Red Cross or Red Flag?

I feel obliged to mention this here because when major disasters hit, and when I actually think of it (unfortunately those two things aren’t in a 1:1 ratio because I can be thick like that), I try to post links for charitable donations here in case people are able to give something. Often I include the Red Cross, American and/or International, in my list of links, because they’ve been around forever, they seem to be everywhere, and while the American Red Cross’s Charity Navigator score isn’t great it is three stars, plus they get high marks for transparency/accountability (which I now realize isn’t as singularly important as I used to think).

Anyway, because I’ve maybe steered people toward the American Red Cross in the past I think I need to acknowledge that it may have been a mistake to do so. Yesterday NPR reported (via Atrios) on what looks like their total mismanagement of half a billion dollars in donations meant for Haiti in the wake of the devastating earthquake that country suffered in January 2010:

NPR and ProPublica went in search of the nearly $500 million and found a string of poorly managed projects, questionable spending and dubious claims of success, according to a review of hundreds of pages of the charity’s internal documents and emails, as well as interviews with a dozen current and former officials.

The Red Cross says it has provided homes to more than 130,000 people, but the number of permanent homes the charity has built is six.

Six! Well, that’s…something?

“Five hundred million in Haiti is a lot of money,” says Jean-Max Bellerive, who was prime minister until 2011. “I’m not a big mathematician, but I can make some additions. It doesn’t add up for me.”

On a recent day, Bellerive was sipping coffee in his living room, high above Port-au-Prince, with Joel Boutroue, who was the United Nations deputy special representative in Haiti before the earthquake and an advisor to the Haitian government afterward. Boutroue says he can’t account for where the nearly $500 million went either.

They considered the Red Cross’ claim on its website and press releases: That all the money went to help 4.5 million Haitians get “back on their feet.”

“No, no, not possible,” Bellerive says. “We don’t have that population in the area affected by the earthquake.”

“You know,” Boutroue chimes in, “4.5 million was 100 percent of the urban area in 2010. One hundred percent. It would mean the American Red Cross would have served entire cities of Haiti.”

It’s not unheard of for the Red Cross to make such a claim. Not long ago, the charity hired a group of consultants to review one of its projects in the north of the country. They found the charity’s math unreliable when it came to counting people it helped. There was double-counting, undercounting, and in one instance the Red Cross claimed to have helped more people than actually lived there.

This is…not good. I don’t want to excerpt any more of the piece, but there’s a story about a Haitian town called Campeche that’s particularly devastating. The short version is that the Red Cross told the residents there that it would build them new housing, a new hospital, and new water and sewage systems, and it’s done none of those things despite continuing to publicize Campeche as one of the neighborhoods involved in its $24 million neighborhood rebuilding project. Their PR brochure about the project talks about building a road and repairing some homes and schools, but fails to mention the 700 new homes that the Red Cross’s own internal emails reveal were originally promised to residents and have never been built.

The Red Cross issued a response countering that it has used the money to build and operate hospitals, to deal with a cholera outbreak, and to improve access to clean water and sanitation; to the specific charge that it promised to build homes for people and it, you know, hasn’t, the organization blames a lack of available land and says it put the money into rental subsidies and repairing existing structures and other solutions “to ensure tens of thousands of Haitians are back in homes.”

Maybe they’ve got a point, but apparently ProPublica has amassed quite a collection of Red Cross concerns over the years, stuff that I just plain didn’t know about and for that I am sorry. Like this Haiti story, they paint a picture of an organization that cares more about maximizing PR than maximizing its impact on people’s lives, and an organization that either doesn’t know or refuses to say where big chunks of its relief budgets go once the total is split among broad target sectors (they can tell you that $170 million of the original $500 million was earmarked for “providing shelter,” for example, but that’s as detailed as it gets).

I’m not saying you should stop giving to the Red Cross if they’re your preferred charity. Do your own research and make your own decisions. But on the chance that I’ve steered people toward them in the past I felt it was important to acknowledge that these very detailed criticisms are out there.

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