World Vision’s spending habits

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Thursday, December 20th,  2018. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. First up, end-of-year fundraising. We’re doing it here at WORLD, and we’re going to talk briefly about it a little bit later on. But it’s not uncommon around this time to see a lot of glossy ads for groups like World Vision.

REICHARD: And a lot of those groups are worthy. But what we don’t often realize is that Big Aid is Big Business. And the one Nick mentioned, World Vision, has some ties to groups that may really surprise you.

WORLD Senior Editor Mindy Belz is here now to talk about it.

Mindy, why focus on World Vision? It’s just one aid group among many?

MINDY BELZ, SENIOR EDITOR: Lots of Americans give to charities this time of year. And they want those dollars to stretch and be used the right way.  But knowing how to evaluate different charities is a challenge. What questions should we ask? How does a given program even work?

World Vision is a major recipient of U-S dollars. $1 billion in revenue last year. A lot of that comes from government contracts with the U.S. Agency for International Development—known as USAID—and from the United Nations and the European Commission. That’s a lot of money, going beyond individuals sponsoring a child or buying a goat or chicken for someone. So it’s worth pondering the worthiness of a program like that.

REICHARD: Makes sense. So what sort of problem did you discover with World Vision’s work in Sudan?

BELZ: Well, I reviewed the research of Middle East Forum. That’s a think tank in Washington founded by Daniel Pipes. Middle East Forum was looking into several organizations when it stumbled on a contract where World Vision subcontracted its work to Islamic Relief Agency. Now, that’s a so-called charity listed by the U-S Treasury Department as a terror group, under U-S sanctions for directly funding al-Qaeda and terrorist attacks.

REICHARD: Well, how did something like that even happen?

BELZ: Well, World Vision and U-S officials say it just escaped their notice. It was an oversight. But even after this violation was discovered, World Vision got permission to pay out the contract with Islamic Relief Agency from U-S officials.

Documents I looked at show World Vision was under tremendous pressure from Sudan’s government to pay Islamic Relief. At the time, World Vision was doing $49 million dollars worth of work in that country. And still, Sudanese authorities threatened to expel them if they didn’t pay for this particular one. From the standpoint of the U-S, this was an illegal contract.

REICHARD: OK, that’s troublesome of course, but why is it significant now?

BELZ: Keep in mind the rough neighborhood we are talking about. Sudan is a listed state sponsor of terror. It’s actively lobbying the Trump administration to get off the list. Its president—Omar al-Bashir—has a long history of conspiring with terrorists. In the ‘90s he gave shelter to Osama bin Laden. He has carried out genocide against Muslims in Darfur and Christians in southern Sudan. In 2008 the International Criminal Court indicted him for war crimes. Bashir has a close relationship with Islamic Relief Agency. In fact, we’ve learned he’s even attended the group’s board meetings.

REICHARD: Well, what about Islamic Relief?

BELZ:  Now, Islamic Relief Agency’s record also is clear. The Justice Department has documented its raising millions of dollars for al-Qaeda. The group actually purchased equipment for bin Laden—including the satellite phone that was used to direct the 1998 bombings at U.S. embassies in Africa. Bombings that killed 200 people.

So if the Sudanese government is pressuring World Vision, as the documents indicate it was, it stands to reason that same government can be using World Vision, and for potentially harmful ends.

All this seems to have been given a pass during the Obama administration. It granted a license for World Vision to pay Islamic Relief Agency. That could be potentially compromising territory.

Several aid representatives in that region told me they’ve worked to avoid these kinds of entanglements with the Sudanese government. One even said, ‘If I learned we had a truck driver from a U.S.-sanctioned entity, I’d be finding another truck.’

REICHARD: That seems concerning enough just by itself.  Did you learn anything else?

BELZ: Two things popped up with more research. We learned from a report put out by World Vision’s Austrian affiliate that its work with Islamic Relief Agency goes back to 2011, if not further. And World Vision in 2015 posted online a job listing for a project manager naming Islamic Relief Agency as its partner—11 months after it agreed with U.S. officials to end work with the agency. That’s five years of work with a sanctioned terror group, not one, and not a one-off contract.

REICHARD: And has World Vision had a response to any of this?

BELZ: The group has put out several statements, which we link to in our article. When I contacted World Vision, through a spokesperson it said:

[can paraphrase] “World Vision categorically denies that it ever knowingly worked with an organization linked to terrorism. We strongly condemn any diversion of funds intended for humanitarian efforts.”

But I also asked World Vision about other work with Islamic Relief Agency, when it began, when  it ended, and they declined to answer those specific questions. That’s troubling. I hope donors and U.S. officials, including lawmakers, will be asking more questions about the exact nature of their work with Islamic Relief and whether it continues.

REICHARD: Mindy Belz is senior editor for WORLD. Thanks so much, Mindy.

BELZ: You’re welcome, Mary.  

(David Eulitt/The Kansas City Star/AP) An FBI agent questions a woman during a search of the offices of the Islamic Relief Agency in Columbia, Mo., in 2004. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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One comment on “World Vision’s spending habits

  1. Steve says:

    thanks so much Mindy for sharing this information about World Vision and for the balanced approach. It is difficult for any organization to be perfect, particularly when operating in a “rough neighborhood.” However, as a long time support of World Vision I too have some concerns about their response and have asked WV for more information.

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