Below are excerpts from comments written by a diverse range of nonprofits and experts in response to two Federal Register announcements inviting comment on the burdens USAID’s Partner Vetting System (PVS) would impose on its grant applicants; one from the Department of State (Oct. 2011) and USAID (Dec. 2011). PVS would require NGOs receiving USAID funds to collect personal information on local partners for submission to the U.S. government. If implemented, the proposed PVS pilot would create hazards for aid workers and undermine program effectiveness. It will prevent some potential grantees from applying for funds, and will hamper the efforts of others to deliver services and programs that serve the best interests of the United States.

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“NGOs rely on relationships built over decades of experience partnering with local communities to ensure that their employees and sub-grantees are not affiliated with terrorist or criminal organizations. …More than mere list checking, these exhaustive processes allow NGOs to have substantive understanding about the people with whom they work.” (p.2)
“Many of USAID’s foreign assistance programs are effectively achieved through people-to-people, nongovernmental interaction. To carry out the goals of such programs, U.S. NGOs that share knowledge, information and experience with indigenous groups and individuals must maintain their independence and neutrality. In many highly polarized political environments, where accusations that foreign governments are undermining the host country’s sovereignty are common, protection of neutrality and independence are critical.” (p.3)
“The perception… that NGOs collecting the personal information are operating as an extension of U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies, undermines the basic principles of acceptance, neutrality and trust upon which NGOs rely to preserve the safety of their staff and operations, particularly in dangerous regions or in politically sensitive environments.” (p.3)
“We recognize the external pressures on USAID and the State Department to address the risks of diversion in the strongest possible manner. However, we continue to assert that the PVS is not adequately designed to protect NGO workers and partners and represents an unwelcome redefinition of the relationship between our community and the federal government, endangering critical aid and development work and consequently harming U.S. national interests.” (p.4)
“It is impossible to judge the accuracy of the burden estimate listed because the parameters of the pilot program have not yet been made public. In fact, in a public meeting held on September 8, 2011 by officials from the State Department and USAID to introduce the public to the PVS pilot, information sheets stated that the specifics of the pilot were still being designed by an interagency team. Without any knowledge of, for example, the number and types of grants that will be vetted in the five pilot countries based on the undefined “risk-based model” and the timing of the vetting e.g. each time new staff are added, with each funding renewal, or simply upon first application, the burden is unclear.” (p.2)
“We are concerned that the Partner Vetting System puts State Department and USAID personnel and officials and partner employees and local partners at even greater risk.” (p. 3)
“The collection and maintenance of the vast amounts of personal data required by the PVS requires organizations to develop secure data management systems and to hire additional staff to manage the data and process.” (p. 3)

Save the Children:

“Legal, reputational and administrative burdens associated with processing personal information of individuals: by virtue of the fact the PVS requires U.S. entities to receive and process (transfer) information to the U.S. government for databasing, to meet the requirements of applicable privacy frameworks, we are required to develop secure data management systems and to hire additional staff to manage the data and process it. The costs for such resources are significant and are often not covered as an allowable grant expense. Further, PVS will require Save the Children and other similarly situated NGOs to instate potentially discriminatory practices against foreign individuals and partners. For example, if Save the Children is required to provide the personal information of a Belgian citizen heading up a local non-profit partner to the U.S. government for its non-public databasing, Save the Children will need to obtain consent from that individual to waive the privacy protections afforded to them under the Belgian personal information privacy statutes. Given that individual may choose not to waive their privacy protections, Save the Children may be required to decline making the award to that organization. The legal and reputational implications for U.S. NGOs working with individuals and organizations protected by varying legal frameworks (e.g. the European Union Data Directive) cannot be understated. U.S. NGOs are faced with a choice of intolerable options: (i) disclose to potential employees and/or grant recipients that personal information is being transferred to the U.S. government for non-public databasing to obtain consent and risk losing otherwise qualified partners and candidates; or (ii) contravene foreign privacy laws to satisfy USAID’s vetting requirements.” (p.3)

American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU):

“The ACLU continues to have fundamental concerns with aspects of the Partner Vetting System. These concerns regard the lack of due process and transparency in the proposed screening, the overbroad scope of the individuals whose information is to be collected, and the privacy implications of collecting such highly personal, confidential information and sharing it across agencies.” (p.1)
“While the Department State’s October 14 Notice seeks public comments regarding its Program, to our knowledge the Department of State has not published any details regarding the Program…Without knowing these details, the ACLU has little basis on which to comment on the Program and whether its implementation will heighten or mitigate our concerns, or raise new concerns.” (p.1-2)

Zakat Foundation of America:

“There is no evidence that USAID funds are flowing to terrorist organizations through NGOs. The USAID Office of the Inspector General found no such diversion in exercising its oversight of programs In USAID’s sensitive West Bank/Gaza portfolio for 2006 and 2007, when PVS was proposed. According To the Inspector General, “OIG oversight activities during this period did not identify any instances Where terrorist organizations received USAID funds.” Nor has it reported finding such diversions elsewhere.” (p.1)
“Systems such as PVS tend to create barriers to effective delivery of aid programs, discourage small NGOs from applying for grants and alienate international partners, all without effectively addressing national security concerns.” (p.2)

David A. Steele:

“Increased security risks to NGOs due to the same perception that they are arms of US intelligence. Kidnappings, killings, and other security risks have increased drastically over the past ten years for NGO personnel working in conflict zones.” (p.1)
“Questions [are] raised about the accuracy of the lists of terrorists… The very fact that Nelson Mandela used to be on such a list is but one example of the questions that need to be raised. There do not seem to be adequate definitions regarding who would be designated a terrorist, what is the description of a “key individual” (very broadly defined in the proposed text), what constitutes derogatory information, what exactly is defined as a threat to national security, or what happens to information gathered on people who are not deemed to be terrorists. Grant programs could actually be halted because names of innocent people appear on a list.” (p.1)
“The fact that NGOs will not be notified if a proposal submitted has been denied due to PVS and that there is no recourse, therefore, for a challenge to be made and for the data to be amended or even corrected in light of information coming from people who many times will know the individuals in question much better than USG personnel or computerized lists. The secrecy of the process, one in which the USG is the only party that can evaluate itself, raises important questions. Also of concern is the fact that an NGO can be excluded from receiving a USG grant, without ever knowing that the reason is due to inclusion of a suspected terrorist in their project proposal. Much more transparency is necessary for effective partnership.” (p.1-2)
“I have worked in numerous other conflict zones where I have had contact with, and trained, people who may well have been on terrorist lists: for example Tamils in Sri Lanka, Indonesians from Ache, or Kenyan Muslims. What I wish to emphasize is the positive value that I believe my efforts have contributed to peaceful outcomes in many regions where extremist, if not terrorist, elements have been engaged. I believe that the success I have experienced is due to an emphasis on building relationships of trust, helping to dispel misperceptions, and brainstorming potential solutions among a very wide spectrum of parties to the conflict…. I believe that this kind of trusting relationship, built not on computerized data bases (often inadequate even if augmented by unspecified follow-up investigation), but on true partnership, will be the best defense against terrorism.” (p.3-4)

Peace Appeal Foundation:

“The Department of State and USAID should work with the nonprofit sector to devise a vetting process that is effective, accurate and respects the neutrality of NGOs. This would be consistent with the 2010 recommendation of the President’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.” (p.3)

The Constitution Project:

“While it may be appropriate for the government to investigate key players receiving government humanitarian aid to prevent the diversion of these resources to terrorist groups, it is critical to incorporate adequate processes and controls to safeguard constitutional rights and values, including due process and privacy.” (p.2)
“During the PVS process, grant applicants’ personal data will be compared with information contained in commercial, public, and U.S. government databases, including many of the aforementioned inaccurate and unreliable watch lists. Without a system in place to notify applicants of the reason why their grant requests have been denied and to challenge USAID’s decision, many organizations will be unfairly denied humanitarian aid. For a system to be fair, it must have some mechanism for redressing errors. The PVS application process should not serve as a means to blacklist certain individuals or organizations from receiving USAID funds just because their names appear on a watch list.” (p.2)
“Any program involving the collection or use of personal data should ensure privacy protection through use restrictions. Data collected during the PVS pilot program should not be used for any other purpose than to verify that USAID recipients are not funneling money to terrorist organizations. Private parties and other government agencies should not receive access to this information. Most importantly, data from approved applicants should not be retained and stored in intelligence databases; investigative files should not be opened on any approved applicant without reasonable suspicion. Humanitarian applicants should not have to worry about how the U.S. government uses their personal and private data.” (p.3)

Nora Lester Murad:

“It is my experience, without exception, that complicated and unrealistic procedures have NO effect on terrorism or potential terrorism. They do, however, dramatically undermine legitimate and peace-loving civil society in several ways. First, these procedures make it hard for good NGOs to get funds. Second, good groups that do get funds have their credibility undermined by their participation with such USAID requirements, which are widely seen as illegitimate and insulting. Third, they make it very expensive, slow and inefficient to work, thus undermining impact.” (p.1)
“PVS is a prime example of misguided policies with impact categorically opposite to the stated objectives.” (p. 1)

The International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL):

“While we naturally share the stated goal of employing reasonable means to protect USAID and State Department (DOS) resources from possible diversion to terrorist organizations, we strongly object to the use of the Partner Vetting System (PVS) as either an appropriate or effective means of achieving this aim. As we shall briefly point out in our response, below, the stated problem (diversion of USG funding to terrorists) has not been demonstrated to be a realistic threat. Certainly, as presented, it is hardly proportionate to the cost of PVS in terms of money and damage to the effectiveness of USG-supported programs, especially in volatile regions so critical to US development and democratization goals, as well as to national security. Moreover, the proposed PVS plan will itself divert scarce resources to its implementation. It will potentially cause an irreparable breach of trust and confidence on the part of local partners” (p.1)
“We view the proposed PVS plan as a counter-productive impediment to the ability of many independent US organizations to carry out their own missions, which are carefully conceived and fashioned to assist development of stable and participatory local economic, political, and social environments in targeted emerging nations.” (p.1)
“It remains our view that PVS, as currently structured, is a program without a realistic target that will place unreasonable burdens on those whom it requires to provide the intended information. It will prevent some potential grantees from applying at all, and will hamper or even threaten the efforts of others to design, implement, and deliver programs sought by the USG to serve the best interests of the United States. Furthermore, it is essentially redundant to existing vetting systems already adopted at significant cost by US nonprofits and so far successfully carried out at the behest of the USG. As currently envisioned, PVS will likely cost grantees effective and significant local partners to deliver their programs, because those partners will be extremely resistant to working with an organization that will turn over their private information to a foreign government’s intelligence services.” (p.3)