galkaio, Somalia: bridging the border.

The PeaceRep Somalia team is led by Nisar Majid and Khalif Abdirahman (LSE Conflict and Civicness Research Group), and builds in part on previous research from the Conflict Research Programme at LSE IDEAS.

Dr Nisar Majid leads the PeaceRep Somalia research team. Learn more about Nisar

Khalif Abdirahman is the PeaceRep Somalia research team’s senior field researcher. Learn more about Khalif

Guhad Adan is an independent consultant, LSE Research Associate and regular contributor to PeaceRep. Learn more about Guhad

Learn more about PeaceRep’s Somalia research