World Vision, a Christian organization devoted to promoting child welfare throughout the world, is facing a scandal that threatens its credibility in a profound way. One of its employees, Mohammed El-Halabi, stands accused of stealing charitable donations and handing them over to Hamas, a terrorist organization.
On August 4, 2016, the Israel government announced that it was charging Halabi with diverting funds donated for the benefit of children to Hamas, which used the money to purchase weapons and to construct attack tunnels into Israel.
According to Shin Bet, Halabi confessed to diverting money and in-kind contributions (such as food packets) to Hamas fighters, some of whom were included on World Vision's payroll. Children of Hamas members were, according to Israeli officials, falsely put on lists of injured children so that their families would qualify for World Vision donations. Halabi reportedly even confessed to using his position as a World Vision employee to spy out and mark out egress points for Hamas terror tunnels into Israel.
The allegations against World Vision's man in the Gaza Strip are lethal to the organization's credibility. World Vision collects money through a child-sponsorship program in which donors give money to assist and benefit individual children and here is Halabi allegedly confessing to turning these donations into some sort of terrorist-sponsorship program.
What makes the accusation so bothersome is that World Vision has a well-documented tendency to portray Israel as singularly responsible for the suffering of children in the Gaza Strip (and for the Arab-Israeli conflict) while giving Hamas a pass.
Here are a five things that people need to know about World Vision.
1. World Vision is a conglomeration of local affiliates that operate in countries throughout the world. Its umbrella organization, World Vision International (WVI), is not just a humanitarian agency, but a church.
World Vision, a humanitarian aid organization that first began operating in the United States in 1950s, is not a unified bureaucracy, but a conglomeration of affiliates that operate under the authority of World Vision International (WVI) which was founded in the 1970s.
The American affiliate of World Vision, known as World Vision USA, is the founding chapter of World Vision and provides ($1 billion) or approximately 40 percent of World Vision's total global revenue.
World Vision USA, which derives substantial support from Evangelical Protestants, is headquartered in Federal Way, Washington and was founded in 1950 by Robert Pierce.
Interestingly enough, World Vision International, headquartered in California, is for tax purposes, organized as a church so that it does not have to provide information to the IRS about its finances. It used to file 990s with the IRS, but stopped in 2006 and in 2007 asserted its right not to file these documents. WVI still provides audited financial statements on its website but these statements provide only top line information and very little information about diverted funds.
2. World Vision's affiliates have a troubling tendency to use stories of Israeli villainy as part of its fundraising narrative. It has also supported anti-Israel propaganda in a number of different venues.
As documented in the articles posted below, World Vision's affiliates, especially those outside of the United States, have used anti-Israel propaganda as a way to generate publicity for its work in the Gaza Strip. For example, World Vision staffers regularly speak at anti-Zionist events such as the Christ at the Checkpoint Conference held every even-numbered year in Bethlehem and the Impact Holy Land Conference that took place in Philadelphia in 2010.
In World Vision's narrative, Israel is held up as the villain causing the suffering of children in the area controlled by Hamas, which is generally, but not always, given a pass for its crimes against children. When Hamas is criticized, which is not very often, World Vision posits a false equivalence between the terror organization which intentionally puts civilians in harm's way, and Israel, which works assiduously to prevent civilian casualties.
This is troublesome because World Vision portrays itself as an advocate for child welfare. If it cannot condemn Hamas for its obvious crimes against children, it risks becoming party to the propaganda war against Israel.
3. World Vision's reticence is not restricted to Hamas. Staffers in the Middle East have historically spoken in much harsher terms about Israel than they have about bad actors in the region, such as Bashar Al Assad or ISIS.
If you look World Vision websites highlighting its work elsewhere in the world, you'll see that the organization is very reluctant to call out bad actors such as the Assad regime in Syria for their crimes against children. For example, when the organization speaks about the fighting in Syria, it will state that chemical weapons were used against civilians, but not mention that it was the Assad regime that stands accused of using these weapons. But when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, World Vision staffers have regularly condemned Israel by name. The reason is pretty obvious. It is safe to condemn Israel, but it is not safe to condemn tyrants in the region. Nevertheless, by behaving this way, World Vision has assisted in the delegitimization of Israel in the Middle East.
4. If the allegations against Halabi are proven in court, World Vision will undoubtedly hear from its U.S. donors in a big way.
Halabi is entitled to the presumption of innocence, but the detailed allegations against him will have a huge impact on World Vision's bottom line, particularly in the United States, where support for Israel is strong and more vocal than it is in other countries where World Vision raises money. This puts donors in the U.S. in the driver's seat. They provide the organization a significant portion of its overall funding. They can insist that World Vision open its books, stop the anti-Israel propaganda and get things under control in Gaza.
World Vision does invaluable work. But its differential treatment of Israel is remarkable and undeniable and makes the charges against Halabi so troubling.
5. Experts who pay attention to the humanitarian aid industry have repeatedly documented how humanitarian organizations working in war zones have been corrupted by the circumstances in which they operate. Diversion of goods provided by humanitarian organizations is inevitable in places like the Gaza Strip. It is part of the business. That being said, the allegations against Halabi are beyond the pale, way beyond the pale.
World Vision and other humanitarian organizations love to talk about how they are neutral actors in war zones and can be relied upon to provide goods and services to beleaguered populations without getting embroiled in the conflict. Timothy Collins, the chief of World Vision's affiliate in Australia, for example, touted WV's neutrality in the Gaza Strip in a recent television interview.
It doesn't wash. Whenever any humanitarian organization operates in a war zone, it does so with the approval of the warlords who control the territory, and in the Gaza Strip, that's Hamas, an organization that is known to threaten journalists, summarily execute its opponents in the street, and steal from the people its supposed to lead.
According to Halabi's defense attorney, Hamas brazenly stole from World Vision stockpiles. All this helps explain why World Vision officials have been reluctant to condemn Hamas in the publicity materials they produce.
As stated in one of the articles linked below, tolerating a certain amount of diversion of charitable donations is part of the business World Vision is in. In an important 1994 essay about humanitarian aid, Alex de Waal introduces the word fieldcraft to describe how officials from humanitarian organizations make compromises with the authorities for the greater good. Field officers use their discretion to tolerate a certain degree of
corruption and extortion, he writes.
The allegations against Halabi, however, go far beyond fieldcraft. The allegations indicate he wasn't shipping stuff to Hamas so he could keep helping kids, he was helping kids as a pretext to get resources to Hamas.
Resources on World Vision
CAMERA has produced a number of articles about World Vision's Israel problem. Below are some articles and CAMERA media appearances about this issue.
World Vision: Show Us Your Books (Israel Hayom, Aug. 15, 2016).
World Vision: Putting Money Raising & Replacement Theology Before Israel (Lisa Benson Radio Show, Aug. 14, 2016).
Hamass Charity Connection (Wall Street Journal Opinion Journal, Aug. 9, 2000).
Is World Vision International Really a Church? (Algemeiner, Aug. 9, 2016).
World Vision: Strategies for Fund-Raising and Support for Hamas (Jewish Political Studies Review, March 1, 2015).
World Visions War Against the Jewish State (The Commentator, Aug. 7, 2014).
World Vision Expresses Regret for Offense Caused by Ad in Ireland (CAMERA.org), Oct. 3, 2014).
World Visions Deceptive Plea for Support (CAMERA.org, Dec. 22, 2008).