06/02/2010 05:34 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The New Charity Paradigm: Gaza Freedom Flotilla Delivers Aid Plus Political Agenda

The Gaza Freedom flotilla is evidence of the paradigm shift that's taking place in international humanitarian aid.

In the old paradigm, charities tended to work getting aid to victims of natural and political disasters without many legal obstacles. Charities didn't have to worry about regulations that could potentially label them as terrorists themselves. And the work tended to be done under the political radar, in fact. And in most cases, the point was to deliver the aid, not to transform the process of delivering aid into a political action.

But since 2001, due to the war on terrorism, governments and regulators have explicitly and implicitly declared international humanitarian aid organizations to be combatants when their work provides aid that, even inadvertently, falls into the hands of organizations considered by some governments to be terrorists.

And because the climate has become so politicized, instead of shrinking from being slurred as combatants, some charities have been galvanized, and have become less passive in their response to oppression and deprivation.

The people involved in the Gaza Freedom flotilla are the most recent, high profile example of the new paradigm. They delivered aid directly to people in Gaza in a way that also simultaneously sought to break the Israeli blockade and raise global awareness of the consequences of the international sanctions against Gaza. They made a political statement. And in response to their actions, the Israeli government labeled them as terrorists and demanded that the humanitarian aid supplies be turned over to the government of Israel, who would then deliver those supplies to people the government deemed worthy of receiving aid. Of course, the charity refused.

It's not a new pattern for governments to demand that charities work through them. Communist governments and dictatorships have made similar demands of international humanitarian aid shipments for decades. And in that old paradigm, during the cold war, a charity would likely have considered it a moral failing to allow the oppressor to choose which of the oppressed should receive aid.

In fact, prior to the war on terrorism, many aid organizations took measures to actively thwart governments' attempts to become intermediaries in aid delivery. Does anyone believe that Robert Mugabe can be trusted to provide aid to human rights activists in Zimbabwe? Instead, in many cases, those charities found "underground" means to deliver the aid, and yet remained apolitical.

But in the new paradigm of international humanitarian assistance, as in the case of the Gaza Freedom flotilla, because aid delivery has become political, we will witness more groups convert humanitarian aid delivery into political action.

And the situation becomes even more complicated because when governments and regulators invoke the language of the war on terrorism, and accuse non-government activists of supporting terrorist organizations, that often incites activists to accuse the governments of being oppressors or terrorists. The Prime Minister of Turkey even called the Israeli actions "inhumane state terrorism."

Because of the paranoia and politics which have become part of the new paradigm of international philanthropy, many charities have backed off from funding and delivering needed humanitarian aid when there is danger that their participation will be criticized. Just as the priest in the parable Jesus told about the Good Samaritan: some people are choosing to pass by on the other side of the road so they don't have to determine whether the person lying there, beaten, naked and bleeding, is a victim of terror or a terrorist.

For food, education and health care to reach real victims, we need humanitarian issues to be governed by humanity rather than politics.