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Shutdowns, suspensions, and legal threats put relief in world’s troublespots at risk

A harder donor line on counter-terror compliance, from the US in Syria in particular, has the sector worried


Tougher donor restrictions on relief operations in areas controlled by extremist groups are “out of control”, impeding life-saving work, and could lead aid groups to pull out of the most challenging responses, senior humanitarian officials and rights experts warn.

Project suspensions and closures in Syria, two recent prosecutions in US courts, and a new USAID ruling have combined to make NGOs alarmed at the shrinking space for humanitarian action and unforgiving climate for aid in “terrorist” zones.

French activist and scholar Agnès Callamard, a UN special rapporteur on human rights, is calling for a new system of exemptions for aid to areas like Syria’s northwestern Idlib province that are largely controlled by Islamist extremists.

A 17 September report by Callamard, ”Saving Lives is not a Crime”, released at the start of the UN’s annual General Assembly, argues that counter-terrorism laws are “out of control” and can “potentially criminalise even life-saving medical aid or food relief”.

A UN special rapporteur on human rights argues counter-terrorism laws are “out of control” and can “potentially criminalise even life-saving medical aid or food relief”.

She warns they are having “chilling effects” on the provision of aid, preventing assistance “from reaching populations controlled by ‘terrorist’ organisations” and likely resulting in “greater harm to life and civilian deaths”.

Recent moves by the United States – the world’s largest donor to humanitarian efforts – have reinforced what Joel Charny, US director of the Norwegian Refugee Council, characterised as an unrealistic approach toward compliance with anti-terror restrictions, setting off what he deemed an “existential crisis” for some aid groups that depend on US funding.

Some aid groups, facing mounting legal risks on counter-terrorism rules, may decide “it’s not worth the hassle” and pull out of the most testing places, Charny warned.

Two of the world’s largest humanitarian crises, Syria and Somalia, have significant parts of the country controlled by sanctioned groups. USAID guidelines, further tightened for Syria this month, point out several other locations that qualify as high risk for counter-terror violations, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, northeast Nigeria, parts of Ukraine, Venezuela and Yemen.

Callamard says Australia, Britain, Canada, and Switzerland are among the countries that have made efforts to exempt humanitarian action from anti-terrorist regulation. However, the US role in the international banking system, she argues, gives its counter-terrorism policies wide influence.

Some aid groups, facing mounting legal risks on counter-terrorism rules, may decide “it’s not worth the hassle” and pull out of the most testing places.

New rules

According to international law, the delivery and distribution of neutral and impartial humanitarian aid must be permitted, no matter who the de facto authorities are. NGOs and other international aid agencies continue to provide food, water, health, and other support to civilians who live in areas controlled by sanctioned groups in Afghanistan, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere.

Such operations, as in Syria’s Idlib province, face multiple challenges, including maintaining impartiality and staff security, dealing with chains of sub-grantees, and reliance on third-party or remote monitoring. Large parts of Idlib are controlled by Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), an al-Qaeda-linked armed group sanctioned by the US government.

While aid groups aim to work impartially on the basis of need, food is strategic and symbolic and vulnerable to political grandstanding – Tahrir Al-Sham issued a decree on 4 September banning the sale of food made in Syria in areas it controls.

To comply with US law, NGOs must declare they do not provide material support or resources to sanctioned groups or individuals, anywhere in the world. In addition, USAID grant agreements may demand detailed procedures on how they limit those risks. For example, they should check the senior staff of any groups they donate to, or use as intermediaries, such as local hospitals and NGOs, against counter-terrorism databases.

In the past some minor cases of aid being diverted to extremist groups have been tolerated, where the imperative of getting help to the needy has taken precedence over the letter of the law.

That seems to be changing.

USAID recently added more requirements to future grant agreements, as reported by IRIN last week. A USAID spokesperson said the new requirements were put in place to ensure that US taxpayers’ dollars are not boosting extremist organisations but are still delivering aid.

But the tougher US policy has been met with outright frustration from some quarters.

One aid worker familiar with the issues, who requested anonymity, charged that the new USAID terms – sent to aid agencies on 12 September – run counter to humanitarian principles and appear to “instrumentalise” aid to achieve strategic goals, such as dislodging extremist groups.

The new rules make it harder to deliver help to civilians trapped in the Idlib region – who may unwillingly be under the thumb of extremists – and are “cruel and nonsensical”, the aid worker said, adding that they leave “so many questions” unanswered, including how to define which group controls which area.

The USAID’s Office of the Inspector General, or OIG, held a roundtable briefing for NGOs on 24 July to lay out its approach to oversight, circulating an updated handbook on fraud prevention in Syria and Iraq. (OIG reports 20 open investigations between Iraq and Syria. The cases include allegations of theft, bribery, fraud, and diversion to armed groups. The OIG claims it has helped avoid losses of $180 million this year.)

The UN estimates that two thirds of the people in Idlib need help with getting enough food.

Charny described the message from the OIG as: “don’t make any mistakes… or we’ll have to come after you.” He said the OIG had recently been expanding those requirements, for example by requesting notice of unproven allegations of diversion. The OIG also appeared to expect NGOs to vet each beneficiary for links to banned individuals, Charney noted, adding that such a requirement was impractical if not impossible. “We can’t vet every beneficiary” who might be “a cousin or sister-in-law” of a US-sanctioned person, he said.

“Spectrum of manipulation”

It is not uncommon for armed groups, governments, and local officials to try to steal, tax, or skim aid resources. Aid agencies can’t prevent every single such incident. At what point are those losses unacceptable, especially if most of the aid is getting through to people who need it? "What is an acceptable residual risk?" one NGO analyst asked.

According to Charny, there’s a “spectrum of manipulation”, and there may be places where “it’s not possible to work”. But he said his agency aimed to specialise in so-called “hard-to-reach” areas “by doubling down on our ability to do the requisite checking and vetting.”

NGOs routinely struggle to stay within the rules enforced by donors in areas where extremists operate, noted Abby Stoddard, a partner with the aid sector consultancy Humanitarian Outcomes.

USAID’s two largest NGO partners working in Idlib have already run into regulatory difficulties: Catholic Relief Services halted operations and GOAL has paused part of its food programme. Violations of counter-terrorism law can be punished by fines or, in aggravated cases, imprisonment.

The UN estimates that two thirds of the people in Idlib need help with getting enough food. Countrywide, about 11 million people fall into that category, while about four million of them get monthly help. The new USAID restrictions do not apply to areas controlled by the Bashar al-Assad government, which has regained most of the territory.

The potential impact of the latest US regulations “looks very bad indeed”, Stoddard warned, noting that Syria is already under-provided for. “The needs of civilians inside Syria are the least covered by humanitarian assistance of any current crisis,” she said, adding that she expected aid to decline further under the new US requirements. An internal UN planning document, seen by IRIN, said “interference in humanitarian programming” from armed groups would also likely increase during any Idlib crisis response.

Some donor officials privately acknowledge that “zero losses is an impossible standard”, but politically they can’t afford to be more flexible, Stoddard said. “Donors have not found a way to communicate the realities of humanitarian assistance in these environments to their tax-paying publics, and they are dealing with significant political risks of their own.”

“Compliance is costly, some humanitarians working in Syria and Somalia complain that they spend more time proving to donors that the aid is getting there than they do on the programming itself.”

As in other insecure locations, international NGOs and UN agencies in Idlib typically rely on local NGOs to provide the final leg in the operation: assessing needs, preparing lists of project beneficiaries, liaising with local authorities, and doing distributions. An additional contractor is often engaged to provide “third party monitoring” – additional oversight and spot checks as part of “remote management”.

“Compliance is costly,” Stoddard said, adding that “some humanitarians working in Syria and Somalia complain that they spend more time proving to donors that the aid is getting there than they do on the programming itself.”

This puts additional strain on the small number of local NGOs that can “handle the compliance burden”, Stoddard said. “Some of these organisations are becoming overstretched, which has the perverse effect of raising the risk that things will go wrong.”

Another US NGO policy analyst dealing with the issue, who asked for anonymity, said USAID should share the “residual risk” with its grantees. Exemptions and waivers can be used, but their use seemed to be out of favour, the analyst continued. “None of us wants our money to go to corruption… [but] zero tolerance doesn’t mean zero incidents.” The analyst added: “Even Walmart has a spillage allowance.”


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