10/26/2012 12:53 pm ET Updated Dec 26, 2012

Despite Risks, International Relief and Development's Keys Hands Out $3 Billion in Foreign Aid

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Dr. Arthur Keys has given out $3 billion in aid to the world's poorest families.

As founder and CEO of one of the largest U.S. nonprofit agencies, International Relief and Development (IRD), he is still handing out about $500 million in aid a year.

And because poverty and need are highest in countries handicapped by conflict, Keys has helicoptered along with the aid into some of the world's most dangerous areas such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan and Pakistan.

Since Keys founded IRD in 1998, it has grown to be one of the largest of the contractors and Non-Government Organizations carrying out aid programs for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and other U.S. agencies. It is building roads in Taliban-infested areas of Afghanistan; it is building irrigation systems to catch rainwater near the Ethiopia-Somalia border; it is supplying food, water, education and other aid to millions of desperate people.

Before founding IRD, Keys was on the United Church of Christ's Board for Homeland Ministries, funding community organizations in the United States -- "farmers in Minnesota, the Haitian community in Miami, Hispanic voter registration in Texas," recalled Keys in an interview in his Arlington, Virginia headquarters.

Asked why he decided to work handing out relief at home and abroad, Keys said simply: "I'm a
clergyman. All my professional life I've worked with agencies that empower people. I wanted to help people."

"After work with Korean churches in the democracy struggle, and work in Manila and Bombay, I discovered better ways than anyone" to handle relief and development, he said.

In Bombay, Keys sought to protect the rights of the very poor who lived in slums and needed protection as powerful interests backed in part by the World Bank sought to replace their communities with costly commercial and residential highrises. His church group worked to supply vital latrines and to protect property rights. The situation was similar to that graphically portrayed in the award-winning film, Slum Dog Millionaire.

"Things are a lot better now in Bombay, and property rights are better," Keys said. "Highrises are being built but the World Bank changed. It realizes it must work with not just local government but with local community groups."

This focus on giving local communities a voice in development projects led Keys and his wife Jasna to start IRD.

Keys already understood through his years with church relief how to do advocacy work to support the 150 account in the U.S. budget, which funds foreign aid as well as the State Department.

He was also driven by his experience getting his wife's family out of war-torn Bosnia in the mid 1990s. Keys already had learned to speak Serbo-Croatian and had worked in Central Bosnia, providing relief to families displaced by war, hunger and ethnic cleansing.

He lost track of his in-laws for six months in the fog of war. When they were located in Zenica, Keys went in with a relief convoy from the Croatian town of Split -- UNHCR vehicles heading to fix a hospital and provide housing and jobs to the displaced. He got the family passports, ID cards and -- most important -- seats on the returning convoy which had to pass 16 checkpoints of warring factions before they reached safety.

Anyone who has experienced the threat of passing through hostile checkpoints manned by armed, violent men seeking revenge on their enemies might wish to never face those tests again. But Keys has made it a hallmark of his agency to defy those attempts to paralyze communities and strangle their development. Instead he tries to provide projects that deliver hope, jobs, literacy and a chance for change.

IRD now specializes in meeting the needs of communities emerging from conflict or natural disaster in nearly 40 countries in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America. Its 4,000 staff members (90 percent locally hired) work on community stabilization, infrastructure, health, agriculture, democracy and governance, relief and logistics. The IRD annual budget of $400 to $500 million is funded by USAID, the State Department, UN Agencies and other donors.

IRD says it spends only 9 percent of its funds on overhead and 91 cents of every aid dollar goes to programs.

"For development to succeed you need a larger political settlement -- you need peace and stability," said Keys. "We are part of that. We give people some stake in society so they have a reason not to fight."

He said that in Iraq, "by and large development work was successful. Our former staff have taken on new roles. They are multilingual and are open to ideas and to the West."

IRD's main work in Iraq was the Community Action Program which built or renovated schools, sanitation systems and water systems; it also carried out job training and large-scale vocational education for 20,000 to 30,000 people per month. IRD worked with the U.S.-led coalition forces on its "clear, hold and build" strategy: the military clears insurgents away, the area is held by police and other forces and development groups and the government build up the economy. In the build phase, IRD set up youth activities and funded small businesses under the Community Stabilization Plan (CSP).

U.S. Gen. David Petraeus wanted USAID to take on the dangerous CSP plan. But when a meeting was held of contractors and NGO aid groups in Baghdad, "no one wanted it, so we took it," Keys recalled. CSP was coordinated with the military -- after it cleared insurgents "we came in to jumpstart the economy, from Basra to Mosul. Stabilization means getting things back to normal."

Aid in conflict areas requires costly security and is hard to audit. Nevertheless, after spending hundreds of millions of dollars in conflict zones, where attacks, threats, corruption and lack of rule of law can undermine progress, IRD has remained in the good graces of USAID and continues to run development and relief programs in the world's hot spots.

Even dangerous projects such as funding local communities to build clinics, hospitals and roads have received a "clean audit with no un-allowed costs," said Keyes, dismissing allegations by the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post that IRD failed to fully account for aid funding. Keys said eventually all spending was audited and proved valid.

Above all, says Keys, as the U.S. prepares to hand over Afghan security and other affairs to the Afghan government, the country needs "some sort of political settlement that can lead to peace."
And when political settlements remain elusive, in Afghanistan as well as Syria, Somalia, Sudan and elsewhere, IRD is busy supplying relief to refugees.