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Charity, Horizontal Scenarios & Resilience

August 15, 2006


In my blog about the need for Global Leadership, I noted that “the reason that Hamas and Hezbollah and al Qaeda are able to garner support is that they seep into countries through critical cracks in the foundations of those nation-states in which they operate. They don’t just espouse hatred and violence, they set up clinics and hospitals, they establish charities, and make people feel like their interests are being taken seriously. They do this because the state has proven incapable of providing these things.” A New York Times article by Sabrina Tavernise details exactly how these charitable activities turn into unqualified support for political and terrorist agendas [“Charity Wins Deep Loyalty for Hezbollah,” 6 August 2006] . Tavernise begins her article with the story of a Lebanese security guard who has received both medical and food assistance from Hezbollah. He is not a member of Hezbollah, but he is grateful for their help and he doesn’t know how he would have survived without it.  Tavernise writes:

Hezbollah fighters move like shadows across the mountains of southern Lebanon; its workers in towns and villages, equally as ghostly, have settled deeply into people’s lives. They cover medical bills, offer health insurance, pay school fees and make seed money available for small businesses. They are invisible but omnipresent, providing essential services that the Lebanese government through years of war was incapable of offering. Their work engenders a deep loyalty among Shiites, who for years were the country’s underclass and whose sense of pride and identity are closely intertwined with Hezbollah.

If you want to reduce or eliminate the influence of groups like Hezbollah, you need to build the capacity of the state in which they operate so that they can provide for the people more effectively than the groups you are trying to displace. That strategy seems so obvious that you would think it would require no debate, just action. Tavernise notes that “Hezbollah’s military branch is separate from its social works, but in its early days it began together, organizing water delivery for people in Dahiya, the Shiite area in south Beirut, the scene of some of the most complete destruction in this war.” While the military and social works branches might be separate, loyalty generated by latter provides support for the former. Until those loyalties are attached to the state, things are not going to change.

Since Hezbollah and Hamas have won the hearts and minds of local populations through their charitable work (and because, following 9/11, several Islamic charities turned out to be false front fundraisers for groups like al Qaeda), all Islamic charities have now been painted with the broad brush of terrorism. This nefarious connection was once again shown in the recent bomb plots uncovered in London. A Washington Post article [“Charity Funds Said to Provide Clues to Alleged Terrorist Plot,” by Joshua Partlow and Kamran Kahn, 15 August 2006] reports that money purportedly raised last year for earthquake relief in Pakistan actually went to support terrorist activities. According to the story:

A large portion of the money sent from Britain to the charity was siphoned off and ultimately used to prepare for the attacks. The officials said that about 5 million British pounds, or $10 million, was transferred to Pakistan, but that less than half was used for relief operations after the earthquake last October, which killed tens of thousands of people.

One of the real tragedies, of course, is that people who desperately need help didn’t receive the benefit of the money donated to help them. Other horizontal scenarios resulting from suspicion of all Islamic charities have also played out and are having a significant impact on the current Middle East crisis. Some of the ramifications were examined in a Washington Post article by Alan Cooperman [“Muslim Charities Say Fear Is Damming Flow of Money,” 9 August 2006]. He writes:

Charities prefer that people send money rather than food, medicine or other goods, because in-kind donations force the charities to pay for shipping, delay the arrival of the aid, and saddle relief workers with the task of sorting and distributing items that may not be needed. The problem, according to relief groups, is that many people who are inclined to write checks for emergency aid and reconstruction in Lebanon are afraid of ending up in some government database of suspected supporters of terrorism. Arab American leaders say this is one of the unintended consequences of the U.S. government’s crackdown on charities run by Muslims. Though aimed at cutting off illicit funding for terrorist groups, the crackdown has complicated legitimate humanitarian relief efforts in Lebanon, Gaza and the West Bank.

While no one denies that there is suffering in both Lebanon and Israel and that help is needed to assist victims, Cooperman notes that the amount of money raised to help victims has been very lopsided:

United Jewish Communities, an umbrella organization for 155 Jewish charities across the country, announced last week that it will raise at least $300 million in emergency aid for Israel. The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington alone intends to raise $10 million toward that goal. By comparison, the flow of private U.S. donations for humanitarian aid in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories is a mere trickle, estimated by relief groups at a few million dollars. Donors who fear giving to Muslim charities can contribute to the International Committee of the Red Cross or groups such as CARE and Mercy Corps — large, international relief groups that are the major conduit of such aid.

Dealing with unintended consequences is one of the things that resilient enterprises do well. Islamic charities are demonstrating various degrees of resiliency by how they are responding. Those that believe doing something is better than nothing continue to collect goods in kind. Their efforts have created some strange bedfellows. One article, for example, relates how Mormons and Muslims are cooperating to get aid into Lebanon [“Mormons, Muslims Team Up on Overseas Aid Projects,” by Adelle M. Banks, Religion News Service].

As the latest round of violence in the Middle East continues to flare between Israel and Hezbollah, two disparate religious groups — Mormons and Muslims — have pooled their resources to aid the casualties of the conflict. Mormons, who have a long history of disaster preparedness, have the supplies. And Muslims, who consider charity one of the five pillars of Islam, have the contacts on the ground. Despite deep doctrinal differences, both groups believe helping others is a central tenet of their faiths.

One might think this arrangement is particularly strange since the Mormons are some of George Bush’s strongest supporters and he isn’t actually perceived as being unbiased in the current crisis. The article points out, however, that this cooperation has been ongoing for over three years. The Mormons have the supplies and transportation while the Muslims have the contacts on the ground necessary to distribute the supplies. Distribution is one of the largest problems relief agencies have when dealing with goods in kind. That is why other Muslim relief agencies are still insisting on cash donations. They want to prove, according to Cooperman, that “they, too, can collect money and distribute it without problems.” Resilient charities (those that will thrive, not just survive) will be those who reach out, connect with others, find work-arounds, and perform their work with complete transparency. Pain and suffering have no creed, take no sides, and recognize no class distinctions.

Part of making the Lebanese government more resilient is giving it the capacity to work with legitimate relief organizations to help meet the needs of its people. This must be done on a consistent, sustainable basis if it hopes to make inroads in pushing Hezbollah off its political stage.

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