The large sums allocated for humanitarian aid, whether in war zones or in response to natural disasters, are susceptible to diversion and misuse, and tracking this funding is an ongoing challenge for both government and private donors. When abuses are identified, substantive responses are usually slow as donors are reluctant to take action, as documented by the journalist Linda Polman (War Games) in the case of Rwanda, and other examples.
In a notable exception, the Washington Post reported on July 26, that the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has 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.”
This is far from the first time that serious concerns have been raised regarding the integrity of the aid delivery process in Syria. In October 2014, the Daily Beast reported that many humanitarian NGOs (non-governmental organizations) 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.
Humanitarian efforts in warzones are inherently susceptible to extortion and theft by violent actors, including terrorist organizations. For example, numerous UN reports have documented the large quantities of aid that have been hijacked by the Somali terrorist group Al-Shabaab. These claims dovetail 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 lessons learned by USAID in Syria and by the UN in Somalia also have important implications for aid to Gaza. Much like its terrorist counterparts in these countries, Hamas has a history of raiding aid warehouses and convoys as well as developing tax schemes designed to skim money off of international largesse. UN Gaza aid mechanisms similarly suffer from corruption, compromising the integrity of imported materials.
The intrinsic risks of providing aid to Hamas-controlled territory are exacerbated by the fact that many items that are required for humanitarian and civilian projects can also be harnessed for developing terrorist infrastructure, such as producing rockets and digging attack tunnels into Israel (“dual-use items”). Any consideration of humanitarian projects in Gaza must, therefore, include vigorous, concrete, and effective policies that address the risk of aid diversion.