Some humanitarian groups are afraid to give school supplies to children in Gaza—not because of Hamas, but because of the United Nations and the United States.

Under counterterrorism laws introduced after the September 11 terrorist attacks, humanitarian groups cannot provide aid that supports or gives resources to terrorists. But in places like Gaza, where the United States has classified local leaders as terrorists, most forms of aid will benefit these leaders. Thus humanitarian NGOS working in such places face the possibility of losing funding or even being labeled as criminals.

Today's counterterrorism policies also mean more paperwork and reporting requirements for NGOS. These have increased their operating costs, slowed them down, cut their funding, and undermined partnerships, according to a recent study by the Humanitarian Policy Group of the Overseas Development Institute.

"Counterterrorism has been a policy bulldozer," said Jeremy Konyndyk, director of policy and advocacy for Mercy Corps. "If a counterterrorism argument is made, the government treats it as a trump card, regardless of what the downside might be."

The new policies make it particularly difficult to work in Sudan, Afghanistan, North Korea, and Syria, he said. But the poster child for complications is Somalia.

No matter what NGOS do to keep aid flowing to the neediest people, there's always a risk some will be diverted, experts agree. This makes it especially difficult to work in a place such as southern Somalia, where much of the area is controlled by al-Shabaab, which Western nations link to al Qaeda. The U.S. government only this summer loosened some counterterrorism restrictions so aid groups could work more freely in the famine-stricken nation.

While new reporting requirements do mean some programs take longer to get off the ground, such policies also make relationships and funding structures clearer to donors and partners—which is not a bad thing, said Chris Sheach, deputy director of disaster response for World Concern.

"It's something everybody should have been doing a little bit more of anyway," he said.

One draft U.S. law would have required humanitarian agencies to provide personal information on staff, partners, and supplier staff, but did not explain how the information would be used, Sheach said.

That kind of reporting requirement makes humanitarian groups wary. "[We] need to avoid being perceived as the tools of government intelligence agencies, which could compromise [our] work and endanger staff," said Kent Hill, senior vice president of international programs for World Vision and former acting administrator of USAID.

The hope is for a legislative compromise that balances the importance of preventing aid to terrorists with allowing aid to the starving and poor.

"This is really a moral message and a values message," Konyndyk said. "It's saying, 'Yes, we need our security, but in the process we shouldn't forget our values.'"

Related Elsewhere:

Previous Christianity Today coverage on the difficulties of administering humanitarian aid include:

Aid on the Edges | What turned Somalia into the epicenter of a famine hinders attempts to help. And now even the refugee camps are targets. (October 19, 2011)
Undoing the Famine Damage | If the famine in the Horn of Africa is manmade, human intervention can end the crisis. (October 12, 2011)
Famine in East Africa: Who Cares? | Several Christian NGOs are on the move, provided they can get the appropriate funds. (August 19, 2011)

CT also has more news stories on our website.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.