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Help is [still, maybe] on the way

An entrenched aid machine in Washington is endangering a post-ISIS comeback for Iraq’s Christians and Yazidis—and a big success story for the Trump administration

Help is [still, maybe] on the way

Ruiz Farouk (left), 14, and Ayad Khalif, 13, sit near the street at a Yazidi camp on the outskirts of Dohuk in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region. (Daniel C. Britt/Redux)

On Nov. 14, 2017, Vice President Mike Pence hosted, at an afternoon meeting at the White House, an unusual gathering of top Trump officials. From New York he summoned then-UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, and from Washington international aid administrator Mark Green and budget director Mick Mulvaney, who today is President Donald Trump’s acting chief of staff.

Pence was frustrated by feeble U.S. efforts to support Christians, Yazidis, and others forced from their homes by ISIS. He said he had convinced the president to redirect funds to religious groups in Iraq, bypassing UN programs (that historically have discriminated against them). Now U.S. aid would go to local NGOs and church groups that had supported displaced Iraqis since the 2014 ISIS invasion.

Trump came into office vowing to defeat ISIS, stepping up military coordination with coalition forces to liberate Iraq and Syria from a caliphate once the size of Great Britain ruling over nearly 12 million people.

Liberation allowed many Muslims to return and rebuild their communities. But Yazidis, Christians, and other minorities in Iraq have lacked resources and security to return, particularly to Mosul and the towns of Nineveh Plain.

After the leadership meeting, the vice president announced the course correction in a tweet. The United States will “PROVIDE DIRECTLY TO PERSECUTED COMMUNITIES of faiths,” Pence said, using caps for emphasis. To those communities, he added, “Help is on the way.”

Since that time, Pence has helped redirect about $55 million from the UN Development Programme (UNDP) toward church-based relief in Iraq, and he has touted the success of the administration’s efforts.

Pence told delegates at the 2018 Southern Baptist Convention “we will not rest” until Christians receive needed support to return to their homeland. At Ave Maria University, students and faculty applauded when he mentioned it.

A law passed with bipartisan support and signed by Trump at the end of 2018 also boosted Pence’s efforts. The Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act authorizes, among other protections, federal funding for the recovery of Christians, Yazidis, and other religious minorities.

Pence dispatched to the region last year his own envoy, Special Representative for Minority Assistance Programs Max Primorac. Primorac, 57, is a veteran of security and diplomatic work in Iraq and elsewhere, a Washington insider, and a Catholic.

In July, Pence heralded an ongoing rebuilding effort, at more than $340 million, in a speech to world dignitaries at the State Department’s ministerial on religious freedom.

Yet for all the momentum, the new efforts are wracked by familiar old obstacles—government overregulation, institutionalized bureaucracy, and wasteful spending. Further, Iranian influence is provoking a security situation that could halt—or even reverse—what progress has been made.

On the ground in Iraq, the change of direction Pence promised has yet to materialize, fully two years after towns and cities were wrenched from ISIS control.

According to a July document prepared by USAID, the State Department agency disbursing funds, nearly 387 projects are underway or just completed as part of what’s now a $367 million Genocide Recovery and Persecution Response initiative. Of those, 216—or 56 percent—are carried out by the UNDP despite Pence’s pledge to redirect funds to church-based charities and others.

Among the remaining 44 percent, most operate under an umbrella contract USAID entered with Chemonics—a Washington, D.C.–based company whose long-standing work with the agency epitomizes business as usual.

In 2018 the for-profit firm did more than $1.5 billion in business with USAID. The Iraq genocide recovery program represents $54 million in contracts for Chemonics—making it the largest recipient of such funds outside the UN. USAID officers said they could not provide dollar amounts for individual projects.

According to local sources in Iraq, Chemonics entered a four-year contract with USAID to supervise much of the local reconstruction effort. Chemonics subcontracts the actual work to smaller organizations that may be faith-based, including churches. But besides UNDP, the project list also includes international U.S.-based organizations, secular groups, and Arab and Muslim construction and development entities. (Subcontractor names for 91 projects on the list are blocked due to security concerns, according to USAID.)

For Iraq’s local NGOs, many of them working a decade or more to protect minority groups facing terror attacks and forced dislocation, Chemonics adds a new layer of bureaucracy for needed U.S. funds. Its officers set up operations out of suites at the Rotana Hotel in Erbil, one aid worker told me, where rooms run $250 a night.

“We have been doing this work for years, and now we have to qualify as a ‘partner,’ while they work for a month hiring people and ordering new equipment out of a five-star hotel,” he said.

To rebuild a school near Dohuk, the Assyrian Christian, Iraq-based Christian Aid Program (CAPNI) waited three months to qualify as a partner with Chemonics, said executive director Emanuel Youkhana.

“We received cash only for the installment,” while Chemonics supplied the furnishings, said Youkhana. Furniture arrived in shrink-wrapped plastic, all imported. “Down the street we have carpenters and others looking to restart their businesses, and they did not involve local people, local labor,” said Youkhana. “This is not capacity building.”

CAPNI has contracted with European aid agencies, but the United States is the only country managing government aid dollars through a for-profit, he said, a dynamic difference. Chemonics answers to shareholders, and succeeds by turning a profit on its taxpayer-funded projects.

In multiple conversations face-to-face in Iraq and by phone, similar groups (all of whom asked not to be named to protect their ongoing work) said Chemonics largely directed logistics and supplies, leaving to local NGOs token tasks with minimal community involvement.

Even then, several groups said they were subject to onerous, even ridiculous, regulatory requirements. Projects require multiple environmental impact assessments. USAID at one point wanted to delay needed burial of bodies left exposed by ISIS, to perform an environmental impact review.

The reviews include lengthy climate risk assessments, using climate-change standards the Trump administration discarded in 2017. A potential project in Nineveh Plain was rated “at risk” for adverse effects from future rising global temperatures—though average daily temperatures in July already are 108 degrees.

Chemonics senior vice president Catherine Kannam said Chemonics is following “the standard procurement process,” and “is also committed to building the capacity of our local partners and grantees.” Local partners say their capacity is too often underestimated, as is their role in supporting a displaced population for five years that’s exceeded 700,000 people.

IN QARAQOSH, once the largest city in Nineveh Plain and a focus of the 2014 ISIS onslaught, USAID/Chemonics has several projects in Muslim areas of the city but has not yet partnered with the Nineveh Reconstruction Committee, a church-based effort. “I expected more funds to cover the huge number of houses,” said Georges Jahola, a Syriac Catholic priest who is one of 10 clergymen spearheading the committee.

The committee inventoried 7,000 houses to rebuild, nearly half of them destroyed. Despite the widespread damage, about 25,000 residents have returned.

Some of the largest church-based aid efforts have found ways of working alongside USAID without contracting through Chemonics or another umbrella contractor.

The Knights of Columbus, the U.S.-based Catholic service organization, has sent $23 million to Iraq to support displaced Christians. The Knights do not take government money, but do have a Memorandum of Understanding with USAID and work jointly on projects.

Samaritan’s Purse, one of the longest-serving U.S. aid groups in Iraq, learned this summer it will receive $3 million toward shelter and clean water projects under a new partnerships initiative with USAID.

A second CAPNI project with USAID/Chemonics looks more promising, said executive director Youkhana. His group has subcontracted to rehab water tanks in villages surrounding the Nineveh town of Al-Qosh. The improved water supply will serve both Christian and Yazidi villages. Beneficiaries, said director Youkhana, “are so grateful to USAID.”

Meanwhile, Chaldean Archdiocese of Erbil, with perhaps the largest flock of displaced Christians, could not reach an arrangement with USAID. Chemonics instead hired the archdiocese to subcontract delivery of two front-end loaders and two dump trucks for removing rubble.

Archbishop Bashar Warda is one of the most prominent Christian leaders in Iraq, and one of the most vocal critics of USAID’s approach. He told the National Catholic Register that Christian families “don’t factor in plans from the UN or USAID,” and their efforts “actually have made the Christians’ situation worse.”

An ongoing policy debate, said Stephen Rasche, legal counsel for the Chaldean Catholic Archdiocese of Erbil, is “whether our aim is to protect and rehabilitate Christians or to protect and rehabilitate Christian sites in Nineveh.”

Rebuilding efforts often take place without engaging former residents, and lengthy project lists don’t measure whether Christians feel secure enough to return and live.

About 200,000 Christians remain in Iraq. The majority live in temporary housing or rented apartments in Erbil and other parts of Kurdistan. They remain genocide survivors, yet USAID’s program is for now aimed at Nineveh and Mosul areas. While thousands have returned to their hometowns, many may remain in Iraqi Kurdistan, which is now the center of Christian activity in Iraq.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP

Vice President Mike Pence (far left) stands alongside Callista Gingrich, U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, and Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil, Iraq, after President Donald Trump signs H.R. 390, the Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act, in the White House Oval Office on Dec. 11, 2018. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

MEETING UP WITH Max Primorac at the U.S. Consulate in Erbil earlier this year, I found the special representative upbeat and cheerful in the face of Iraq’s post-ISIS challenges.

Despite complaints around USAID programs and security threats, Primorac himself has earned respect as a quick study, understanding the Arab world plus the volatile politics and weighed-down bureaucracies of both Washington and Baghdad. He’s brought an energetic approach that’s equal parts warmhearted and straightforward.

As a political representative rather than a career diplomat, Primorac’s job often has been to meld White House objectives with an entrenched State Department aid apparatus that’s deeply antagonistic toward President Trump.

The day before in the Nineveh town of Bashiqa, he’d been on hand to launch a $17 million soft-loan program for private owners of ISIS-destroyed factories. “We have to help them get productive capacity up and running to provide jobs and stability,” he explained.

The 26 factories can employ from 50 to 200 people in areas where Christians, Yazidis, and others once lived. The factories’ revival, he said, represents not just an economic but a psychological boost.

Primorac defended working through contractors like Chemonics “because they know our systems,” and because he fears time may be short.

In mid-May the State Department suddenly ordered evacuations for nonemergency personnel in Baghdad and Erbil, based on an unclear threat connected to Iran. Suddenly, aid efforts were imperiled, many USAID projects stalled, and U.S. commitments yet again came into question.

The expansion of Iranian-backed militias known as Hashd al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilization Forces, is centered on Nineveh and threatening ongoing projects and Christian return. “Christian towns in Iraq increasingly look neither Christian nor Iraqi—but Iranian,” wrote Carl Anderson, CEO of the Knights of Columbus, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed.

“The policy changes under the Trump administration are making a difference,” said Rasche. “The question has always been whether or not the ship can be turned around in time. We bleed people every month.”

—with reporting by Hannah Harris


Aid for hire

Chemonics was founded by Thurston F. Teele, a former foreign service officer who launched the company in the 1970s as a pass-through for U.S. international development. Starting in Africa then Afghanistan, it expanded to former Soviet bloc countries, scooping up former State Department and USAID employees whose influence and expertise upped the company’s ability to win USAID contracts. 

Unlike smaller nonprofits, Chemonics could leverage wholesale purchases of commodities and ship them at competitive prices to troubled areas like Afghanistan or the Middle East.

In 2018 Chemonics had more than $1.6 billion in revenue—nearly all from USAID contracts, according to the Center for Public Integrity. Around the world, USAID had contracts with Chemonics totaling more than $1.5 billion in 2018 and just over $1 billion in 2019, according to data compiled by USAspending.gov.

Chemonics has run afoul of government inspectors general numerous times, particularly in Afghanistan. In a 2010 audit of reconstruction projects there—similar to current work in Iraq—inspectors found five structures built under Chemonics supervision so defective that USAID ordered three buildings torn down and two retrofitted. Yet five months later, Chemonics had neither repaired nor demolished the buildings. The audit doesn’t make clear whether the company was fined.

Asked by lawmakers about Chemonics’ performance at a 2010 House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on “poor performing contractors,” USAID acting assistant administrator for management Drew W. Luten III responded by asking for additional time “to respond separately.” The hearing record shows no additional report on Chemonics.

In 2011 Chemonics became a fully employee-owned company. And in 2012, Luten left USAID to join Chemonics, where he serves currently as a managing director. —Mindy Belz, with reporting by Hannah Harris

Mindy Belz

Mindy Belz

Mindy is senior editor of WORLD Magazine and the author of They Say We Are Infidels. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

Comments

  • Cyborg3's picture
    Cyborg3
    Posted: Thu, 09/12/2019 01:06 am

    A great article Mindy that looks at the root causes hampering the US aid getting to the Christian minority groups! Bureaucracies tend to have momentum behind them where they do things based on the safest path precieved by those bureaucrats charged with getting the job done.  That path may be filled with red tape and wastefulness but that doesn’t matter for the goal is to fulfill the policies, procedures and goals set forth by government where the government worker has the least amount of risk. It takes a while for the new administration goals to filter down to the worker bees in government.  This is especially true of an organization run corruptly for many years where conservatives were driven out of the organization.  The money is filtered through companies and NGO’s with ties to government and former government employees. Possibly the money is tied to liberal organizations if you looked deeper - Hillary Clinton’s mark on government.  But the companies will hide their corruption oftentimes where the next round of hires is with contractors with connections with the new administration or are of the same political party of the new administration. The goal of the contractors is to see the gravy train keep coming in. Of course there are many good government workers doing their best to see that things are done properly, without waste, and following the rules set forth.  

    The question is, “How do we change this?”  Trump and his administration need to work both top down and bottom up! This means Trump needs to get high level   officials appointed where they set the policies and rules. At the same time, friendly people to Trump and Christian causes need to be hired at various levels of government where they will be the worker bees getting the job done. 

    One way to inspire change is to see Christian youth and older Christian workers going into government to work change and make a difference. It can be a major calling where for example, Christians could work through government to see that money is efficiently used and the greatest good happens for Christians in Iraq! Can you imagine what could happen if a group of Christians all working in the State Department with the ear of upper management started thinking “outside the box” with the goal of getting aid to the Christians in Iraq? One major problem has been that Christians were driven out of government by the Obama administration who targeted anyone Christian or conservative. So Trump needs to be encouraged to take control of hiring and get rid of many of the Political Correct officials and see that Christians and conservatives are hired rather than the standard PC crowd of young workers! Here I should state that there are many rules how government can and cannot hire people. A legal way needs to be identified such as including Christians and conservatives as minority groups! If they can hire many Muslims, why cannot they hire Christians? 

    Exposing the status quo like you did in this article, you will cause government officials consternation and cause the safe path to change course! All of a sudden handing money over to untried organizations will be less risky! Great job Mindy!