Are U.S. humanitarian assistance and development assistance tools of national power, or are they charity? Should the United States federal government ever “do” charity? Whether as a component of national power or as charity, should the government outsource humanitarian and development assistance to third parties? These fundamental questions (and preconceived answers to the same) underlie a recent Washington Post op-ed that may have received scant attention outside the Beltway. On October 10th, Mr. Samuel Worthington, the President and CEO of InterAction (an “alliance of U.S.-based international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) focused on the world’s poor and most vulnerable people”) railed against recent U.S. Government pressure to more directly associate the provision of humanitarian aid with the government that, in part, makes such aid possible. Because of the possible dangers to aid workers and the mission difficulties that such “branding” might cause, Worthington advocates a laissez-faire approach by the federal government; to wit, aid organizations should independently determine the where, when, and degree of association with the United States. His approach, at its core, seems to be that the U.S. Government should cut the checks and step aside, so that NGOs can get on with their business of saving and improving lives.
First, let us be clear that many, if not most, of the NGOs allied with InterAction are doing incredibly valuable work throughout the world, and that their workers breathe life into concepts like bravery and self-sacrifice. I know aid workers who have placed themselves in situations of extreme fragility, instability, and deprivation—situations that few soldiers or marines would venture into without heavy armament. Whether to educate the world’s poorest or to respond to the most devastating natural disasters, humanitarian workers consistently place themselves in environments only a handful of Americans can fathom.
Let us be equally clear, though, that the goals and objectives of humanitarian organizations and the United States Government, while sometimes parallel to each other, are hardly synonymous. The United States Government is charged with preserving, protecting, and defending the United States, its Constitution, and way of life. Organizations like World Vision (to borrow an example from Mr. Worthington) are “dedicated to working with children, families, and their communities worldwide to reach their full potential by tackling the causes of poverty and injustice.” The U.S. federal government should only be supporting such NGO missions and goals to the extent that the missions and goals are directly and explicitly tied to the government’s core mission. Any other expenditure is a misallocation of resources, regardless of its degree of altruism.
Let us also be clear that humanitarian work is big business. NGOs compete with each other, with intergovernmental organizations like the United Nations, and with national governments for funding, recognition, status, and a future. World Vision’s financial records show that, in fiscal year 2009, the organization received approximately 23% of its support and revenue from the United States Government. While undertaking its noble work, World Vision is in constant competition with other NGOs for public and private dollars. A safe bet is that it’s far easier (in terms of time and effort) to secure a multi-million dollar grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development than it is to solicit a commensurate amount from hundreds or thousands of private donors. In such an environment, why wouldn’t NGOs pursue U.S. Government grants while attempting to minimize obstacles and requirements concerning their expenditure?
As is so many other instances, we are paying (financially and otherwise) for the inadequacy of our government. If these expenditures in the guises of humanitarian and development assistance are in the national interest, our political leaders and bureaucrats should be tying them to coherent national objectives, should be assessing the progress toward such objectives, and should be modifying expenditures based on the progress/lack thereof to such objectives. Moreover, if these types of assistance are so critical, then the government should develop the manpower, resources, and structures necessary to plan and provide them, rather than relying on third-party NGOs that have their own mandates and missions. Contemporarily, the United States Government confuses assistance with charity. The latter is noble and is the raison d'être for many NGOs, but it is not the purview of a government of free citizens who should decide individually and independently the types, amounts, and degrees of charitable donations they choose to make. American citizens consistently prove themselves to be some of the world’s most giving persons. We don’t need more government help in giving away our time or money.