Friday, March 4, 2011

A Giant Crumbles

My head is kind of spinning right now. I have so much work to do today (and this weekend) with my projects and a proposal, that I really do not have the time for this, but it is here anyway, keeping me from being able to focus on my work. My head is spinning because I just learned last night and more details coming in this morning that an organization where I worked in the past, and that I loved, loved, loved, is shutting down. Well actually it is being forced to shut down. It is gut wrenching and heart breaking to me.

..."one of the most prominent US international development consultancies announced Thursday (March 3) that it was planning to sell its assets and transfer its programs to other aid organizations."

This organization is AED - The Academy for Educational Development. I worked there from 2000 to 2004. It was my first job in the NGO development sector and working on USAID projects. Before that I had worked for an energy consulting firm and with the private sector. I had never worked for an NGO, a not for profit, type organization and I had never worked on development projects that were funded by the US government. AED was my entry into this world where I have now worked for 10 years. What a fabulous place that was to work! I loved it. In fact I always had in the back of my mind that I might try to return to that organization, either as an employee or consultant.

AED has a great location in Dupont Circle. The offices are huge - two buildings connected by inside bridges. They have a wonderful conference center. Everything is beautifully designed. There is (or at least it was when I was there) real art hanging on the walls. At art collector had donated his collection to the organization. As you walked to your next meeting you were likely to pass a Chagall or a Lichtenstein. I am serious. Jokes about stealing the art, because it was just there in the hallways, were common. My office was on one of the top floors and I had a sweeping view of the city. I spent a lot of time in that office, and it was a wonderful place to work.

I remember feeling so great about working there. I felt proud. I felt a real part of that institution. It felt like a home. I found the organization to be professional and ahead of the game on a lot of things. They cared a lot about training and education and all of its employees benefitted from that. They did a lot of wonderful things for their employees. I recall feeling like I was in a family. I met people there who were true mentors. I bonded with people there. I still consider many of the people I worked with there as close, dear friends who I love. The place was full of talented, sharp, educated, dedicated and professional people. I have been fortunate to work for some very good places, but none of them were like AED. So many others I know feel the same way about their experience with AED.

It was a huge organization when I was there. I don't recall the numbers very well but I believe at that time there were 100s of people working in the Washington office, with thousands more around the world. I am pretty sure it was and remained the largest NGO in the sector. Current information reports that AED has 3000 staff worldwide, $119 M in assets and $440 M in revenues (2009 figures). That is a huge organization, particularly for the development world. And that, was part of its downfall. And now all of that is crumbling. Well, it has been crumbling for awhile, and officially since December.

In December I learned about what had happened to this organization I loved. A press release was circulated that left me stunned for days. The US government suspended the organization from receiving any USG funds pending an investigation into misconduct, mismanagement, lack of controls and concerns over corporate integrity. As far as I know USAID has never taken such a drastic action with an organization like that. The public details are few, but the bottom line is that there was money mismanaged on some projects in Pakistan and Afghanistan. As you might imagine, managing projects, offices, staff and activities in countries like this is challenging. Believe me. It is. What I have heard is that the problems were not from the AED staff at HQ, but from staff in the field, particularly a Chief of Party in one of the countries who was hired to run the work and instead set up a little scheme for himself, and ran off with some money. I don't think it was a lot of money in the grand scheme of things, but it is USG money, which is a big deal. Every penny of that USG money has to be tracked and spent wisely, because that is taxpayer money and the Government watches out for it, as it should.

So heads rolled back at AED HQ. People I have known for ten years - good, hardworking, dedicated people - lost their jobs - sacrificed in an attempt to make amends. I couldn't believe it as I heard about the many, many people who were forced to resign. Some were forced out. Some retired early. In addition to the VP and managers directly involved, the President left, the Vice President left, the CFO left, on and on, until there was a new management team. People who had been there for much of their careers and I am sure expected to retire there, were gone.

Then the layoffs started. Not being able to win any new projects, it had to happen. There was speculation about how long this suspension would last and even when it does end, what are the repercussions of being the organization that this happened to? AED has 100s of projects and I heard that they would be auditing every one of them. It was looking like this suspension could go on for a year or more. From what I know, AED initiated all kinds of new internal systems and checks and balances in an attempt to show the USG that what happened would never happen again. But I guess it was too little, too late.

Now yesterday and today, this message from the Board that AED is for sale. A fire sale. It is seeking acquisition and transfer of its programs and assets. It has commitments for projects that must continue and it has staff implementing this work that must get paid. So I guess this is all they can do now. AED will dissolve. It will either no longer exist or it will become a small shadow of itself.

I can't explain to you how sad this is to me. As I said earlier - heart breaking and gut wrenching. I guess it is as I noted above - my experience with and my memories of this place and its people is SO GOOD. So this just does not fit. It feels unreal. Impossible. All organizations have their great things and their flaws, but this was the best place I ever worked. Best people I ever worked with. The majority of that organization and its people are good and did good work. So it is just devastating to see this entire operation and its reputation - 50 years of work!!! - crumble. I realize that this downfall is the result of more than the one ass who stole money from a project out in Pakistan or Afghanistan. What people say is that the appropriate oversight and management systems weren't in place for an organization of the size and reach. I don't know - I left there many years ago. While I have some understanding of the roots of how this could have happened, I don't have enough information to offer insight or opinions into the details. All I have is my shock and sadness over this turn of events, and my beautiful memories of my time there. My heart goes out to all of my friends and former colleagues who have suffered from what has happened. I wish them strength as they deal with these events.

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