On Jan. 18, 2012, State responded to the comments submitted in December by NGOs critical of the proposed Partner Vetting System (PVS). The PVS  would require State Department (State) and United States Agency for International Development (USAID) grant applicants to submit detailed personal information on foreign partners for screening against secret government databases. Complete comments, news and background on the PVS is available here.

Below is a summary of some of the comments submitted to State, State’s response to the comments and CSN’s rebuttal.

NGOs Already Conduct Strong Due Diligence

NGO CommentPVS is unnecessary because it duplicates due diligence efforts already undertaken by organizations working with foreign partners. NGOs working overseas check the U..S. government’s terrorist lists and use “specialized local knowledge” to screen personnel and partners. There is also no evidence that any U.S. government funds have been diverted to terrorists.

State’s Response: The State Department and USAID have access to classified information on “terrorist suspects and their supporters” that is not available to the public. The information collected from the PVS will be screened against classified databases for the State’s and USAID’s own due diligence processes.

CSN Rebuttal: NGOs recognize the need to ensure the safe delivery of funds for their intended purposes and have developed multi-faceted due diligence procedures that are based on deep knowledge of the communities in which they work. These procedures have effectively screened hundreds of thousands of potential employees and sub-grantees over many decades and there has been little evidence provided to indicate that these due diligence activities are ineffective. Even the USAID Office of the Inspector General “did not identify any instances where terrorist organizations received USAID funds” when conducting oversight of programs in USAID’s sensitive West Bank/Gaza portfolio for 2006 and 2007.

The PVS will Undermine NGO Programs and Put Aid Workers in Danger

NGO CommentCollecting personal information about local foreign partners will undermine the work of NGOs because it will create the perception that they are part of the broader government agenda. This threatens impartiality, increases the dangers faced by aid workers, and undermine trust. Foreign organizations may also become hesitant to work with U.S groups that forward their personal information to the U.S. government.

State’s Response: Information collected will not be used to create a “blacklist” of barred individuals or organizations. It will only be used to check for those who may already be on the SDN, or other lists. There can be no guarantee that collecting this data will not create suspicion and hostility toward NGOs, however many groups hostile to U.S. interests already view U.S. NGOs with suspicion.

CSN Rebuttal: Intelligence gathering on behalf of the U.S. government has the potential to cause an irreparable harm to the relationships between U.S. NGOs and their foreign partners. The perception that U.S. groups are intelligence-gathering sources for the U.S. government “could put into jeopardy the trust-building process that is central to NGO work as well as the basic principles of NGOs and their programs – neutrality, trust and independence.” This perceived impartiality “increases the risk of violence against staff,” particularly in “politically sensitive environments.”

Ambiguity in the Program’s Requirements

NGO Comment: It is impossible to judge the accuracy of the estimated burden on operations the PVS will have becausethe parameters of the pilot program have not yet been made public. It remains unclear which “key employees,” local partners, and types of grants will require vetting.

State’s Response: The number of key employees may vary depending upon factors such as how much funding is sought. “While it is true that the exact manner by which State will assign a risk factor in its model has not been fully defined, the use of such a model is a good faith attempt to limit the scope of our collections.”

CSN Rebuttal: Based on the few details that are publicly available, several major NGOs have voiced concerns that the proposed PVS plan will divert scarce resources from humanitarian programs toward meeting its requirements. Save the Children commented that “The costs [of complying with the proposed PVS requirements] are significant and are often not covered as an allowable grant expense.”

Proposed Program is Outside the Scope of Congressional Mandate

NGO Comment Despite the Congressional mandate to operate a “joint” program, State and USAID are developing separate forms for collecting information. This will increase the administrative burden on NGOs. Additionally, in the materials provided to the public in September, State and USAID presented expansion of the pilot program as a foregone conclusion, stating that the “expected outcome” is the “validation of [the] risk-based model.”

State’s ResponseState and USAID are independent agencies with different institutional models requiring different information to be collected for vetting. Neither State nor USAID “is implementing PVS in a comprehensive fashion worldwide” and the intended goal of seeking to “validate the risk based model” is to learn if the procedure for analysis “corresponds to the results of the vetting process.”

CSN Rebuttal: For years the nonprofit community has been reaching out to State and USAID to develop a vetting system that is effective and workable. U.S. nonprofits are prepared to participate in a robust evaluation of the program and we encourage the State Department and USAID to plan an effective and independent evaluation phase before considering any expansion of the pilot.

Is there a Chance for Appeal?

NGO CommentIf a U.S. NGO is denied a grant because of the result of vetting, will there be an explanation of why the grant was denied and an opportunity for appeal?

State’s ResponseState “plans on incorporating such procedures” and says NGOs “will be allowed to challenge the decision,” but no additional details are provided and State has not said who will oversee the appeals process.

CSN Rebuttal: NGOs have been raising red flags about the lack of procedural details since 2007, but State and USAID have yet to offer any specifics. For the PVS pilot program to provide adequate due process protections, the system must be transparent and curative. In other words, if an applicant is denied access to USAID funds because of a match to a U.S. government database, the applicant should (1) receive an explanation stating the reason for denial and (2) have a meaningful opportunity to challenge the results of the vetting.