The Creeping Politicization of Licenses for Humanitarian Aid

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October 31, 2012
Kay Guinane

A disturbing pattern is emerging in the licensing process the Department of Treasury uses to allow or block humanitarian aid to civilians in conflict zones controlled by terrorist groups or state-sponsors of terrorism.  The maze of laws and regulations that govern such licenses lack any clear standards that incorporate humanitarian principles.   The result is a set of decisions that are inconsistent on humanitarian grounds and appear to be motivated by political or foreign policy considerations. 

Somalia, Syria and Iran

The contrast between treatment of starving Somalis and aid programs to Syria and Iran is striking.  In the case of Somalia, in early 2011 both nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and the government knew Somalia was threatened with famine.  (USAID’s early warning system raised the alert long before famine struck.) NGOs tried in vain to get a General License that would have allowed them to operate in areas controlled by al-Shabaab.  Treasury told them such licenses were “off the table.” 

As the famine spread during the summer of 2011 Congress held oversight hearings.  In July 2011 Nancy Lindborg of USAID told a joint panel that aid did not reach “more than 60 percent of the people in Somalia who need life-saving assistance.” In September she told a Senate panel that “…we estimate that more than 29,000 children under five – nearly four percent of children -- have died in the last 90 days in southern Somalia.”

What was the U.S. government’s response to this tragic loss of life?  In early August 2011 the State Department announced to the press that it would relax the rules for NGOs operating in good faith.  No details were available until the following day, when Treasury published a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) document that made it clear the new policy only applies to government agencies and NGOs that get money from USAID.  Even these grantees could not spend their privately raised funds without going through an extended application process to get a specific license.  Most notably, this policy excluded significant resources from being available to help in Somalia. According to the Hudson Institute’s 2012 Index of Global Philanthropy and Remittances in 2010, the nearly $39 billion in private philanthropy from charities, foundations, corporations, and universities given to developing countries “exceeded U.S. official government aid by almost $9 billion.”

Now let’s look at Treasury’s treatment of humanitarian aid to people in Syria and Iran. In September 2011 Treasury issued General License 11 for Syria. This license should be the standard for all conflict zones subject to Treasury sanctions.  It allows NGOs to provide aid, democracy building and education programs.  Non-commercial development aid is even permitted, as is payment of minor fees and taxes to the Syrian government.

In Iran, after an earthquake struck in August 2012, Treasury issued General License C  which permited American non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to temporarily raise and send funds to Iran for humanitarian relief.  NGOs and a bipartisan group of lawmakers lobbied the Obama administration to allow aid for victims of the quake.  The license allows NGOs can transfer up to $300,000 to Iran for quake-related relief and reconstruction activity.  They must submit detailed reports to Treasury about the assistance, including “the dollar amount of the transfers, the recipient(s) of the funds, and the intended use of the funds.”  The license was in effect until Oct. 5, and the day before it was set to expire it was extended until Nov. 19.  A campaign to get it extended included a letter of support from 12 members of Congress.

No Humanitarian Justification for Differential Treatment of Civilian Somalis

Why do civilians in Syria and Iran get aid but Somalis are limited?  They are all civilians and entitled to aid from humanitarian organizations that meet the criteria of international humanitarian law: independence, neutrality and impartiality.  (For details see our report Safeguarding Humanitarianism in Armed Conflict)

When I asked Treasury this question the answer was that the Syrian and Iranian sanctions programs are country-based, while the Somalia program is based on the presence of a non-state terrorist group.  This distinction has no substantive bearing on humanitarian need, which should be the primary criteria. 

Maybe it has more to do with the relative political strength of Syrian, Iranian and Somali Americans, reflecting their ability to put pressure on the administration.  Or maybe the U.S. government is using humanitarian programs as a carrot to provide an incentive to Syria and Iran to modify their behavior.  Either way, it is wrong to deny starving Somalis the full benefit of the aid American NGOs could provide. 

In June 2012 the International Rescue Committee reported that one child dies every six minutes in Somalia. It is time for the U.S. government to de-politicize its licensing decisions when it comes to humanitarian aid.  Instead, the administration should put humanitarian principles front and center, now and in the future.

As the International Committee of the Red Cross said in an article titled The Future of Humanitarian Action of governments, militaries, NGOs and donors:

“The common factor for all of them must be to ensure that resources and response are prioritized and allocated according to actual humanitarian needs, and not according to any other objectives. In other words, the lowest common denominator for humanitarian action in all its shapes and forms must be the principle of impartiality.”