The Harvard Law School/Brookings Project on Law and Security published a May 2014 study outlining the procedures humanitarian groups use to ensure their aid is not diverted to unintended recipients. An Analysis of Contemporary Anti-Diversion Policies and Practices of Humanitarian Organizations finds that, while “humanitarian organizations have long developed internal policies and practices in line with humanitarian principles and across all parts of the relief cycle” donors are increasingly requiring specific anti-bribery, anti-fraud and anti-terrorist financing (ATF) policies. According to the authors, this proliferation in “anti-diversion framing and the imposition of different or heightened standards by certain donors have raised challenges and concerns for many humanitarian organizations.”

The anti-diversion policies of humanitarian organization come primarily from two sources: at the direction of the organizations themselves and from external sources—laws, regulations and donor requirements. Every organization that participated in the research had anti-diversion policies in place and regardless of whether generated internally or externally, “most humanitarian organizations’ anti-diversion policies… arose or were refined through years of experience with program design, risk assessment and analysis, and monitoring and evaluation programs, guided fundamentally by humanitarian principles.”

The authors found that, “over the last five to ten years, donors…have in their anti-diversion discussions and requirements focused disproportionately on anti-terrorism-financing” despite the view from most organizations in study that had “stronger concerns about other forms of diversion than about anti-terrorism-financing.”  The focus on ATF and other forms of anti-diversion has brought with it “a growth in the complexity, scope, and number of anti-diversion regulations and enforcement bodies.” Particularly in the U.S. and U.K, there has been a promulgation of “laws and regulations that require humanitarian organizations (and other individuals and entities operating abroad) to undertake steps to curb corruption, bribery, money laundering, fraud, and terrorism financing.”

The increased complexity in law and regulation has led to administrative burdens for many organizations. Most organizations interviewed in the study indicated that they now spend more money and time on anti-diversion practices. Every organization had at least one staff member and many had “multiple full-time staff members dedicated to anti-diversion policies and practices.” For instance, the requirement for many organizations to “screen staff, partners, and, sometimes, ultimate beneficiaries against the numerous lists of designated entities” required a significant amount of time and resources from most organizations.

The authors also note that organizations are “increasingly adopting, and being expected to adopt, risk-based programming frameworks.” Basing programmatic decisions on risk has some analysts concerned, as they argue that the “humanitarian imperative” to provide aid based on need alone should be the primary concern in program development. Such approaches could be particularly impactful in areas deemed high-risk, which are often also the locations of the worst humanitarian crises.

One key theme that emerged from humanitarians interviewed was the need for the sector to become more visible. Many “raised concerns that donors and the general public do not sufficiently understand what humanitarian organizations do, why humanitarian principles are so important, and why it may not be advisable to transfer standards wholesale from the commercial sector to the humanitarian sector.” Increasing awareness, not only of the good works of humanitarians, but also of their long history of preventing diversion through internally crafted policies, could be a step toward reducing some of the more burdensome requirements imposed by donors.