- Alleged fraud mastermind was nominated as a "humanitarian hero" in 2014
- Germany, Australia, Gates Foundation among donors
- Scale of alleged fraud unclear
- World Vision and Hamas deny allegations
The local head of Christian charity World Vision, who was featured as a “humanitarian hero” for the UN’s World Humanitarian Day in 2014, has diverted millions of dollars worth of cash and supplies to the military activities of the Palestinian group Hamas in Gaza, according to Israel’s internal intelligence service.
World Vision said in a Thursday statement it was “shocked” at the allegations against Mohammed El Halabi, who was arrested mid-June and held for 50 days (reportedly without access to a lawyer), and that it had “no reason to believe that the allegations are true”. It added that its programmes in Gaza were “subject to regular internal and independent audits, independent evaluations, and a broad range of internal controls”.
A 2015 evaluation of World Vision’s operations in Gaza found that “financial management, supporting accounting and procurement systems and financial reporting were very detailed and rigorous.” It further praised project managers for getting value for money in procurement.
Israel says the alleged fraud illustrates “Hamas’ cynical exploitation of international humanitarian aid.” A Hamas spokesman told the Reuters news agency it had “no connection” to Halabi.
Does it add up?
The value of the goods and cash allegedly involved is unclear – Israel’s statements give a figure of $7.2 million and also say 60 percent of the charity’s annual budget was diverted since 2010, but it’s not clear how the figures were arrived at. According to some reports, the allegations are that over $7 million was diverted each year since 2010.
Only fragments of public data are available to gauge the plausibility of fraud and deception on that scale, in part thanks to the opaque nature of charity finance and also because World Vision receives substantial funds – some 82 percent of its US revenue – from private individual donations that do not require detailed financial reporting, including church-related fundraising and child sponsorship.
The International Aid Transparency Initiative, which encourages donors and aid agencies to share data on a voluntary basis, only has one record (a German government donation of $668,922) specific to World Vision’s work in Gaza over the last five years.
IRIN has pieced together the few further available financial details (and will update here as and when more becomes available).
The Israeli statements mention funding from the “United States, England and Australia” but do not specify whether government funds or donations from the public.
A spokesperson for the UK’s Disasters Emergency Committee (an NGO fundraising consortium) told IRIN the group had provided £794,200 ($1 million at 2016 exchange rates) to World Vision in Gaza from its £19 million Gaza appeal haul in 2014. The spokesperson said: “We do not tolerate the diversion of aid funds for any purpose and particularly not for the support of armed groups. We are aware of the very serious allegations regarding the diversion of funds from the World Vision Gaza programme. World Vision is now urgently investigating these allegations but has said it has no reason to believe the allegations are true.”
Some other sources of income for World Vision earmarked for Gaza:
- The largest donor visible in public data is Germany. It gave $3.6 million from 2014-2016, according to the UN Financial Tracking System. (Sources: FTS and IATI).
- Australia donated $933,707 also in 2014 for programmes dealing with the aftermath of the conflict. (Source: FTS)
- The Gates Foundation donated $500,000 for “reconstruction” in 2014. (Source: FTS)
- The data aggregator NGO Aid Map shows that World Vision lists only one project in Rafah, Gaza, funded by its income from individual donations. No financial information is provided.
Aid agencies face severe legal consequences if found negligent under counter-terrorism legislation, as well as risks to their reputation and capacity to retain public trust and fundraise.
A 2014 study surveyed aid agencies’ “anti-diversion” procedures, and found they were most concerned to avoid “legal action, ranging from fines to revocation of operating licenses to criminal prosecution” under counter-terrorism legislation, especially from the US and the UK. NGO advocates have lobbied for better waivers and exclusions so that aid workers can continue to do legitimate relief in highly-sensitive conflict areas like Somalia, Syria and Afghanistan without being at risk of prosecution. But the Hamas allegations won’t help: NGO policy expert and director of the Norwegian Refugee Council USA, Joel Charny, tweeted in response to the news: “Very serious if true. Won't help our push back against donor counter-terror regulations.”
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Hamas won Palestinian legislative elections in 2006 and took Gaza by force from its Fatah rivals the following year. Israel, the United States and the EU regard it as a terrorist group.
In 2014, Israel responded to Hamas and other militant rocket attacks with overwhelming force leading to the death of 2,000 Palestinians – mostly civilians – in a conflict that also killed 66 Israeli soldiers and six civilians.
The war also caused extensive damage to civilian infrastructure and services. Gaza remains largely cut off from trade and economic opportunity and post-war reconstruction has been very limited. The enclave is highly dependent on external aid and its social indicators are dismal.
The statements from Israel’s intelligence service, Shin Bet, allege that Halabi admitted “infiltrating” World Vision in 2005 and that he had subsequently risen to be the local director and begun the fraud. Postings on social media, which cannot be independently confirmed, say Halabi’s family deny he admitted the charges.
Israel claims he set up a “sophisticated and systematic apparatus” of fraud, diversion and kickbacks from contractors that siphoned off cash, food and equipment to Hamas and its “terrorist” operatives. The statement goes on to allege that Halabi had enabled the purchase of arms and the construction of tunnels, and that he had provided Hamas with GPS coordinates of potential targets after visits to Israel.
World Vision describes itself as a “Christian humanitarian organisation” and is among the largest international development and humanitarian NGOs in the world. Globally, its sprawling multinational structure generates income of $2.8 billion, of which its US wing accounted for $1.03 billion in the year ending September 2015. Some $2.35 billion of that was spent overseas.
Some of that income is receipt of goods, not cash, and World Vision is a major partner for the UN. It handled $187 million worth of commodities for the World Food Programme in the last financial year. It reports 130,000 volunteers in the US and works in more than 100 countries. Its chief executive, Richard Stearns, earns $451,000 a year.
(Lead photo: Screen grab from World Humantarian Day 2014 website)