By Abdi Sheikh
MOGADISHU (Reuters) - For Somalis who reached the Muri camp in the capital Mogadishu after fleeing hunger and conflict in the countryside, the $130 per month they were promised to feed their families was a godsend - before they learnt there was a catch.
"After the aid agency that brought the money leaves, the chairman of the camp asks for the SIM cards," said one of two affected beneficiaries who spoke to Reuters, a mother of six from central Somalia.
"He says go home and I will send you the money through your mobile phone. You reach home and you see they have sent $65."
Both beneficiaries spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
The chairman of the camp, Mohamed Ahmed, denied the allegations. "We never divert what the aid agencies bring for the IDPs (internally displaced persons)," he told Reuters.
Alleged schemes similar to this one this one litter a confidential U.N. report commissioned by Secretary-General Antonio Guterres that said its findings suggest the theft of aid in Somalia is "widespread and systemic".
In response to the report, which was written about by Reuters and the Devex media outlet on Monday, the European Union has decided to temporarily suspend funding for the World Food Programme (WFP) in Somalia, a senior EU official said.
The report's findings are not surprising. Aid deliveries to the Horn of Africa country, which narrowly averted famine last year, has been dogged by corruption for decades.
But the investigation underscores how stubborn the problem remains despite what humanitarian officials have touted as far-reaching efforts to tackle it.
It said an entire "ecosystem" benefited from the theft of aid, including camp owners, local authorities, humanitarian workers and members of the security forces, who would intimidate and sometimes arrest those who refuse to pay.
In a statement on Monday, the Western-backed Somali government said it was committed to investigating the report's findings, while adding that current aid delivery systems operate "outside of government channels".
The WFP and Guterres' office did not respond to Reuters requests for comment.
Since revelations of aid theft during a 2011 famine, humanitarian agencies in Somalia have converted most of their assistance to cash-based mobile transfers, traceable digitally, and vouchers.
Besides empowering beneficiaries and reducing delivery costs, cash-based transfers were presented by some officials as a way to reduce fraud by diluting the power of transport contractors who were often implicated in diversion, and by increasing possibilities for digital monitoring and evaluation.
Cash-based transfers now represent 35% of all assistance provided by WFP, the world's largest humanitarian agency. In 2022, it sent $3.3 billion to 56 million people in 72 countries.
Nisar Majid, a research director at the London School of Economics who has studied aid diversion in Somalia extensively, said the shift to cash-based transfers in Somalia in the mid- to late-2000s did have a positive impact initially because "people were not familiar with it and how to manipulate it."
But he said the new model had since shown its vulnerabilities. "All forms of aid, distribution and engagement in Somalia will come under pressure. So will cash."
The U.N. report describes a variety of ways powerful individuals steal cash-based assistance, including by charging rent to displaced persons and requiring them to pay to get on aid beneficiary lists.
At the same time, the two aid beneficiaries at Muri said camp managers stole in-kind food aid deliveries when they arrived, offering $4 as compensation.
"When there is food aid distribution, they come with government forces to the camps. They also give some cash to the soldiers. The soldiers leave, and the camp owners turn around to take the food you were given," said the second beneficiary, a 45-year-old woman who fled her home with 10 relatives.
"You miss the food and instead get $4. And if you complain, you don't even get the $4."
Investigators found aid diversion at all of the 55 IDP sites in Somalia from which they collected data, the report said. Some 3.8 million people are displaced in Somalia – one of the highest rates in the world.
(Additional reporting and writing by Aaron Ross; editing by Mark Heinrich)