On December 22, 2020, the Oversight and Investigations Unit of the Senate Finance Committee published a memo detailing its investigation into the partnership between the international humanitarian NGO World Vision and a US-designated terror organization. The inquiry was prompted by revelations, uncovered by Middle East Forum (MEF), about a World Vision project in Sudan that was financed by the United States government’s international aid agency, USAID.

The Committee highlighted systemic failings at World Vision and strongly suggested that the organization lacks basic competency to properly vet its partners. Under the terms of USAIDgrants , World Vision had been obligated to ensure that none of its project partners had terror connections. Yet, the memo notes, “Our review demonstrates this failure occurred because World Vision’s system for vetting prospective sub-grantees was borderline negligent and ignored elementary level investigative procedures, such as failing to conduct basic secondary research that is widely available to the public on the internet via free search engines.”

More broadly, the Committee’s findings reflect an inherent danger of relying on NGOs to vet their own partners. Time and again, international NGOs have demonstrated that they are unwilling and incapable of exercising their responsibility to ensure that taxpayer funds are not provided to terrorist actors.

USAID funding to World Vision in Sudan

In 2014, USAID approved a $723,405 grant to World Vision “to provide food security, sanitation equipment and health services to the conflict affected areas in the Blue Nile region of Sudan.”  World Vision entered into a contract with the Islamic Relief Agency (ISRA) to assist in providing humanitarian services in this context.

The Finance Committee document notes that ISRA has “an extensive history of supporting terrorist organization [sic]” – such as Hamas – “and terrorists, including Osama Bin Laden.”

During the grant period, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) abandoned plans for a separate project with World Vision in Sudan, after discovering that ISRA appeared on the Treasury Department’s list of sanctioned entities, and was therefore ineligible to receive US taxpayer funds. IOM contacted relevant US authorities, who then intervened on the USAID grant (see memo for further details).

Lack of due diligence

The Finance Committee report found a series of shortcuts and negligent practices by World Vision, which facilitated a partnership with a banned group:

  • Assuming that ISRA was an approved partner – USAID and the Treasury Department explicitly place the onus of vetting sub-grantees (in this case, ISRA) on the primary beneficiary (World Vision). Instead, World Vision assumed that USAID’s approval of their grant request signaled that ISRA was a valid partner. The Senate investigators determined, “In reaching this conclusion, World Vision relied on what could only be described as flawed logic” (emphasis added).
  • Failing to conduct basic due diligence into ISRA – The memo points to a number of publicly available documents that indicate ISRA’s banned status, including a Treasury Department press release, and the description and designation of ISRA on Treasury’s website. As noted by the investigation, “This press release is public and still available and easily searchable on Treasury’s website. This information could have been easily uncovered if an elementary level of vetting of ISRA had been performed by World Vision” (emphasis added).
  • Not engaging with the proper Treasury Department divisions – World Vision had the opportunity to engage various Treasury Department divisions and personnel to determine the eligibility of ISRA and did not do so. In sharp contrast, IOM did approach these officials who quickly determined ISRA’s status.  The audit found that “In determining that World Vision bears the sole responsibility for their failure to properly vet ISRA, we note that IOM was able to quickly vet ISRA and determine their status as a sanctioned entity. Had World Vision employed the same due diligence and similar methods employed by IOM, taxpayer dollars would not have exchanged hands with an organization that is known to fund terrorist organizations” (emphases added).

Reminder: World Vision Gaza employee suspected of terror links

The case of Sudan and USAID funding reinforces concerns resulting from evidence that World Vision’s activities in Gaza were similarly characterized by vetting failures, leading to massive aid diversion and interactions with terrorist organizations.

On June 15, 2016, Mohammad El-Halabi, the manager of operations for World Vision in Gaza, was arrested by Israeli authorities.  He was accused of being a Hamas member who diverted approximately 60% of the World Vision’s Gaza budget (alleged to be approximately $50 million) to the terrorist organization for tunnels and to fund other terrorist activity.

According to the charges, El-Halabi created humanitarian projects and fictitious agricultural associations to act as a cover for the hijacking of monies and materials for Hamas. His trial is ongoing.