Update 8/5/2015: U.S. district court judge Royce C. Lamberth recently ruled that USAID acted unlawfully when it suspended IRD for financial misconduct. Judge Lamberth is requiring USAID to hastily revert the suspension and to remove potentially damaging mentions of the suspension from its admin records. See more from Devex’s report.
Update 6/20/15: After we posted this podcast, a Washington Post investigation revealed that International Relief and Development had billed the US government $1.1 million for posh staff parties and retreats. Those events included open bars, free electronics, gift certificates, massages, and more. The Washington Post quotes former IRD employee Andrea Clarke as saying, “It was scandalous. I remember thinking, ‘We’re dealing with issues where people are actually dying overseas, and here we were at this five-star resort and we are living it up.’ There were alarm bells going off every day. It was no way to run a nonprofit.”
Emily Troutman photographs and writes about people living in poverty across the globe. She has spent time in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, Iraq and Syria.
Troutman is a freelancer and to help pay the bills, she sometimes took lucrative commissions – up to a thousand dollars a day – photographing the work of aid groups.
Her two years in post-quake Haiti were no exception.
“For most of the freelancers I knew in Port-au-Prince, nonprofit gigs were a lifeline,” Troutman writes in her blog Aid.Works. “I never wrote about the organizations I worked for and tried to keep a wall between those two parts of my life.”
That wall came crashing down earlier this year when USAID announced that it had suspended one of its biggest nonprofit contractors, International Relief and Development, from receiving additional federal contracts. USAID said investigators found “serious misconduct” in IRD’s performance and the way it managed taxpayer funds.
Troutman was especially disturbed by the allegations because IRD twice paid her to photograph its work in Haiti. “When the IRD scandal blew up, I was looking at my Facebook, I was looking at my Twitter feed, I knew a lot of people who had worked for IRD and nobody said anything,” Troutman tells us. “They didn’t Tweet about it, they didn’t re-post the Washington Post story.”
Troutman says that silence reflects a larger culture of reticence among aid workers. “Nobody wants to say anything about it because nobody wants to bite the hand that feeds them. That’s the problem. These organizations make a lot of money for a lot of people.”
Troutman reexamined the photographs she took for IRD after the scandal erupted. “Although their Haiti work hasn’t come under scrutiny, it’s easy to see how it might,” Troutman wrote in a recent blog post. “One of the photo shoots I did for IRD was work not pertaining to their core mission. I photographed the wife of an executive of the organization passing out crayons and school kits at a very small orphanage.”
Here is one of those photographs:
“When IRD got suspended, I started thinking back to my own experiences in Haiti and wanting to find accountability,” Troutman says. “And you know what? Accountability starts with me. It’s not fair of me to expect people to get angry when nonprofits don’t do what they say they’re going to do. I need to do what I say I’m going to do first.”
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Troutman knows that speaking out may hamper her ability to get commissions to photograph aid groups now. Even so, she feels at peace with her decision. “I definitely feel more liberated by passing on the aid money because that money is a contract to tell a certain sort of a story. And the fact is, that story doesn’t help as many people as it should. So I decided that Haiti, and the people that I write about, are more important than I am.”
Troutman’s Aid.Works blog
Troutman on Twitter
Original Washington Post investigation into IRD
Washington Post update on IRD spending
IRD’s response to USAID suspension
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