From easing restrictions on humanitarian aid and improving human security to empowering civil society, InterAction’s 2013 Foreign Assistance Briefing Book provides a series of recommendations for the 113th Congress and the Obama administration to improve the quality and effectiveness of U.S. foreign assistance. Drawing on the experience and expertise of over 200 InterAction member organizations working across the developing world, the Briefing Book covers 18 key areas and succinctly outlines their perspectives and solutions to foreign assistance challenges. “Development assistance through U.S. civilian agencies advances U.S. national political, economic and security interests,” the Briefing Book says in its introduction. InterAction is the largest coalition of U.S.-based non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working internationally on humanitarian, development, and peacebuilding issues.

“To ensure efficient and flexible devel­opment programs,” the Briefing Book says, “governments, NGOs and the private sector must build effective partnerships. In part, this will entail further appreciation of the role of international NGOs and their greater inclusion in policymaking.”

This is sharp contrast to the crackdown on the operating space for civil society by at least 50 governments.  “Recent years have witnessed a legislative backlash against civil society organizations (CSOs). U.S. organizations have had staff arrested, their offices raided, and programs terminated. Governments have also constrained the formation, operation and funding of host country CSOs.”

These overly-broad constraints and intrusive measures impede the ability of U.S. groups and their international partners from carrying out work that reduces suffering and conflict, and transforms the lives and conditions of people around the world. Singling out countries like Russia, Ethiopia, and China for introducing restrictive legislation harmful to their domestic civil society, the Briefing Book says, “An enabling legal environment is essential for civil soci­ety organizations to…provide humanitarian assistance, promote human rights, and foster other activities impor­tant to local populations.”

Some of the topics and recommendations include:

Reduce Legal Restrictions on Humanitarian Action

  • “Allow humanitarian organizations to pay unavoidable and incidental fees such as taxes and tolls without a lengthy bureaucratic licensing process. U.S. law should permit NGOs to conduct transactions that are customary, necessary and incidental to the donation or provision of goods or services to prevent and alleviate the suffering of civilians.”
  • “Allow humanitarian organizations to engage with all parties to armed conflict. U.S. law should protect NGOs from legal liability when they engage with Sanctioned Entities to gain access to civilians in order to prevent or alleviate suffering and to reduce the frequency and severity of violent conflict.”

Safeguard Civil Society

  • Ensure that the legal framework for civil society is a core priority of USAID, other U.S. government agencies, and U.S. foreign policy

  • Create a high-level bureau at State to foster stronger dialogue with civil society
  • Encourage the Treasury Department to facilitate and empower civil society

Aid Effectiveness and Reform

  • Develop a clear and uniform set of operational guidelines applicable to all U.S. agencies affecting development assistance. “Guidelines would help ensure that stakeholder participation is consistent and not left to the discretion of individual agencies or missions.”
  • Assess risk mitigation policy and increase transparency in USAID assistance or acquisition mechanisms

Humanitarian Priorities

  • “Ensure U.S.-funded humanitarian programs are implemented by organizations that pro­vide assistance based closely on need and in a manner consistent with internationally-recognized standards and international humanitarian law.”

The USAID-U.S. NGO Relationship

  • Continue to engage in regular, substantive policy dialogue, and develop a USAID-U.S. NGO engagement strategy to identify areas of potential collaboration

NGO and Military Relations

  • Increase mandate, budget, and staff at State and USAID, particularly development and humanitarian professionals, to enhance capacity to complete missions

  • Review Department of Defense authorities in the humanitarian and development realm, reduce overlap with civilian agencies, and ensure that any benefits are in line with the significant costs of using military forces in this manner