U.S. Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo is pictured in Brussels, March 29. – Photo by Johanna Geron/Pool/Reuters





With humanitarian and food crises growing more dire around the world, the Biden administration plans to roll out new steps on Tuesday to make it easier for humanitarian assistance to continue flowing without concerns about U.S. sanctions, according to senior Treasury officials.

The new moves – designed to allow humanitarian support to quickly get to hot spots around the globe, such as Afghanistan and Somalia, while U.S. sanctions remain in place – come after years of frustration within the NGO community about the complicated bureaucratic process that prevented them from efficiently helping those in need. Now, there will be standard authorization for humanitarian support, instead of making each authorization unique.

“The general licenses released today reflect the United States’ commitment to ensuring that humanitarian assistance and related trade continues to reach at-risk populations through legitimate and transparent channels, while maintaining the effective use of targeted sanctions, which remain an essential foreign policy tool,” said Deputy Secretary of the Treasury Wally Adeyemo. “The provision of humanitarian support to alleviate the suffering of vulnerable populations is central to our American values.”

He explained that in the past, NGOs often had to pull back their support while they waited to find out what kind of humanitarian carveouts would be put into place in a certain area where U.S. sanctions are also active. That process could take months, which resulted in months of at-risk populations not getting important support.

The goal now is that the NGO community will no longer have to do things differently when they respond to individual crisis scenarios and that they “can immediately respond and not hold back relief until they figured it out going forward,” Adeyemo said.

“If we had this in place, in a place like Somalia or Yemen or other places where sanctions existed, it may have in some ways mitigated some of the impact of humanitarian relief being pulled back at the moment sanctions are enacted,” Adeyemo said.

The new “general licenses” come less than a month after the UN passed a new Security Council resolution – co-led by the U.S. and Ireland – which commits to implementing safeguards form humanitarian relief. The U.S. is working with other countries to make changes to their own systems in order to ease the flow of humanitarian aid.

The licenses will be given to groups doing a broad range of work including disaster relief, health services and activities to support democracy, education, environmental protection, and peacebuilding. The licenses also cover the official business of the U.S. government, official business of the UN or the International Red Cross or similar organizations, and the provision of agricultural commodities, medicine, and medical devices.

Adeyemo believes that activities to support democracy could include efforts to provide populations with access to the internet.

“Those are the kinds of activities that we’re thinking about, things that will serve to support free speech, and the ability of people to organize,” Adeyemo said. “We don’t want companies to or individuals to shy away from providing the things that are necessary to people who are seeking their freedom.”


Intended to lift challenges to delivering aid

The new measures come after the department found last year found that Treasury “must address more systematically” the challenges associated with conducting humanitarian activities in places where there are heavy sanctions in place.

During that review, the Treasury Department heard concerns from the NGO community about how challenging it was to get support into places where sanctions are in place. Those frustrations had been mounting within humanitarian circles for years.

“It literally almost feels surreal to me, as an advocate who’s been working on this for the better part of a decade. I keep having to almost pinch myself,” said Kate Phillips-Barrasso, the vice president of Global Policy and Advocacy at the non-profit MercyCorps. “It is a life-and-death issue in some cases and they have been told about the problem for years and they took a major step forward in trying to resolve it.”

MercyCorps is one of many organizations provides life-saving assistance to people around the globe facing crises and disasters.

Phillips-Barrasso explained that this new move will avoid delays in getting humanitarian support where it needs to go. She reflected on the “patchwork” of licenses that existed before this move and she specifically pointed to frustrations during the months-long delay last year in getting much need assistance into Afghanistan after the country fell to the Taliban.

Because the assistance covered in this new move is not limited to just food and water, it also includes assistance such as education, which enables organizations to provide all types of assistance on the ground,

Having this kind of standardized general license will make it “very clear what the terms are across different geographies and contracts, which reduces the hodgepodge and patchwork,” Phillips-Barrasso said.

One concern is front companies or bad actors popping up to take advantage of the general licenses, and Treasury is on the lookout for such frauds.

“We’ve built up a very strong enforcement regime to go after those companies. Part of our goal is to make sure that we’re using all the tools within our toolkit to ensure that those bad actors are separated out from those who are trying to do good work here,” Adeyemo said.


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