It has been a bad year for humanitarian aid organizations. In 2018, a number of renowned groups were implicated in prostitution and “sex-for-food” scandals. The exploitation of the most vulnerable victims of devastating natural disasters and armed conflicts was compounded by the subsequent cover-ups and continued employment of sexual abusers.
Groups such as Oxfam International, Save the Children UK, and UN peacekeepers are among those named in these allegations. All this highlights a deeper underlying problem in international humanitarian aid – the serious lack of oversight.
The principles of impartiality, neutrality, humanity, and independence ought to be the hallmarks of humanitarian aid, with most international institutions, UN frameworks, and governments utilizing them as guidelines. These principles are meant to ensure that when taxpayer dollars are distributed to humanitarian disasters around the world, the people, and not the political causes, reap the benefits.
Clearly, these ideals alone are not enough. In a world dominated by self-interested actors seeking to profit from funds, food, and other forms of aid, further mechanisms are needed to ensure the principles are upheld. The sex-for-food scandals acutely demonstrate this, but their need is not limited to these heinous cases.
Since 2002, the Jerusalem-based research institute NGO Monitor has documented the importance of stringent funding guidelines to organizations operating in the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Too often, NGO Monitor research has shown, groups with massive budgets claiming agendas of “peace,” “human rights,” and economic development engage in activities that promote particularistic positions that favor politics over humanity.
Such guidelines, which alone are simply written statements,provide taxpayers and politicians alike with a platform for calling out their government when money is misdirected or wasted.
Thankfully, there is a growing global realization of this urgent need, and some substantive responses.
For instance, in choosing to renew funding for UNRWA, the UN agency responsible for “relief and development activities” of Palestinians, Canada established a “Framework for Cooperation.” This framework outlines Canada’s “expectations regarding the implementation of reform initiatives, regular monitoring and reporting, and compliance with Canadian anti-terrorism requirements” and also emphasizes the need for “neutrality of implementing partners.”
This enhanced level of oversight is especially important given the significant controversy that plagues this UN agency. From elementary school textbooks that promote hatred to teachers calling for violence and terror, UNRWA is regularly in the spotlight for endeavors that violate the humanitarian principles. The US decision to cease funding to the agency raises additional questions about whether UNRWA should even continue to receive funds at all.
It would be unconscionable, therefore, to fund UNRWA without serious best practice mechanisms that prioritize transparency and accountability.
However, the problems with aid to the West Bank and Gaza are not limited to UNRWA. Indeed, a number of other UN agencies select implementing partners that are far from “neutral” or “impartial.” Some of these non-governmental organization (NGO) “partners” even have ties to terrorist organizations.
Building on its UNRWA work, Canada also made a similar commitment to monitoring its aid in the July 29 announcement of new funding for Palestinians. With approximately 1.5% of the new multiyear grant dedicated to oversight, Canada will (hopefully) ensure that no taxpayer dollars wind up in the hands of groups that promote violence, terror, and hate.
Canada is not alone in these endeavors. In June 2017, the Swiss Parliament also recognized the importance of guidelines, with a resolution directing the government to “amend the laws, ordinances and regulations” preventing funding to NGOs “involved in racist, antisemitic or hate incitement actions.”
In another development, the European Commission published an “Implementing Decision for its Annual Programme of Action for Palestine” in December 2017, stating that “particular attention will be paid to prevent that EU-supported civil society organisations are also engaged in activities inciting to hatred and/or violence.”
Yet perhaps the most instrumental of all, Denmark announced just last month that it will not fund organizations that have ties to terror and projects that support BDS activities. The new criteria stem from a 2017 funding review of Israeli and Palestinian NGOs, which was initiated after a Danish-funded Palestinian NGO named a girl’s youth center after a terrorist (responsible for the deaths of 37 civilians). The new funding criteria further highlight that organizations receiving Danish support must be committed to the “realization of a two-state solution” and must acknowledge that “human rights are universal.”
While the reality that certain “human rights” NGOs in fact promote violence and hatred is beyond unfortunate, the fact that governments have recognized and are addressing this problem is important. Current controversies, such as UNICEF-oPt’s partnership with terror-linked NGOs, warrant the creation of guidelines throughout a variety funding frameworks.
Only with frameworks that hold international funding to set standards that realistically address the problems – from abuse scandals to financing terror-affiliated groups – and provide solutions, can we create a more peaceful and equal world.