Saudis No Example for Rules on Charities

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Date: 
July 22, 2009
Author: 
Suraj K. Sazawal

No explanation was necessary to understand the main reason why Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner was speaking at the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce in Saudi Arabia on July 16, 2009. Geithner was assuring investors from oil-rich Gulf States skeptical of supporting slumping economies in the West. But between his praise for the host nation and repeated affirmations of a global rebound, Geithner found time to touch on the importance of protecting charitable donations and the good causes they support.

Taking the lead from President Obama's Cairo speech, Geithner recognized the need for improved relations with Muslim Americans. Geithner said, "The President has asked us to work with the American Muslim community, devoted to the sacred of obligation of zakat, to develop safe and effective ways to facilitate humanitarian assistance to vulnerable populations…" Ensuring that zakat donations are protected from being used improperly or frozen by the government is a good place to start. 

The Treasury Secretary also praised the Saudi government for taking "important steps to combat financing for terrorist groups." Geithner said, "we look forward to strengthening our partnership with the Kingdom on this issue so that charitable operations across the world are similarly protected." Any comments from the administration on ensuring or improving the security for charities, their employees and volunteers and the money, aid and programs they provide are welcome.

Their protection, however, should be free from undue government restrictions and regulations and that is why the Saudi system makes for a poor role model. The Kingdom has "prohibited all charitable organizations from sending money abroad" because they are required to cede their money to a government agency which distributes the aid.  Just as with the American Charities for Palestine/USAID pilot program, plans such as these lead to the politicization of aid, blurred lines of where government foreign polices end and humanitarian aid begin and threaten the independence of the nonprofit sector. Unlike under a dictatorship, a strong democracy should encourage and respect a robust civil society that is free to conduct its business without being coerced into harmful government partnerships.