IRD and Haiti Aidworks

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?

IRD haiti and ethics aidworks

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.

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I took this photo for IRD in 2011. I struggled with how to make the recipients appear more dignified. But waiting in a line for someone rich to give you stuff is just a tough image to overcome.

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.”

IRD and Haiti ethics aidworks

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?

Did it need to be full-blown Lance Armstrong-style disgrace? Or would a running-naked-in-the-street breakdown à la Invisible Children co-founder Jason Russell be enough to invoke the clause?

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.

IRD and Haiti ethics aidworks

I remember at the time, that I considered asking the woman distributing these bags to take off her jewelry for the photos. In the end, I didn’t. But I did manage to make her hands disappear somewhat with a wide f-stop.

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.

IRD and ethics Haiti aidworks

In this shot, you have to wonder, is the little girl looking at the watch?

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.




There are 7 comments

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  1. Ben Smilowitz

    Emily, VERY IMPORTANT discussion. When news “stringers” take gigs with NGOs, those NGOs are effectively insulating themselves from any negative news coverage. Pretty sweet deal for the NGOs! Journalistic integrity out the window. The population, donors, accountability, and transparency are the biggest losers.

    • Emily Troutman

      Thanks, Ben. Couldn’t agree more. It ends up being kind of all or nothing, though, since it’s so hard to make a living as a freelancer. Almost all the journalists I know are “stringers.” I’m curious to hear their thoughts as well.

  2. Ben Smilowitz

    Freelance journalists are put in a very difficult situation and they may rationalize by thinking they’re doing more good than bad… but, in reality, this preserves status quo (or worse) because the public is not getting an accurate picture of what’s really going on.

  3. Brian Concannon

    Thanks Emily, for a thoughtful and important article. I do however, fear that the piece might be painting all NGOs with the same brush. Many NGOs do frugally put their money towards change in Haiti, don’t have generous budgets for photographers or executives, don’t make people wait in line for handouts , etc.

  4. Daniel ONeil

    The question of how much you should have been paid for your work is an interesting one. I have thousands of pictures taken by myself or my staff on projects with our little point and shoot cameras, but when I need a good picture for a report cover or a poster, I always end up using one taken by a professional photographer. It was certainly far cheaper to have paid you a thousand dollars for a day’s work than having brought in an international to take the pictures. I’ve used a wide range of photographers–from amateur staff members, to local professionals, to international experts and have never regretted paying more for the better pictures.

    I think you are underestimating the value of your art to the NGOs.

  5. Glenn Strachan

    I too have looked at the IRD Facebook page for any commentary but it is a moderated page where it is highly unlikely that anyone will be able to write any opinion piece. Perhaps someone from IRD will create an alternative page which permits people to feel freer, but for now, many people are still employed in the worker-bee positions and therefore aren’t going to run the risk of losing their job before whatever is going to happen happens. When AED was in trouble, you did not see commentaries by staff, or former staff, until the deal was sealed and FHI took over the AED operations. Now we have a vibrant FB page dedicated to AED where people do feel free to discuss the IRD and former AED issue. The cool thing is that the page has become a helping hand for so many people who believed that working for AED was the best job they ever had.


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