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5.5 Screening and accountability


Keep in mind

Restrictions on partners and affected populations are increasingly being requested by donors, as part of the fight against terrorism or of the sanctions policy.

French NGOs managed to cancel their government’s guidelines in February 2023 for screening affected populations, but pressure on the latter remains, and other donors (such as USAID) continue to impose screening.

These measures – applied to the affected populations – are contrary to humanitarian principles and must be combated in this sense by NGOs.

Humanitarian aid screening methods are restriction measures often requested by donors, as part of the fight against terrorism or of the sanctions policy. However, they raise ethical questions about the founding humanitarian principles because they imply that humanitarian interventions and the populations that benefit from them are traced and often condition the disbursement of funds (Source: ICRC article).

5.5.1 What are we talking about?

Screening is: “carried out by humanitarian organizations themselves. They check that a range of persons and entities involved in the implementation of funded programmes are not designated under UN, EU and other relevant sanctions and counterterrorism measures.”

These lists are drawn up by donors (state like USAID (United States Agency for International Development) of the EU, ECHO or the UN, for example) to ensure that they do not finance individuals or organisations that contradict their policy of combating terrorism or international sanctions, such as freezing financial assets. The request for verification is sometimes clearly mentioned in the contracts, but it may, at times, be implicit.

This verification is a method of identity control that targets humanitarian actors deploying their activities, but also all people working with them, as well as their local partners, and that includes affected populations. It is up to the organisations themselves to carry out these checks, which aim to exclude the people mentioned in these lists from humanitarian interventions.

Warning: Exclusion measures targeting individuals listed on sanctions lists should not officially exclude them from “essential services such as health care, access to food and housing” according to European legislation and UN rules (source: ICRC article).

5.5.2 What is at stake?

Screening allows the identification and therefore tracking of the populations that are the recipients of the assistance provided by organisations and actors in the field. It is precisely when screening includes affected populations that it becomes problematic: in this case, its application entails risks to the population, which can undermine their rights and make their situation more vulnerable (and thus undermine the respect of “do no harm” by NGOs), and vis-à-vis organisations in terms of the quality of their interventions.

The topic is above all ethical and non-technical, and therefore, despite the data management dimension, needs to be dealt with and followed up by NGOs’ senior management.

Here are the main issues related to population screening (Sources: see the key shared resources at the end of this section):

  • Failure to respect the humanitarian values of impartiality and non-discrimination, linked to the exclusion of persons mentioned in the lists, which is not based on their needs
  • Mission outside humanitarian mandate: identity verification is not part of the missions of humanitarian actors
  • Inefficiency of screening: the implementation of administrative procedures to apply screening results in a slowdown of humanitarian operations
  • Opacity of the criteria used for drawing up the lists of persons subject to international/national sanctions
  • Lack of recourse available for persons who are designated under an international sanctions list
  • Security risk to personnel implementing measures and de facto excluding persons from assistance provided
  • Jeopardising the bond of trust with the affected populations: climate of mistrust
  • Risk of targeting certain people/populations in the event of armed conflict, if the funder participates in the conflict
  • Risk of unavailability or absence of identity documents of individuals
  • Risk of inciting people to use another identity to access services

Overall, humanitarian actors do not oppose screening in itself, but when it applies to the recipients of their interventions: this is the red line they have drawn, relevant to the issues raised. This has been generally understood by institutional donors, but the pressure to include restrictive measures related to screening remains present, especially in conflict situations.

In France, the State (via the European Ministry and Foreign Affairs) had imposed guidelines including screening of affected populations in 2021, which were annulled by a court decision in February 2023. Several humanitarian organisations had risen up to denounce these measures, which called into question humanitarian values.

5.5.3 How NGOs can tackle the topic?

Beyond maintaining the “red line” emanating from humanitarian actors (French in particular), it is important in terms of databases and collection to ensure that data from affected populations are not shared for screening purposes.

Specific case of the United States, which declares that it does not require screening for the final affected populations of the programs it funds. But in practice, their approach differs. For example, USAID seems to have practices that are carried out on a case-by-case basis and may require, within funding agreements, screenings of final affected populations in specific contexts, including land or groups regarded as terrorists by the United States (Boko Haram in Nigeria, for example) to some humanitarian organisations.

Great vigilance is required when humanitarian actors work with US donors for this lack of clarity in practices, but also in connection with the Cloud Act, legislation that allows for the recovery of personal data in certain cases by the United States government and compromises data protection.

5.5.4 Key Resources

  • The Coordination Sud article (only available in French) published in February 2023 reviews the guidelines on screenings that the Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs had issued two years earlier and their annulment by the courts.
  • An article from the International Review of the Red Cross and a fact sheet from the Diakonia Humanitarian Law Centre in Lebanon shed light on the challenges of screening final affected populations in the sector, its impact on humanitarian interventions and its incompatibility with humanitarian principles and international humanitarian law.