A farmer at a wheat seed distribution by the Afghanistan Vouchers for Increased Production in Agriculture, a program funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development and implemented by International Relief and Development. The project has been criticized for being overly ambitious and a drain on U.S. taxpayer dollars. Photo by: USAID Afghanistan

The U.S. aid community may find itself in hot water again after a media report over the weekend questioned the oversight of programs implemented by a leading government partner in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

In a feature published on Sunday, the Washington Post takes aim at International Relief and Development, describing its rise from a “mom-and-pop nonprofit corporation” in the late 1990s to a key partner of the U.S. Agency for International Development in fragile states and other difficult environments. It hones in on two controversial IRD programs that have already seen their fair share of criticism for being overly ambitious and a drain on taxpayer dollars — the Community Stabilization Program in Iraq and Vouchers for Increased Productive Agriculture in Afghanistan

Although the Post breaks little news on these programs, its coverage may add pressure on USAID to beef up oversight especially of its multimillion-dollar assistance to Afghanistan, which has endured a constant barrage of criticism lately from Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John Sopko. The criticism comes at a time when the United States is reviewing its cooperation strategy as combat troops withdraw from Afghanistan.

The article, somewhat misleadingly, singles out IRD’s hiring of former USAID officials, often at significantly higher salary levels — a common practice among the agency’s implementing partners.

Much of the buzz among current and former IRD staff members on Monday, though, was focused on revelations about IRD staff bonuses and confidentiality agreements.

“In all, 38 IRD employees received more than $3.4 million in bonuses [between 2008 and 2012], according to the company’s tax filings,” the Post writes, adding elsewhere in the story about the founding family: During that same period, “Jasna Basaric-Keys collected $285,174 and Arthur Keys got $560,007 in bonuses. Keys’s brother-in-law, who served as director of information technology, received $148,472. Keys’s daughter received $27,769.”

These amounts are much higher than at comparable aid groups, the Post suggests.

IRD’s confidentiality agreement — which company officials this week said is under review — warns staff members that they may get sued for making “derogatory, disparaging, negative, critical or defamatory statements” about their employer to anyone, including “funding agencies” or “officials of any government.”

In response to a query by Devex, an IRD spokesperson said: “For key executives, the board’s Executive Compensation Committee reviews compensation and bonuses and submits them to the full Board of Directors for approval. For all other staff, recommendations for bonuses are made by supervisory managers in consultation with senior management. Eligible employees’ bonuses are based on individual performance criteria. Last year, approximately 49 percent of eligible employees received bonuses. The bonus pool fluctuates from year to year.”

In any case, the revelations have kickstarted a spirited debate within IRD offices and on social media that will likely require more damage control. On Monday, calls from former IRD employees grew louder for their peers to leave the group as well — although some of them cautioned that their reputation may be tarnished by association.

And while many insiders saw fault with the U.S. aid system more so than with IRD alone, there was a general sense that more trouble was ahead for the group, from U.S. auditors and perhaps Congress.

IRD leaders remember all too well the fate of another leading U.S. aid implementer, AED, which threw in the towel three years ago after USAID temporarily suspended it from receiving new contracts when allegations of fraud and waste weren’t adequately addressed by the group. AED is now a part of FHI 360.

In a statement, IRD said: “In every project, IRD's experienced and dedicated staff works to achieve the clearly stated goals of its donors, public and private. We welcome scrutiny of our programs and are committed to the highest standards of performance and accountability.”

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About the author

  • Rolf Rosenkranz

    Rolf Rosenkranz oversees a talented team of in-house journalists, correspondents and guest contributors located around the globe. Since joining Devex in early 2008, Rolf has been instrumental in growing its fledgling news operation into the leading online source for global development news and analysis. Previously, Rolf was managing editor at Inside Health Policy, a subscription-based news service in Washington. He has reported from Africa for the Johannesburg-based Star and its publisher, Independent News & Media, as well as the Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung, a German daily.