The IRD Scandal and My Ethics Clause
During my time in Haiti reporting on the 2010 earthquake, I sometimes did one-off photo assignments for nonprofit organizations. It was a sweet gig. Despite their tax status, the “nonprofits” always paid far better than news outlets.
I could make $1000 in eight hours taking pictures of happy kids for a nonprofit. On the other hand, I would sometimes only make $300 for a depressing news story that took me a week to report. I guess I knew there was something wrong with this equation. Why did nonprofits have so much money anyway?
Around 2011, I started adding a new clause to my contracts. Basically it stated that if the organization ever became embroiled in questions of ethics, their license to display my photographs was immediately revoked.
This month, the International Relief and Development (IRD) organization was suspended from receiving federal grants after the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) found evidence of “serious misconduct” in how they spent money.
IRD has been the number one contractor operating in Afghanistan since the war. They have received $2.4 billion in U.S. tax dollars since 2007. Yes, that’s billion, with a “b.”
I worked for IRD on two occasions in Haiti, and although their Haiti work hasn’t come under scrutiny, it’s easy to see how it might. 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.
Even at the time, I knew it was essentially a vanity thing, a feel-good distribution. The school kits — totaling only about 30 — had been donated by children in the states.
It would have been easy for the IRD staff to just pass them out, grab a few pics with a point-and-shoot camera, and use my $1000 paycheck to feed the orphans for a couple months.
But I needed to eat too, so I didn’t say anything. It wasn’t fraudulent or illegal. It was business-as-usual, actually. Donors want to see what their dollars are doing. Orphans are very photogenic. No one was going to pay me to take pictures of them doing paperwork or sitting in traffic.
For most of the freelancers I knew in Port-au-Prince, nonprofit gigs were a lifeline. I never wrote about the organizations I worked for and tried to keep a wall between those two parts of my life.
It wasn’t fraudulent or illegal. It was business-as-usual, actually.
I knew that working for nonprofits might someday compromise the scope of what I could address in my writing. But it seemed like a fair trade, because the gigs made it possible for me to cover anything at all. There was no way to make a living wage just freelancing.
If worst came to worst, and an organization I worked for was found guilty of something awful, I knew I could always invoke the scandal clause. In retrospect, there were some obvious problems with my “scandal clause.”
In the first place, who would define the public “ethics” problem?
Would an accusatory blog post be enough? Or did it need to be a front page story?
Another issue, as I see it now, is that my scandal clause made one very optimistic and false assumption: that anyone would care.
While I worried about my measly reputation, it never occurred to me that a few years down the road everyone would just forget. Forget about Haiti, forget about me, forget about the donations they gave.
It’s especially poignant to think about this week, as news about Brian Williams’ false stories circulate. A poll this week showed that 40% of Americans think Williams should resign from NBC. Thirty-five percent say he shouldn’t resign. 25% aren’t sure. According to those numbers, more than half of us have a sliding scale when it comes to honesty.
When the news about IRD was published, I watched Facebook to see who would post the stories and what they would say.
I waited to see the rage erupt from donors and former employees. I envisioned the comments, yelling in all caps, “WHERE IS THE DISLIKE BUTTON?”
To the contrary, no one said anything. My friends, dozens of whom have worked for or with IRD, were silent.
Perhaps, like me, they feel embarrassed to admit they worked for the organization. USAID says one of the biggest problems with IRD was overpaying their executives. Well, I was overpaid, too, wasn’t I?
Or maybe my friends feel no such thing. Many gave up the notion of pure altruism years ago. For them, it’s not a story about money for the desperately poor being stolen.
For them, it’s just another story about D.C. politics and beltway bandits, “insider trading” and the structural challenges of aid.
I think the IRD story is all of those things and more. It’s also about the silence and the not-spoken, non-written narratives of hundreds of people like me.
We were part of something broken, and what did we choose to do?
I looked back into my files and saw that I won’t need to invoke the scandal clause for IRD because their license to display my work already expired a few years ago.
Moving forward, I’ve decided that if I ever find myself in need of a scandal clause, that might be the problem right there.
The truth is, I knew. I knew in my heart that scandals were afoot, though I couldn’t prove it.
Well, I was overpaid, too, wasn’t I?
The clause I wrote into my contracts was an ethical escape hatch. I used it to balance the complex algorithm of guilt I felt about my work in Haiti.
I took the money because I considered my work important. I took it because I felt I deserved it. So too, no doubt, did the overpaid executives at IRD.
They were helping to save the world. We were all saving the world, one paycheck at a time.
This story is part of a series on Ethics. Please subscribe to Aid.Works for more updates.