Saturday, November 3, 2012

Want to Help People Recovering From Hurricane Sandy? Don't Give to the Red Cross

In response to Hurricane Sandy and those who are looking for places to donate, we are publishing below edited excerpts from articles about the Red Cross and relief previously posted on this site, featuring links embedded for more information.

Perhaps nowhere in the US is Red Cross as unpopular as in New Orleans, where the memory of post-Katrina discrimination and corruption by the aid agency is still fresh.

No disaster is natural, and hurricanes and other devastating events end up revealing systemic injustices already in place. Unfortunately, many aid groups actually end up contributing to these systemic problems. Although Red Cross, religious charities, and others are to a great extent filled with well-meaning and hard-working individuals, and these groups have helped many people in need, any effort at aid that does not address the deeper structural problems actually contributes to reinforcing those structures. In other words, despite best efforts, they become part of the problem.

After Katrina, churches and other religious charities—from Salvation Army to Scientologists—coordinated many of the relief efforts. This was a furthering of the Bush administration’s goal of privatizing social services and increasing the social role of religious institutions. Some groups provided essential and vital aid, but their overall effort contributed to the re-positioning of relief as a nongovernmental and profit-driven function.

A February 2006 report from New York City’s Foundation Center points out that the Red Cross, which raised perhaps two billion dollars from Katrina appeals despite widespread accusations of racism and mismanagement, “ranked as by far the largest named recipient of contributions from foundation and corporate donors in response to hurricanes Katrina and Rita,” receiving almost 35 percent of all aid, while grassroots and locally-led projects received virtually no support. However, communities across the Gulf Coast reported that the aid was not reaching those most in need, and there were widespread accusations of racism at Red Cross facilities.

According to an article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, foundations “seem to have been preoccupied with the issue of accountability. Many foundations wondered how they could be certain that grants to local groups would be well spent and, therefore, publicly accountable.” While those are reasonable concerns, it also reveals a double standard. The Chronicle writer goes on to state, “the question of accountability didn't seem to bother the large foundations that gave so generously to the Red Cross, which had a questionable record of competence to begin with and attracted even more criticism in the aftermath of Katrina over its unwise use of funds, high administrative costs, and lack of outreach to minorities.”

In Haiti post-earthquake, similar concerns were raised almost immediately. In addition, when the vast majority of post-earthquake aid went to NGOs like Red Cross, it played the role of further undermining the government’s sovereignty. In the final analysis, a report from Associated Press found that less than one percent of US aid was distributed to groups in Haiti.

Red Cross and other large and bureaucratic aid agencies that function without and means of community accountability were quick to fundraise for Haiti. But did their aid reach people on the ground? The Associated Press reported that for every one dollar of US aid to Haiti, "42 cents is for disaster assistance, 33 cents is for the US military, 9 cents is for food, 9 cents is to transport the food, 5 cents to pay Haitians to help with recovery effort, less than 1 cent for the Haitian government and ½ a cent is for the government of the Dominican Republic."

Tracy Kidder, of the Haiti-based organization Partners in Health/ Zanmi Lasante, said it very well: "There are 10,000 aid organizations in Haiti, and Haiti is still one of the poorest countries in the world - then something‘s wrong with the way things are, the way aid is being administered."

A statement signed by six human rights organizations brought these concerns to the discussion of Haiti relief. "There is no doubt that Haiti's hungry, thirsty, injured, and sick urgently need all the assistance the international community can provide, but it is critical that the underlying goal of improving human rights drives the distribution of every dollar of aid given to Haiti," said Loune Viaud, Director of Strategic Planning and Operations at Partners in Health, one of the drafters of the letter. "The only way to avoid escalation of this crisis is for international aid to take a long-term view and strive to rebuild a stronger Haiti -- one that includes a government that can ensure the basic human rights of all Haitians and a nation that is empowered to demand those rights."

Anyone who sees the devastation caused by a disaster wants to help. But keep in mind that it is local grassroots organizations who are based in communities that are best positioned to know who needs aid and how to get it to them. And, in the long term, what communities need is the support to be able to lead their own recovery and reconstruction.

UPDATE 1: The Wall Street Journal reports that if you donated money to the Red Cross for Sandy relief, you helped pay for 45 Red Cross workers to stay at the Soho Grand Hotel, at a rate of $310 a night, for a total of $181,000, while people most in need received garbage bags of broken hamburgers.

UPDATE 2: See also the report from ProPublica, How the Red Cross Raised Half a Billion Dollars for Haiti ­and Built Six Homes.

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