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Money transfers to war zones and emergency areas: practical tips and wider political and ethical implications

War zones and emergency areas – and the people living within them – need money. But how do you get funds to those that most need it? Who gets to decide this? And what are the wider political and ethical issues to consider?

Ways of getting money in

When faced with images of devastation and people in need like those following the recent Turkey and Syria earthquakes, it’s natural to want to send money to help. Most often this will be done through a donation to a large, well-known organisation such as Oxfam or the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC). Sometimes aid will make its way to smaller charities, either via the support of individuals or by sub-contracted funds from those larger organisations. There are then several ways to get these funds into war zones and emergency areas:

Bank transfers
Depending on the setting it may still be possible to transfer funds via traditional banking services. However this may run the risk of physical infrastructure being destroyed, or – in conflict situations – different parties controlling the banking system. This could lead to people being tracked, associated with a foreign income, and potentially accused of espionage.

Money transfer agencies
Companies like Western Union provide money transfer services. In a war situation, not everyone has access to a bank account. So what often happens in this scenario is that an organisation or individual who has money to transfer will find someone in the war zone who has managed to set up a Western Union account, and cash will be delivered to them this way. There is a fairly hefty charge for this, usually a percentage of the total amount transferred.

Hawala systems
This represents an informal channel for transferring funds from one person (and location) to another via trusted individuals. These people can be checked and legitimised via due diligence processes, eg monitoring paperwork and tracking fund transfers. Money is given to one hawala contact who will then get it to another contact (sometimes through a chain of connected trusted contacts). As with money transfer agencies, a percentage of the total funds is paid for this service.

Digital solutions
There are now experiments around sending money digitally to those in war zones – for example, activating a digital transfer in-country to somebody who lives in a refugee camp or a remote location that they receive via a mobile phone. This nascent approach isn’t yet a possibility for cross-border transfers, however it’s something to look out for in the future – particularly because digitisation of funds can enable the tracking of money automatically, which can aid compliance.

Physical problems

The methods mentioned above have various problems and demerits.

First and foremost, what does it mean for a person’s security if they are picking up what could be thousands of pounds or dollars of cash (to be distributed to projects and people on the ground), in a war-torn or emergency situation where people have nothing and are desperate? In these settings there is likely to be a breakdown of law and order, which puts this person at great risk.

Meanwhile, if this person decides to work in this way for a ‘foreign’ organisation/charity, receiving foreign monies (particularly if there is paperwork for this, which is often a requirement put on small charities by larger donor organisations), there is a significant risk to them getting picked out as a potential spy or defector, which again has weighty implications for their security.

This leads to some major ethical considerations that organisations need to face (see below for more on this).

Then there are the physical capacity issues for smaller charities. Following a natural disaster or outbreak of conflict, they may receive a sudden influx of funds. But few small charities have the personnel or administrative infrastructure to manage this money straight away. It’s another reason that bigger, well-known organisations tend to receive the majority of donations – they are set up to act immediately on the receipt of funds (or certainly have the appearance of having the capacity to do this). Sometimes the influx proves too big for even them to manage, as was seen following the Grenfell Tower fire tragedy: a month after the fire, only a tiny percentage of money and items donated in its wake had been disseminated.

Ethical issues

As mentioned above, there are huge ethical questions around the security and physical safety of those working for you or on your behalf. What if something happens to someone who’s walking money across a border for you? What if they’re robbed? What if they’re earmarked as a spy, seized by secret police, and tortured? None of this is out of the bounds of possibility.  Whichever way you look at it, you’re fundamentally putting someone’s life at risk when you give them money in this way.

Political issues

In a war zone, there will be different entities vying for power. Where do you – as an individual or as a representative of a charitable organisation – sit in relation to this? You may have to make a call as to who or what you’re willing to support not just in a monetary sense, but in a political one. Who do you align yourself with, and why? When you move money you’re part of this wider system, so you need to consider this carefully. Something similar could be seen last year following the outbreak of the Ukraine war, with Western companies making the decision to pull out of Russia.

Legal compliance and due diligence

There are of course legal compliance issues to consider when sending money into war zones, to prevent the funding of criminal or terrorist activities. Larger organisations like the United Nations and Oxfam will have huge teams dedicated to managing the paperwork involved in compliance and due diligence. Smaller charities working on the ground will have the same legal requirements, but without the ‘person power’ needed to tackle them. They simply can’t compete on that front.

Nor do smaller charities have the same level of brand recognition that gives them the respectability and trust of the bigger organisations. People – and especially banks – can be more suspicious of an unknown brand, particularly one that’s operating in an unknown environment like a war zone or disaster area. Banks are incredibly risk averse, as can be evidenced during the Syrian war, when many Muslim organisations and individuals had their bank accounts unceremoniously shut down on the ungrounded suspicion that terrorist activity was being funded. (Separately the US created sanctions to prevent Americans from sending money to Syria, as part of the Caesar Act.)

The upshot of this is that smaller charities can therefore be subjected to a higher degree of scrutiny than big organisations – even though the money going through them is a fraction of what the likes of Oxfam and the United Nations handle. Today’s regulations have placed a burden of paperwork proof on smaller charities that is oftentimes soul destroying.

This has the cumulative effect of creating a cartel-like system in aid, where the big organisations continue to wield all the power. It represents a different kind of danger – where the same players call the shots, and determine where aid money goes. We can’t get away from the fact that compliance in the charity sector is racialised – for example, research into ‘first world’ diseases (like those related to ageing, for example) far outweighs the research into diseases faced in poorer parts of the world. Controlling money also means controlling the thinking and justifications around how those funds are used.

Final thoughts

When considering donating funds to emergency situations like those in Turkey and Syria, I’d really encourage you to explore your existing networks. Perhaps you have a friend whose family member works for a charity in either country. Or maybe your kid’s school is linked to one in the disaster zone. You can of course do your own informal due diligence to see what these organisations are doing, before sending funds. But I think it’s important that we put the time in and do this kind of research; the onus is on us.

We also need to look at remittances – money that is given by migrant communities across the world to support family members in their home countries (see my blog post, ‘Why aren’t remittances given the credit they deserve?’ for more about this). Remittances to Turkey will no doubt increase substantially following the recent earthquakes. So how do we limit money transfer charges or create tax breaks for this kind of aid, in the way that we do for other charitable giving?

In the humanitarian aid world we also have to ask ourselves a bigger question around to what degree do we feel the need to track every penny that is given, and why does the current compliance and legal system require us to do this? Where have these rules and regulations come from? Who have they been set by, and why? The current system is reflective of a complete and utter lack of trust in the recipients of aid. In this context compliance and regulation are coming from a political mindset around how we deal with poorer (mostly not white) countries, and how we see them. We need to properly interrogate the racialisation of compliance.

Most of us are natural humanitarians wanting to give meaningful help to those who have less than us. Our expectations over what that means in the professional world of aid means we want to give but fear ‘bad dictators running off with all the money’. There are underlying colour-coded assumptions at play here. It is not easy to unravel this culture of distrust, which marks how we can give money to war zones, and where there is a real risk of monies disappearing into the wrong hands (for example, in Syria Assad uses international aid to support his ongoing dictatorship in the areas he controls). So it is complex and to wind our way around this maze does mean local organisations need significant amounts of support to do the paperwork to receive desperately needed funds.

We are in the midst of the climate crisis, and the current aid system is way too clunky to deal with meeting the needs of the fallouts. For this and the reasons outlined above the current system needs a revamp to respond effectively. We should be looking to fresh, innovative ways of giving like those adopted by philanthropist MacKenzie Scott, who in recent years has donated billions of dollars of no-strings funding to charities, trusting them to spend money the best way they see fit. We have to be prescient of what’s coming. We have the tools, now we need the will.

Ummul is CEO and co-founder of Capoeira4Refugees, RealtimeAid, and tech start-up Frontline Aid. She is an advocate for race, equality, female leaders and localisation. She is currently writing her first book.


Featured image (top) by Jason Leung on Unsplash

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