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Government Aid: A Life or Death Decision

   Apr 01, 2011

Imagine that you or your children are in desperate need of food, shelter, or medical aid. You will probably do anything you can to get that lifesaving assistance. But what if reaching out for help might cost you your life?

That's exactly what is happening in Afghanistan, according to Michiel Hofman, who recently served as Country Director in Afghanistan with Doctors Without Borders (DWB). In a recent op-ed on Foreign Policy's website, he argues that Afghans who get help from humanitarian groups affiliated with Western or Afghan governments can face retribution from the Taliban. Hofman bemoans, "In this environment, seeking help amounts to choosing sides in the war. The result is a tragically absurd catch-22: People put off seeking assistance because doing so can endanger their lives." Another relief group, Oxfam International, points out that Afghan civilians are not the only ones at risk, reporting that 225 aid workers were killed, kidnapped, or injured during attacks in Afghanistan in 2010.

Some believe efforts to alleviate suffering and preserve human dignity come under attack because humanitarian projects in Afghanistan are perceived as just another front in the war. The U.S. and its allies have given billions in aid to Afghanistan, including grants and contracts to charities working in the war torn country. Aid workers often work side by side with government and military personnel, creating confusion amongst locals as to whether these charities do more to serve war victims or a foreign government agenda.

Groups like DWB avoid this confusion by refusing to accept government funds. DWB, also known as Médecins Sans Frontières, was founded 1971 by a group of doctors frustrated with the limitations governments place on aid workers. They felt an obligation to intervene wherever there was need, without having to wait for government permission or toe the government line. According to Hofman, independent, neutral groups like DWB are best able to serve in places like Afghanistan because they do not require civilians to choose sides in the war.

Of course, many humanitarian groups find the funding and logistical support they receive from government sources to be essential to their operations. International Relief and Development (IRD), a charity that received 76% of its 2009 revenue from the U.S. government, issued a statement in response to Hofman's op-ed defending its involvement with U.S. and Afghan governments and militaries. The statement explains that these strategic partnerships allow IRD to reach people in areas "where some humanitarian organizations…have decided it is too dangerous to work." In war zones like Afghanistan, some charities argue that harnessing the resources and expertise of governments and militaries allows them to deliver aid more efficiently than they could on their own.

Relying on government grants to help fund important programs is not problematic for charities working in poverty or disaster-stricken parts of the world that are not rife with the political discord that exists in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. In fact, many charities that receive substantial government funding are better suited to carry out vital activities that the U.S. government would otherwise need to perform directly. For example, in the wake of the Asian Tsunami of 2004, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, and the Haitian earthquake of 2010, the U.S. government made substantial grants to relief charities with expertise and experience working in disasters. Donors who are concerned about government budget cuts diminishing the humanitarian efforts of international relief and development organizations can pick up some of the slack by directing contributions to these causes.

How an organization is funded is just one of the many things donors may want to consider before giving. Those who want to fund charities that receive significant support from the U.S. government will want to look for the [G] and {G+} symbols in AIP's Guide. These symbols indicate that a charity receives at least 25% or 50%, respectively, of its total revenue from the U.S. government. Donors who wish to support charities that have strict policies against accepting any U.S. government funding may consider donating to these AIP Top-Rated charities: Bread for the World (B+), Compassion International (A), Direct Relief International (A-), Doctors Without Borders-USA (A), Operation USA (A-), Oxfam-America (A-), ReSurge International (formerly Interplast) (A-).

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