Today, on the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Americans are reflecting on what the attacks and our response to them tells us about ourselves, honoring those who have stepped up to fight terrorism, and thinking about what kind of future we want. As part of this reflection, I invite you to consider the contributions of American international charities that provide life-saving humanitarian relief, support development that contributes to long-term sustainability in impoverished regions, and facilitate peace talks aimed to ending armed conflict.
These efforts directly confront conditions that lead to violent extremism and help local communities build institutions based on justice and democratic values. This is in direct opposition to terrorist narratives, which helps explain why attacks against aid workers have escalated in the past decade.
Despite these risks, aid workers continue their work in some of the world’s most dangerous places, like Afghanistan and Sudan. Since the areas of greatest humanitarian need often overlap with conflict zones, the risks they face will remain into the foreseeable future. Their courage and commitment, in the field or in the home office, deserve our utmost respect and appreciation.
Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Charities, especially organizations serving Muslim populations, have been treated as national security threats instead of allies in fighting the root causes of terrorism. Bureaucratic silos have prevented humanitarian considerations from entering into enforcement strategies and decisions. The Supreme Court even upheld a law that prohibits U.S. peacebuilding organizations from directly encouraging terrorist groups to lay down their arms or to provide training in human rights peaceful negotiations.
There are signs of improvement in this situation. The Obama administration has partially opened the door for humanitarian aid in famine-stricken Somalia by stating it will not close down charities that receive funds from USAID and act in good faith, if some aid inadvertently or involuntarily gets into the hands of the terrorist group al-Shabaab. By recognizing the good faith of USAID grantees, as proven by the due diligence they exercise in carrying out their programs, this new policy is a conceptual breakthrough that can be the basis of a better long-term approach.
On this anniversary, we should remember what happened ten years ago and the lessons we have learned since then. We should not forget about the U.S. charities that respond to humanitarian crisis all over the world, risking their own lives to save the lives of others and improve our world. These heroes need to be remembered and respected too.