When a multi-billion dollar nonprofit with PEPFAR contracts spends millions of tax dollars on stratospheric salaries, parties, presents, and perks, USAID has no answers on what happened to AIDS responses
How does a faith-based nonprofit launched by a minister, his wife and his daughter in 1998 become the recipient of more grants and working agreements from the U.S. Agency for International AID and Development than any other American relief organization? The Arlington, Virginia-based International Relief and Development did this, according to the Washington Post, while amassing the resources to hire and give hefty pay raises to former USAID staffers, bill the United States government more than a million dollars for Redskins season tickets, gift certificates for employees, and “compulsory” open bar staff parties at luxury resorts, all the while, also according to the Post and other news outlets, producing questionable or even damaging results. In the process, according to a former State Department official quoted in a 2014 Post article, IRD “built an organization designed to get USAID money.”
At least part of the answer to how IRD did this lies in a long-criticized lack of oversight on the part of the agency, supported in turn by its failure to track and document contracts and performance that has led USAID’s “transparency score” on the index produced by the Global Campaign for AID Transparency to drop, while other U.S. programs improved their score. “If you try to dig deeper into how USAID money is actually spent, you’ll find a black box,” is how a 2013 Nation article on USAID Haiti earthquake recovery contracts put it.
Science Speaks had the opportunity to see some of USAID’s obstacles to accountability in action (or inaction) when following up on an earlier post about the nonprofit’s contracts with the agency to carry out HIV responses.
In that post, published shortly after USAID announced near the end of January that it had suspended IRD from receiving any further government awards, we posed questions on the costs, durations, and outcomes of ambitious but vague sounding programs IRD described on its web site as “making a world of difference for communities affected by HIV/AIDS” in Ukraine, Ethiopia, and Mozambique that also were described in country operational plans for the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. We also wondered if IRD had, or had recently had contracts to carry out PEPFAR programs in any other countries. The USAID press release on IRD status had noted that the suspension did not affect any current contracts, which would continue as planned. In an environment of continually diminishing resources to address a growing number of needs for evidence-based treatment and prevention, we wanted to know if IRD was continuing to work in HIV responses, if so at what costs, and with the expectation of what results.
We sent all those questions to the media contact listed at USAID as well as to PEPFAR media contacts. PEPFAR responded with information on the general timing of country operational plan implementation, but was not able to respond with specifics on whether contracts with IRD continued, what the impact of its work had been, or what other work the nonprofit had been hired to do for PEPFAR. PEPFAR did follow up with information that USAID is the only PEPFAR implementing agency funding International Relief and Development as a prime partner and that USAID would provide the information on those contracts.
But USAID did not. Over the six weeks since the initial request, agency press officer and spokesman Ben Edwards, the listed contact in the initial announcement of IRD’s suspension, did not answer the initial email or a series of emails and telephone calls, or requests from the U.S. Office of the Global AIDS Coordinator to provide answers to questions about IRDs contracts.
In the meantime, other news about IRD continued to break through Washington Post investigations — that the nonprofit had billed the government for season tickets to sports games, that the organization had fired its leadership, and on Friday, descriptions of the group’s government-funded “retreat” at a luxury resort.
On Friday, in response to another request for answers about PEPFAR contracts with IRD, Edwards sent the January 28th press release and a link to usaspending.gov. In a subsequent conversation he agreed that neither the press release or the link provided answers to the questions asked, which he also said he had not read or kept. He would provide an update today, he said. Today, Edwards re-sent the January press release, along with the link to usaspending.gov and to USAID’s Development Experience Clearinghouse.
If you type in “International Relief and Development” there, and search, you get 37,100 returns.