Charity Ends at Homeland Security

Paula R. Newberg is a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution.

President Bush often proclaims that the best defense against terrorism is building democracy abroad and advancing the “rights of mankind.” But his administration’s implementation of the Patriot Act is making it increasingly difficult for American relief and human rights organizations to realize this goal.

The Patriot Act and subsequent executive orders aim to stem the flow of funds to terrorist organizations. The government’s “voluntary” rules ask organizations that receive federal money to prove they do not associate with terrorists. Large humanitarian providers and small nongovernmental organizations alike are checking their overseas colleagues and funding recipients against ever-changing lists provided by the U.S. Treasury, the United Nations, the European Union and, in some instances, the FBI and Interpol.

This policy turns the humanitarian principle on its head. Relief groups have not been in the business of checking political affiliations before they fed starving families. If they have agreed on little else, conservatives and liberals have concurred that it is the responsibility of those with resources to help those without them.


No longer. Humanitarianism has become a logistical nightmare, and private organizations are being transformed into police for public policy. Terrorist financing is already hard to track accurately, and checking the background of every “Joe Smith” or “Mohammad Khan” is inefficient and potentially ineffective. Entrusting humanitarian decisions to competing government intelligence agencies jeopardizes the autonomy that democracy and rights groups bring to their work. Turning small aid organizations into bank regulators imposes an inappropriate burden on nonprofits whose jobs lie elsewhere.

It’s a task that can be done: Lists are being consolidated, compliance services can be bought, and the government is gradually making its rules user-friendly. But good business for security firms sets bad precedent for assistance providers. Current guidelines may be voluntary, but they leave grant makers and grant receivers liable to legal action if they don’t comply -- or make mistakes.

The fundamental problem lies where principle meets practicality. The complicated work of promoting democracy and protecting rights long has been accomplished by dealing with people who have been labeled insurgents, terrorists or enemies of their states. Where would we be if no one had talked with Vaclav Havel, Nelson Mandela, Eduardo Mondlane, Jawaharlal Nehru, half the Cabinet of Afghanistan and, for that matter, the interim government of Iraq? What will be Asia’s fate if no one confers with Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers or Kashmir’s mujahedin?

To build bridges between states and civil society, the U.S. has historically worked with, and occasionally funded, nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, that promote the rule of law overseas. These are groups that hold everyone’s feet to the civil rights fire: They help refugees secure their rights in central Africa, foster democracy in the Balkans and teach Afghans and Iraqis to speak truth to power. Certainly, no one knows the value of prudence in the face of danger more than those who work where violence often rules.

Current anti-terrorist laws compromise the independent judgment and effectiveness of NGOs by turning them into instruments of state policy. This contradicts their mandates and threatens dynamic cooperation between public and private sectors. Because some nongovernmental organizations will be unable to accept these strictures, the thrust of U.S. foreign policy can be undercut as well.

Not only government regulators but also special interest groups have pushed major private foundations to define terrorism broadly, to cancel grants to recipients who appear on government lists and to hold private grantees to an unusually high standard. Congress, which oversees foundations, is contemplating more hearings on the subject.

The existence of these lists violates the principles of transparency and accountability that Americans promote around the world. Those named should have the right to know they are on the list, to face their accusers and to prove their innocence. But voluntary guidelines favor secrecy over fairness.

When fear trumps reason, policy crumbles and principle dies. Writing in the period between World War II and the depths of the Cold War, Hannah Arendt cautioned that “although tyranny, because it needs no consent, may successfully rule over foreign peoples, it can stay in power only if it destroys first of all the national institutions of its own people.”