CSN’s proposals to improve the process for obtaining a license that permits charities to prevent and alleviate human suffering in global hot spots were sent to the Treasury Department on July 21, 2013.  The proposals address problems with the licensing mechanism run by Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) that aid groups have repeatedly found to hamper humanitarian action in places like Somalia and the Palestinian Territories, with dire consequences for civilians waiting for urgently needed assistance.   Improvements to the current process outlined in the proposal include having OFAC issue clearly defined standards for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) applying for a license, timetables for responding to an application, and providing an explanation for any application that is rejected.  To further discuss these ideas, CSN has requested a meeting with Adam J. Szubin, OFAC’s Director, to “make the process work better for charities and for OFAC.”

When responding to emergencies in places where terrorist groups are active, humanitarian NGOs often need to conduct logistical transactions, such as the payment road tolls, with those groups in order to reach and deliver aid to vulnerable civilians.  Under the current system, NGOs must first obtain a license from OFAC before doing so or risk running afoul of U.S. law.  However, there are few regulations governing the process, and no clear rules on how or when OFAC must make a determination on a licensing request. For years NGOs have found OFAC’s licensing process to be confusing, arbitrary, and untimely, especially in response to requests for conducting aid programs in places where assistance is urgently needed on a large scale.

The delayed response to the Somalia famine in 2011 is perhaps the clearest example of this.  Even though the famine was predicted months in advance, OFAC did not issue a license until well after tens of thousands of people had already died of starvation. Making matters worse, the license was applicable only to aid groups who were grantees of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) or UN agencies, so all privately funded NGOs were excluded.  A May 2013 report produced by the U.S.-funded Famine Early Warning Network (FEWSnet) and the UN estimated that more than a quarter of a million people died during the Somali famine from October 2010 to April 2012. While many factors contributed to the massive death-toll, “there is consensus that the humanitarian response to the famine was mostly late and insufficient,” the study concluded.

In Gaza, NGOs face a number of restrictions on their work because Hamas, a group classified as a terrorist group by the U.S. since 1997, is the elected government.  This makes providing aid to the thousands of civilians in the territory a significant challenge, because any contact with Hamas, even if it is solely for the purpose of facilitating the delivery of aid to civilians, could be grounds for sanctions by the U.S. government.

To illustrate the hurdles facing aid groups working in the territory, CSN has obtained a copy of a licensing request from a charity who sought limited contact with Hamas to facilitate the distribution of food, educational material and other services to children in Gaza.  Two years after sending its application to Treasury, the charity received a letter from OFAC denying its request for a license because of “lack of foreign policy guidance from the U.S. Department of State.”  No further information was presented with the denial and OFAC considered the matter “closed.” According to the head of the charity who had made the request, during those two years without word from OFAC, “we had to revamp our processes to ensure compliance with U.S. laws, all while ensuring our work for the well-being of humanity, and those we serve…prevails.” Without the license, the charity was forced to change its plans, and was limited in the scope of the work it could conduct.  (Click here for more information about this license request and denial.)