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