Informal Settlement Managers: Perception and reality in informal IDP camps in Mogadishu


In the vacuum generated by the Somali conflict over the last 20 years, informal power structures have emerged to address security and service delivery where the government or the international community has failed. At the same time Somalia is experiencing around 1.1 million Internally Displace Persons (IDPs), which have sought security, shelter and livelihoods in new places. In Mogadishu,
Informal Settlement Managers (ISM) have created a business around accommodating the numerous IDPs coming into the city in what by outsiders has been labelled the gatekeeper system.

This gatekeeper system has led to a situation where the ISMs now largely control access to the IDP camps as they have managed to position themselves as unavoidable intermediaries between the IDPs and external actors, including the local government and the humanitarian community. The system is described as ‘arbitrary’ and ‘unregulated’, and the ISMs are perceived to treat the IDPs in an erratic and unaccountable way, and some, even going to the extent of abusing the human rights of the IDPs. However, as this paper will show, the fact that the system is not formalised or regulated by official, bureaucratic norms, does not mean that the ISMs operate completely arbitrarily. In-depth studies from eight settlements1 show that the system is deeply permeated by routines and work procedures, which build on broadly shared values and norms.

While replication of state practices informs the daily management of the camps, processes of decision-making and dispute settlement borrow from procedures and norms of traditional structures in Somalia. These processes should be seen as a way of adapting to difficult conditions of disorder and lack of resources while ensuring service delivery. This paper therefore seeks to nuance the representation of the ISMs by offering a deeper insight into how some camps are run and by showing that ISMs, to some degree, resemble all bureaucrats working with service provision who – especially when it comes to public administration in weak democratic contexts – are forced to make choices and come up with inventive solutions that are adapted to realities on the ground.