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Ten Years Later: A Q&A With Joel R. Charny, Vice President for Humanitarian Policy and Practice, InterAction

September 11, 2011

If 9/11 didn't change everything, it certainly changed many things. From the way we fly, to our awareness and knowledge of Islam, to the war on terror, the events of September 11 changed us as individuals and as a country and society. One of its most telling legacies, the USA Patriot Act, was signed into law by then-President George W. Bush on October 26, 2001, reauthorized (with most of its provisions intact) by Congress in 2006, and extended in large part by President Barack Obama earlier this year. The act, which includes watch list and anti-money-laundering provisions intended to impede the flow of funds to suspected terrorist groups, has had a significant impact on international aid organizations working in some of the most unsettled and impoverished regions of the world.

Joel_charney_interaction Last week, as part of our "Ten Years Later" series, we asked Joel Charny, Vice President for Humanitarian Policy and Practice at InterAction, an alliance of U.S.-based relief and development organizations, to comment on how the funding and operating environment for U.S.-based nonprofits working overseas has changed since 9/11, what aid groups can do to combat the waste and corruption that hampers so many international aid operations, and whether the recent easing of restrictions on NGOs working in the Horn of Africa represents a permanent change in U.S. policy.

To access the other Q&As in our 9/11 series, click here.

Philanthropy News Digest: How has the funding and operating environment for U.S.-based nonprofits working on international issues changed since 9/11? Do those changes represent a seismic shift in the international aid paradigm, or has the impact of 9/11 on nonprofits working internationally been less than predicted?

Joel Charny: Since 9/11, the global war on terror has become the dominant paradigm for U.S. foreign assistance. One consequence -- until the very recent emphasis on reducing the budget deficit -- has been strong bipartisan support for increases in overseas aid in the name of addressing the root causes of extremism and winning the "hearts and minds" of people who may be susceptible to affiliation with terrorist groups. U.S. programs in countries on the front lines of the war on terror, such as Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, have received huge budget allocations, while programs in more peripheral countries have been sustained.

The strong support for international relief and development programs has been a boon, but not an unmitigated one. Groups accepting U.S. government funding in the battleground countries are de facto signing up for the war on terror, with the expectation that they will collaborate closely with the joint U.S. civil, military, and diplomatic effort in the affected countries. This compromises their ability to act independently. Further, the post-9/11 decade has seen a dramatic increase in the direct involvement of the U.S. military in relief and development work, which means that even groups that strive to retain their independence of the U.S. war effort may find themselves working in the same locations as the military, creating confusion in the minds of local people and jeopardizing their security.

The past decade has seen erosion in the respect for and the possibility of humanitarian action. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously described the Geneva Conventions as "quaint," undermining the very foundation of international humanitarian law that has protected civilians in armed conflict for six decades. The International Committee of the Red Cross, the organization mandated to ensure the implementation of the conventions' provisions, has seen their staff targeted and killed in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Governments from Sudan and Zimbabwe to Sri Lanka and Pakistan have aggressively restricted the access of international and local agencies to vulnerable people, often using the imperative of combating terror as the rationale. The ruthlessness of governments and the nihilism of extremists have mutually reinforced the assault on humanitarian agencies and the values that they represent.

Nonetheless, the post-9/11 world in the relief and development sphere is largely familiar to anyone who tried to implement and support independent assistance during the Cold War period, when both the U.S. and the Soviet bloc identified enemy countries and movements and subjected aid agencies to political manipulation. The comprehensiveness of the war on terror as a guiding framework is reminiscent of the anti-communist one that prevailed from the 1950s to the early 1990s. While the erosion of the respect for humanitarian action is disturbing, on the whole the post-9/11 decade does not represent a seismic shift in the funding and operating environment for U.S.-based nonprofits working on international issues.

PND: The events of September 11 led the U.S. into costly military and counter-insurgency operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Given the significant degree of waste and corruption that have plagued efforts to build institutions and infrastructure, what lessons should NGOs and development agencies take away from our experiences in the two countries?

JC: The primary lesson is that the transition process takes time. The World Bank just completed a study of the global experience of transition from conflict to stability; their researchers concluded that to create the conditions for legitimate governance and development in previously war-torn countries has generally taken twenty-five to thirty years. Neither the U.S. government nor the public nor, in some cases, the aid agencies themselves appear to have the patience to work through the initial struggles and be supportive through such an extended process of change and transition.

The other lesson that has emerged is the need for painstaking consultation at the community level to develop programs that respond genuinely to people's needs. "Partnership" as a term of art in the relief and development community has lost its meaning through overuse and misuse, but what has become clear in both Iraq and Afghanistan is that quick-impact projects designed with the sole purpose of winning the allegiance of local people to a political cause completely misses the point. Agencies that depend on funding from the U.S. and other government donors may have to accept frameworks and timelines that don't work from a community perspective. Having independent private sources of funding is therefore vital.

PND: As the magnitude of the current humanitarian crisis in the Horn of Africa became clear, President Obama and the State Department eased restrictions on NGOs, making it easier for aid groups to deliver needed supplies to famine-stricken parts of Somalia without fear of prosecution under the Patriot Act. Does this represent a change in U.S. policy, or does it only apply to this particular situation?

JC: While the administration has agreed to ease the restrictions to a degree, as of this writing the easing applies only to agencies that receive money from the U.S. government. Agencies that raise private funds in the U.S. but that are not partners of the U.S. Agency for International Development still must seek specific permission to program these funds inside Somalia. An attempt by InterAction to seek a general license for private funds on behalf of our community has not been welcomed by the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control, which is the agency formally tasked with overseeing the approval process for restricted countries. The approval of case-by-case licenses for private funds for famine response in Somalia is by no means guaranteed.

There is also strong evidence that the Somalia easing does not represent a change in U.S. policy. In the West Bank and Gaza, the administration is maintaining the strict partner vetting system, which requires U.S.-based agencies to provide bio-data to the U.S. government on individuals affiliated with organizations receiving their funding. A similar system is about to be instituted in Afghanistan. And the administration's plan is to implement a global pilot of partner vetting that will extend the system well beyond the bounds of the core countries in the war on terror; the preliminary list of pilot countries includes Ukraine, Kenya, and Guatemala, as well as Lebanon and the Philippines.

The U.S. therefore appears bent on maintaining and expanding a system that forces nonprofits working internationally to be intelligence gatherers for the government. Agencies already conduct their own reviews to ensure their funds do not unintentionally benefit individuals bent on causing harm to the U.S. Forcing the agencies to go further undermines their program goals, as well as the professed goals of U.S. aid programs, by alienating actual and potential partners within global civil society. It also creates security risks for the staff of agency and partner organizations. The institution and possible expansion of partner vetting is one of the most negative aspects of the post-9/11 environment for international relief and development non-profits.

-- The Editors

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