On April 28, Chatham House in London published a position paper by Tom Keatinge and Florence Keen of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in the UK, criticizing British and international financial regulations that mitigate the risks of corruption and aid diversion in NGO-run humanitarian operations. Specifically, the authors decry the ways in which banks, in order to comply with various national and international anti-terror financing laws, have avoided transferring funds and offering financial services to NGOs active in conflict areas where “Non-state Armed Groups” (read: terrorists and militias) operate.
The authors contend that these protocols hamper the ability of agencies to deliver humanitarian aid and are unnecessary, asserting that “Humanitarian NGOs [non-governmental organizations] generally accept the need for regulation and due diligence.” Moreover, the report demands that the UK “must make greater efforts to include exemptions for humanitarian action in international sanctions” and suggests that the government “consider the introduction of humanitarian exemptions from counterterrorism laws.”
These positions understate recent developments that highlight the susceptibility of humanitarian aid to diversion, including by terrorist organizations. On July 26, 2016, the Washington Post reported that the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) suspended hundreds of millions of dollars in humanitarian aid to Syria, in response to reports of fraud and aid diversion. In explaining the decision in testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, USAID Inspector General Ann Calvaresi Barr stated, “Despite our goodwill, bad characters have taken advantage of the complex situation for personal gain, ultimately denying Syrian people the food, clothing, health care and other aid they urgently need.”
Similarly, on August 4, 2016, the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) publicly accused Mohammed El-Halabi – manager of operations in Gaza of the international humanitarian NGO World Vision – of funneling 60% of World Vision’s Gaza budget to Hamas. The Israeli indictment and media reported that these funds were used in the construction of Hamas tunnels, military installations, and other terrorist activities.
Likewise, in October 2014, the Daily Beast reported that many humanitarian NGOs operating in Syria and Iraq were found to have actively cooperated with, employed, or paid bribes to ISIS in order to continue working in territory under the Islamic State’s control. Aid was diverted away from its intended recipients in these countries for use by ISIS or to be sold for cash in service of ISIS’ war effort. Moreover, numerous UN reports have documented the large quantities of aid that have been hijacked by the Somali terrorist group Al-Shabaab. These claims are consistent with revelations in 2013 that international NGOs like Action Contre le Faim (ACF) negotiated with Al-Shabaab in order to operate in territory controlled by the group.
The Chatham House-RUSI paper appears to argue that a certain amount of aid diversion should be expected and tolerated: “It is of course virtually impossible for humanitarian NGOs to ensure that funds or resources will not end up in the hands of a designated individual or NSAG [non-state armed groups], particularly when operating in conflict zones, or in or near areas where designated NSAGs are based or operate”; “The government must also determine whether the delivery of aid is more important than the risk that some aid may be diverted.”
These positions echo the “humanitarian imperative” ideology adopted by many NGOs, a concept that minimizes the significance of terrorism and complicity with it, and places the provision of humanitarian aid above all other concerns. For instance, UNICEF calls on humanitarian organizations to “maintain their ability to obtain and sustain access to all vulnerable populations and to negotiate such access with all parties to the conflict,” implying that it is appropriate for aid organizations to engage with terror groups in order to gain access to affected populations.
Given these and other examples, it is clear that humanitarian NGOs, despite the ostensible purity of their aims, are not and should not be exempt from national and international law. Their activities must be calibrated and tempered to recognize the dangers inherent in operating in conflict zones, including the risks of aid diversion. Particularly, they must be cognizant of the adverse effects that aid diversion and failure of due diligence can have on vulnerable populations, as this phenomenon can strengthen terrorist elements and other NSAGs involved in violent conflict. These factors can also result in prolonging conflict, ultimately leading to greater harm and suffering.