By Zach Theiler

On Sept. 5, the International Day of Charity, launched in 2012 to honor Mother Teresa, it is time to recognize the importance of charities in alleviating suffering and promoting human security. Globally, charities are essential to achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), an expansive set of targets meant to rally the private sector, government, and charities behind the most pressing issues of the 21st century. The SDGs inform grant makers in measuring the effectiveness of programs, corporations -social responsibility strategies and government foreign assistance priorities. There are signs that a universal framework has been widely adopted across sectors to address the key challenges of our time, and key to the success of achieving the goals is cross-sector collaboration. Unfortunately, national security policy risks undermining that cross-sectoral collaboration and the ability of nonprofit organizations to contribute to the achievement of the SDGs. This deprives the SDG agenda of a core value charities bring to the table: intimate connections to people and communities.

Throughout many conflict zones the work of nonprofits is crucial in building peace and security, and furthering SDG 16: Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions. Although George W. Bush once stated that the “money is the lifeblood of terrorism” and launched a “War on Terror.” After 20 years of violent intervention to stop terrorism, the world is no safer than it was in 2001. Today, politicians understand this, and have passed landmark bills such as the Global Fragility Act in 2019 to better address the root causes of terrorism: unattended societal grievances. It is also understood that nonprofit organizations are essential in implementing the Global Fragility Act, attending to all corners of society, educating youth in conflict zones so they don’t fall victim to violent extremism and lead to another generation of violence. Nonprofits have the trust and networks to work effectively in their local communities. It is here where the value of nonprofits is indispensable.

Unfortunately, the work of peacebuilding organizations is undermined by vague definitions of the prohibition of “material support” to terrorists – which complicates and discourages nonprofit organizations from working in regions with terrorist presence. The problem was highlighted when the Carter Center, a renowned peacebuilding organization founded by President Jimmy Carter, was sued for hosting a conflict resolution meeting that included Hamas, a listed terrorist organization, in Palestine. According to the plaintiff, holding peace talks and encouraging nonviolent conflict resolution while providing “cookies and tea” to listed terrorists, constituted “material support” to terrorists. The absurd lawsuit was promptly dismissed at the request of the Department of Justice, but it does highlight the vulnerable position peacebuilding organizations working to bridge peace in conflict zones find themselves in.

It is essential that nonprofits are able to conduct their activities in the arena of peacebuilding. Governments often do not have the neutral reputation, knowledge of local customs and culture, or trust and connection to local people to understand the societal grievances deeply. This is why national security policy needs to support, not hinder the work of nonprofit organizations. The material support law needs to be updated, and have peacebuilding and humanitarian safeguards to ensure that nonprofits can operate in conflict zones to educate, and empower local communities to bring an end to violence. Only after peace is sustained will we collectively be able to address the other SDGs regarding socio-economic equality and environmental sustainability.

The SDGs are largely interconnected. A healthier society is a more productive society, there is a vital connection between public health and strong economies. However, the influence of SDG 16 on all other SDGs cannot be overstated. War cripples economic development. It destroys infrastructure. It makes populations more vulnerable to disease. And it requires the absolute attention of governments, taking time and resources away from important activities like environmental sustainability. Without peace, progress in the SDG agenda will be hamstrung, and without empowering and partnering effectively with nonprofit organizations, we hinder our ability to build peace, engage all corners of society, address the root causes of conflict.