WASHINGTON — In the aftermath of the Iraq war, American foundations and humanitarian organizations are beginning to play their traditional role of providing relief and assistance to distressed populations, just as they are doing in Afghanistan and many other poor countries.
Americans think of international development and relief mainly as publicly funded programs, but in reality most are funded from private sources. In 2000, for example, official development assistance and other government aid amounted to $22.6 billion, while private aid flows totaled $33.6 billion, according to the US Agency for International Development.
Although poverty isn't the only factor that breeds terrorists, its destruction of hope surely contributes. A vital element in the long-term fight against terrorism is strengthening the American and foreign nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) whose work curbs extremism through programs that alleviate poverty and violent conflict, increases economic opportunity, provides education and healthcare, enhances the roles and status of women, and encourages tolerance and secular governance.
In Bangladesh, for example, NGOs reach more than 85 percent of the country's villages with services helping to meet family and community needs. This may help explain why Bangladesh, despite its poverty and predominantly Muslim population, hasn't faced the extremism prevalent in some of its South Asian neighbors.
NGOs are truly frontline allies in the war against terrorism. Their programs focus on prevention, and their success is essential for their country's security and ours. New regulations affecting international philanthropy, however, could lead to a reduction in support for this vital work.
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the US has taken forceful and legitimate steps to halt the flow of funds to terrorist organizations through Executive Order 13224 and related elements of the USA Patriot Act. Although the policy objectives of these measures are widely supported, considerable public debate continues about their possible impact on the political rights and civil liberties enjoyed by US citizens, immigrants, and visitors from certain countries, and their potentially chilling impact on American private philanthropy and development assistance.
To clarify implementation of the new anti-terrorist measures, the Treasury Department last November issued "Anti-Terrorist Financing Guidelines: Voluntary Best Practices for US-Based Charities."
The voluntary guidelines contain too many vague and undefined terms that leave grantmakers vulnerable to legal action. In addition to mandatory checks of the names of all prospective grantees against published lists of terrorist organizations, the guidelines prohibit foundations from funding organizations that may "deal with" named terrorist organizations, organizations that may be "otherwise associated with" terrorists, or anyone who "is or has been implicated in any questionable activity."
These terms are open to interpretation. For example, organizations trying to provide assistance to the millions of Sri Lankans in areas controlled by the Tamil Tigers, a named terrorist organization, have little choice but to "deal with" this group, at least to provide safe passage for personnel and materials.
Likewise, in many countries, local human rights NGOs and election monitors are regularly - and falsely - accused by their political opponents of supporting radical organizations or violent opposition groups, and therefore may be "implicated in questionable activity."
The guidelines expect private funders to function as bank regulators. In addition to determining the identity of all the financial institutions in which prospective grantees have accounts, grantmakers must obtain references to determine if the financial institution is "a shell bank operating under an offshore license," in a jurisdiction "that has been ... non-cooperative in the international fight against money laundering, or that lacks adequate anti-money laundering controls and regulatory oversight." Making such determinations is far beyond the competence of most involved in international philanthropy.
Perhaps most important, the new requirements risk undermining cooperative relationships between US organizations and their overseas partners. The guidelines assume that comprehensive information is available about nonprofit organizations worldwide, as it is in the US. Unfortunately, that's not the case. Excessive and unrealistic due diligence requirements will ultimately destroy relationships of trust and the ability of US foundations to operate freely and effectively. Under cover of the war on terror, some governments are likely to see the guidelines as a convenient rationale for increased scrutiny and control over foreign and domestic nonprofit organizations.
Clearly, prudence is required in selecting grantees, but well-managed international philanthropic organizations, particularly grant-makers with offices abroad, know their grantees and exercise careful oversight and financial controls. They're steadfastly committed to ensuring that their funds never fall into the hands of those who wish us harm. We welcome the current IRS review of international grantmaking practices, in the expectation that taking into account the views of experienced international grantmakers will result in revised guidelines that recognize the important contributions of private philanthropy to our national interests, while meeting our country's legitimate security needs.
• William P. Fuller and Barnett F. Baron are the president and executive vice president, respectively, of the Asia Foundation, a private, nongovernmental, grantmaking organization.