In my 37 years working on a myriad of natural and man-made disasters in 100 countries, I’ve noticed a profound change among many of my colleagues in the relief field and in the outreach messaging of the hundreds of major nonprofits working to help those in need.
While my own nonprofit—Operation USA—does not accept any government funds, most major brand name charities are heavily U.S.-government funded. While they approach government agencies with the best of intentions and skill, they are often presented with a range of take-it-or-leave-it program options which in some countries are nakedly political in nature and reflect U.S. government short-term strategic interests rather than an objective humanitarian imperative brought on by famine, drought, disease or dislocation by war or natural disaster.
Syria’s multi-sided civil war is one such example. Relief agencies flocked into Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey fueled by huge amounts of U.S. Government money (as well as UN money given by the U.S. and European Union countries) to capably provide mass care to millions of refugees displaced from Syria. Still others received funding for cross-border relief directly into Syria using locally hired, Arabic-speaking staff who risk their lives on a daily basis.
Reading through websites of the major relief agencies active in that conflict reveals messaging that is often disappointing in its appeal to donors by demonizing one side or another to the conflict. Now that Russia and the U.S. are involved, the Cold War-era rhetoric has ramped up to try to galvanize private donors to supplement government grants so that the relief agencies can strike their own blows to help victims.
Rest assured that innocent civilian victims deserve all the help they can get, wherever that aid can reach them. But the feeling persists that these agencies are often seen by our government as adjuncts to U.S. foreign policy mobilized in civilian clothes to stand up to dictators and fanatics ― and some relief agencies see this as a fundraising bonanza.
I witnessed that happening as the U.S. prepared to invade Iraq and overthrow Saddam Hussein when I attended a meeting at the headquarters of USAID (as a fly on the wall not a putative candidate for funding!), our foreign aid program in the State Department, and heard the USAID Administrator exhort all those agencies attending to prepare for a post-invasion reconstruction effort which he mistakenly thought might last 18 months and cost $1.7B.
I saw U.S. colleagues hire first Iraqi then Jordanian and Palestinian staff to risk them leaving the fortified villas of the relief agencies in Baghdad to do what little they could as Iraq fast disintegrated into chaos and over a decade and tens of billions of reconstruction aid be wasted while the agencies reaped the rewards of 10-15 percent overhead charges for their U.S. headquarters accounts. I fear the same is happening in the Syrian conflict despite my concern for those who really need the help.
Imagine a Korean conflict producing widespread destruction and many millions of victims. It will be a U.S. and North Korean-driven disaster of perhaps unparalleled magnitude. Will the Trump Administration expect the private U.S. nonprofits to line up at the funding trough and pick up the pieces for a price? I hope not.