Nearly 800 aid workers were killed in the past decade. Already in 2012, four aid workers have lost their lives. Kidnappings have also been on the rise, just last week a successful rescue took place to save an American citizen and her colleague, both staff for the Danish Refugee Council, who had been held captive in Somalia since last October. While violence against those providing humanitarian assistance around the world is nothing new, in recent years it has reached unprecedented levels, peaking in 2008 with 127 deaths. Aid workers have always had to accept risk while working in politically sensitive areas, but the dangers they face have increasingly been compounded by U.S. counterterrorism measures.
One such measure, the Partner Vetting System (PVS) is exemplary of a counterterrorism policy that increases the risk of danger for aid workers without decreasing or preventing terrorism. The PVS, which has not yet been fully implemented, would require any nongovernmental organization (NGO) that accepts funding from the State Department (State) or the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to collect information on their foreign employees and partners and turn it over to the U.S. government. This information would then be screened against secret terrorist databases.
While on its surface the PVS may seem like a common-sense approach, it ignores the work that NGOs already conduct to ensure that funds are not diverted to terrorists. In fact, the government has failed to show even one example of the diversion of USAID funds to terrorists. The program’s requirements are also very burdensome, and require extra staff time and money, which will discourage smaller groups from requesting grants. But, most troublingly, the program turns NGOs into information collectors on behalf of the U.S. government—an action that threatens the impartiality of humanitarian groups, and puts their workers at huge risk.
Many NGOs have made this fear clear to State and USAID. In comments sent to State, urging for the PVS plan to be reworked, several groups outlined the dangers the program would create. InterAction, an alliance of U.S. humanitarian NGOs, warned that:
“The perception…that NGOs collecting personal information are operating as extensions of U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies, undermines the basic principles of acceptance, neutrality and trust upon which NGOs rely to preserve the safety of their staff and operations, particularly in dangerous regions or in politically sensitive environments.” [Full Comments Here]
State responded to the comment, saying that there would be no guarantee that the PVS would not engender hostility towards NGOs and that they could not “control the perceptions of other parties about U.S. government activities.” This is false, however, as State can help mitigate hostility toward NGOs by reworking the PVS. Even other branches of the government have realized the vital importance of preventing the perception that NGOs are tied to the U.S. government. A Department of Defense handbook for military cooperation notes that, “the perception that NGOs are affiliated with military personnel…can have adverse security implications for the civilian humanitarian agency staff and beneficiaries” and offers several models for interacting with NGOs to persevere their autonomy and impartiality.
In 2008, it was estimated that there were nearly 600,000 aid workers across the world. Many work in dangerous countries, such as Somalia, Afghanistan and Sudan. They provide food, shelter and assistance to those faced with starvation, civil war and terrorism. The job they have is already dangerous, and the perception that they are intelligence gatherers for the U.S. government only increases the danger. It is the duty of the U.S. government to work with humanitarian groups to develop alternatives to the proposed PVS program so it will respect impartiality and autonomy.