The Problem with Secret Aid

Numerous aid organizations operating in Turkey are not publicly identified in official documents. Their websites maintain a cloak of secrecy around their activities in Turkey. Whether these organizations are providing aid in Turkey is unknown. Some may be providing aid only in Syria and keeping their Turkey offices undercover because of the oppressive legal environment in Turkey. Others may be providing direct aid in defiance of the Turkish government.

The result of these covert activities is that the general public has no idea what the conditions are for most Syrian refugees in Turkey. The UN and other organizations are forbidden from conducting needs assessments on the ground. Of the 2.7 million refugees in Turkey, 2.5 million are urban or non-camp refugees. The UN agency for refugees is not allowed to register refugees in Turkey. We have no idea how urban refugees are faring. The evidence on the ground suggests that things are bad. Children are working in factories. Families need food.

But so far, no whistle-blowers have stood up against the Turkish government to say: “This is wrong.” Here are some of the problems with “secret” or covert aid:

Donors can’t track their donations.

Governments and organizations have a responsibility to tell donors how their money is being spent. The relationship between organizations and concerned donors is based on trust. Lack of transparency erodes this trust and jeopardizes the fragile good will of the concerned public.

People don’t get to hear about the real conditions on the ground.

Covert aid gives the false impression that everything’s okay, even when it’s not. Bearing witness is one of the core responsibilities of an ethical organization. Employees shouldn’t have to choose between telling the truth and keeping their jobs.

Needs assessments aren’t shared and true collaboration is impossible.

When aid is secret, its business products are more closely held. But assessments of people in need are useless in a vacuum. If organizations really want to help people, they must make their assessments public and communicate with others about their activities.

Governments are not held to account for their actions.

Information from aid groups is critical to learn what people need and what their government has been unable to give them. In fact, this gap — between what governments say they can do and what they can actually do — is the reason for aid groups. Aid exists to fill those gaps. If the industry operates in secret, then there is no ongoing mechanism for governments to learn and improve.

Silence empowers corrupt governments.

When corrupt, dysfunctional governments are not held accountable for their actions, there is little incentive for them to change. Staying silent secures their power.

Local nationals have no idea what’s happening in their own country.

Aid groups who insist on respecting the sovereignty of a country, ought to do so. Operating under the table makes communities suspicious of foreigners. Local employees are vulnerable when they work for international groups operating outside the law who cannot protect them.

International employees are not protected.

If an international employee is working in a country without a work visa or the invitation of the government, that employee is vulnerable to arrest. Aid organizations have an obligation to protect their employees, particularly in autocratic states.

Aid organizations can’t be held accountable.

Aid groups often act as quasi-government agencies. They deliver essential services like water, education and food. Operating in secret is unfair to the public, who are extremely vulnerable. Secrecy disempowers people in need. It obliterates the truth, which is a key ingredient of justice.

Silence makes it difficult to raise money for people in need.

If no one knows the situation on the ground, then why would they donate? Secrecy only increases ignorance. No one will donate to a cause they have never heard of and a victim they’ve never seen.

Aid recipients are not able to participate in their own recovery.

At its best, humanitarian aid is based on a relationship with people in need. Aid recipients ought to be able to say what they need, and when. Donors are ultimately giving to recipients, not aid organizations. Organizations must honor that trust and give recipients the space to speak.

Post-disaster, the aid community cannot learn from these activities.

Millions and millions of dollars may be spent “helping” people in need. But if it all happens in secret, we have no idea what went right, what went wrong or how we can improve during the next crisis. Learning from the past is not only a responsibility of good business; it is a responsibility of good people. We do the best we can with what we know. When we know more, we do better.