Online Crowdfunding Campaigns Struggle with Restrictions on Afghanistan

Farhad Darya, a well-known Afghan singer, and his wife Sultana say they cannot just watch as millions of people in Afghanistan face the threat of starvation this winter. From their home in Virginia, the two launched an emergency appeal on GoFundMe to solicit funds and provide food to some of the most vulnerable Afghans.

Donors responded generously, raising more than $31,000. But the Afghan American couple are still unable to get the money to anyone who needs it.

GoFundMe, the site where the Daryas raised the money, says it no longer releases funds directly to individuals in Afghanistan because the country is now controlled by the Taliban. The recently announced policy, GoFundMe says, is to ensure the platform is “acting in compliance with all laws and regulations, protecting fundraiser organizers and donors.”

The United States has imposed strict economic and financial sanctions on Taliban entities including Afghanistan’s state-run central bank, but U.S. officials have exempted humanitarian-only operations in the country from sanctions.

Treasury Department officials have met with representatives of non-profit organizations to reassure them they won’t be penalized for doing humanitarian work. Last week, Under Secretary of Treasury Brian Nelson spoke with NGO leaders to highlight a new list of Frequently Asked Questions “designed to provide clarity and further facilitate humanitarian aid and commercial activity in Afghanistan.”

That has not yet led to policy changes at GoFundMe, which currently has dozens of funding appeals still active on the platform, with calls for urgent funding to save lives and reduce suffering in Afghanistan.

Russell Bergeron, a resident of Missouri, has raised $965 to support teachers at a private school in Kabul.

“Our funds have been frozen for no reason,” said Bergeron. “The donations we have begun to accumulate are being held stagnant while the students and teachers we are trying to help fall further away from staying afloat.”

If funds remain blocked, Bergeron warned, the school he wants to support in Kabul might be closed soon.

The United Nations has warned that millions of Afghans face starvation this winter, and the Daryas understand the urgency.

“We need to save lives and we have no time to waste,” Farhad Darya told VOA. “People need food, medicine and shelter right at this moment.”

Trust First

GoFundMe says it understands fundraisers intend to help those in need in Afghanistan, but it cannot sidestep U.S. laws and regulations.

Before funds can be transferred, Afghanistan funding campaign organizers must be verified by GoFundMe’s Trust & Safety team.

The process is expected to protect both the organizers and donors of an appeal, and to ensure compliance with U.S. government laws and financial regulations, the platform told VOA.

For the organizers to be considered as verified, they should first identify their targeted recipients and any relationships with them and specify how the funds will be used.

Until these facts are established, the funds will remain at GoFundMe accounts.

But the platform’s users call these procedures stringent and inhibiting.

“It takes GoFundMe weeks to respond to an email,” said Darya, adding that there were concerns the platform could be holding the funds and charging interest fees.

“We’re calling for emergency funding,” he said. “It’s a matter of saving lives and reducing human sufferings, and this needs to be recognized by GoFundMe.”

Work with NGOs

Although transfer of funds by individuals is restricted, GoFundMe does allow campaigners to raise funds for verified NGOs like Doctors Without Borders as well as U.N. agencies.

Individual campaigners say such an approach does not meet their fundraising objectives.

“NGOs have their own priorities and policies and charge administrative and operational fees. We transfer 100 percent of the funds and make no charges,” said Darya. “Individuals sometimes raise funding for a particular individual in urgent need and shouldn’t be restricted.”

GoFundMe says it has raised more than $15 billion for various causes since 2010. The platform’s most generous crowdfunding response in 2021 was for Ashley Safiyya, the mother of eight-week-old Azaylia Diamond Cain, who was undergoing advanced chemotherapy for AML Leukemia. More than $2 million was raised for the treatment of little Cain, who died in April 2021 at only eight months old.

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