Much has been written in recent weeks about the global trend of bank de-risking. What has been noticeably absent, however, is the profound impact of this trend on nonprofit organizations, particularly humanitarian aid organizations working in global hot spots.
A lack of access to financial services, particularly the inability to transfer funds overseas, can prevent lifesaving work from being carried out and has even touched the current refugee crisis in Europe, where many aid groups are delivering assistance.
Although it may be easy to lay blame at the banks' feet, banks and charities are, in many ways, in the same boat. Both face a plethora of regulations around counter-terrorism financing, coupled with a lack of clarity on how to gauge risk. There is a perception, at least, that the slightest misstep can bring severe penalties.
At the same time, the rhetoric from regulatory bodies has created an echo chamber of "risk, risk, risk" when it comes to nonprofits. As a result, humanitarian groups often find themselves on the losing end of the risk-reward calculation.
When financial institutions delay, or refuse to make, transfers between organizations, or nonprofits are turned away as customers or have their accounts closed, organizations are left scrambling to find a way to deliver aid to places like Syria and Somalia. While banks may make a business decision to de-risk charities, charities don't de-risk their beneficiaries. Funds donated will be distributed, they say, whether through regulated channels or via cash carried across borders. If money is moved out of transparent, regulated channels, life is more difficult for legitimate nonprofits, but easier for terrorist financiers.
Charities regard the fact that starving children often live in terrorist-controlled areas as "business as usual." Government and banks aren't as comfortable with this reality. Because charities are concerned about their own risk, they've implemented stringent due diligence procedures. Consequently, terrorist abuse of legitimate charities is extremely rare.
So who is to blame when banks de-risk nonprofits (or anyone, for that matter)? Banks point to correspondent relationships, as well as government regulation. Government agencies say they can't tell banks who to keep as customers. Regulators implicate international bodies like the Financial Action Task Force. Some blame shock waves created by the government program Operation Choke Point. Charities aren't sure where to turn for answers.
U.S. counterterrorism laws and policies have forced banks into a quasi-regulatory role in the fight against terrorist financing. As a result, banks' compliance methods include close monitoring of transactions, due diligence on their customers, terrorist list-checking and other scrutiny. This is an onerous, expensive process, and banks often lean on commercial list-checking databases such as World-Check for assistance. However, the questionable veracity of these services has been well-documented in the press.
The influence of FATF in all of this cannot be understated. For years, its reports and guidance consistently asserted that nonprofits, particularly charities, pose a higher-than-average risk of terrorist abuse. However, this international standard-setter is starting to respond to the de-risking problem. Its revised best practices paper on combatting the abuse of nonprofit organizations, published in June following significant input from international aid organizations, puts a new emphasis on a risk-based approach, rather than one-size-fits-all regulation. The revised version of the paper also includes a section on de-risking, stating that wholescale termination of customers without considering their level of risk or risk mitigation measures "is not consistent with the FATF Standards."
In October, the group took further steps to tackle de-risking and issued new guidance. "This is a serious concern … de-risking may drive financial transactions underground which creates financial exclusion and reduces transparency, thereby increasing money laundering and terrorist financing risks," FATF said. Recently, FATF's executive director said that banks don't need to vet their customer's customer.
Will this new tone trickle down to banks any time soon? The law clearly hasn't caught up with the risk-based and proportional approach that FATF wants to see. Nonprofit organizations are looking to the U.S. Department of Treasury as it prepares for its mutual evaluation by FATF (a cooperative process between the U.S. and a FATF evaluation team) later this year. This time, FATF will be moving away from an emphasis on technical compliance towards effectiveness of regulations. If banks feel that they need to de-risk to avoid penalties, and de-risking is forcing charities and other entities to move their money underground, it's a pretty safe argument that government over-regulation is not effective.
Andrea Hall is a communications and outreach associate for the Charity & Security Network, a project of the Center for Effective Government. Follow her on Twitter @charitysecurity.