Why is the Red Cross pestering an SW writer?

February 24, 2016

The Red Cross complained about a claim made in a previous SW story on Haiti, but Edna Bonhomme and Danny Katch reply that the agency's letter proves their point.

THE AMERICAN Red Cross has taken a lot of heat in recent years for misusing much of the money it raises for disaster relief on a bloated bureaucracy and misleading public relations.

So what is their response to these accusations? More misleading public relations from their bloated bureaucracy, it turns out.

On February 4, we wrote an article about rising protests over the corrupt elections taking place in Haiti. The article briefly mentioned the less-than-helpful role played in the country by international aid agencies like the American Red Cross, particularly in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake. We wrote:

If anything, foreign NGOs have been pernicious in their corrupt use of funds. The Red Cross raised $500 million after the earthquake from Americans looking to help--and built a total of six homes in Haiti.

The link in that quote is to last summer's investigative report by Pro Publica and National Public Radio (NPR), which detailed--through interviews with Haitians from all walks of life as well as internal Red Cross memos--how the agency has done a much better job of marketing itself in the U.S. than it has of delivering on its promises in Haiti.

Haitians take refuge in a tent camp in the aftermath of the earthquake
Haitians take refuge in a tent camp in the aftermath of the earthquake (Marco Dormino | United Nations)

AS IF to prove that report's point, one of us was contacted within days by an employee in the Red Cross communications department in Washington D.C. Addressed for some reason to one of our personal e-mail addresses rather that the readily available contact information for SW, the letter began:

Your recent piece on SocialistWorker.org, "Haiti's fight for democracy continues," implies that the American Red Cross's work in Haiti boils down to the construction of just six houses. You also used the term "corrupt use of funds" and "siphoned off money," when there has never been a single allegation of corruption on the part of the American Red Cross in Haiti. I wish you had contacted us for comment, since these accusations are simply untrue and an unfortunate reprint of false reporting by another media outlet.

To note, the Red Cross has been on the ground in Haiti over the past six years, working to bring massive, meaningful and measureable improvements to Haitians' lives. Thanks to generous donations, not only did we save lives in the earthquake's aftermath, but we have made significant investments.

The letter proceeded to provide a list of various projects for which the Red Cross has set aside funds, including the construction of 22 hospitals, sanitation projects and "livelihood assistance to Haitians."

We stand by every word in our article. The American Red Cross did indeed raise the previously unheard of sum of half a billion dollars for Haitian relief in the months after the disastrous 2010 earthquake, which left 1.5 million people homeless--almost a sixth of the total population. Five years later, it had built six houses.

Yes, the American Red Cross "set aside funds" for other organizations to do the actual work of building homes, but that is part of the vast inefficiency that has squandered so much of the money donated by well-meaning people in the U.S. and around the world.

As Associated Press reporter and author of a book about post-disaster spending Jonathan Katz told Pro Publica and NPR: "It's a cycle of overhead. It was always going to be the American Red Cross taking a 9 percent cut, re-granting to another group, which would take out their cut."

Like the Pro Publica/NPR story, Michele Mitchell's documentary Where Did the Money Go? makes it clear that Haitians have grown grimly accustomed to seeing Red Cross workers with inflated salaries making little progress on their stated initiatives.

The communications department of the American Red Cross may prefer that we use a more polite term for this than "siphoning off funds." We think it's accurate.

OUR ORIGINAL article only briefly mentioned the Red Cross as one of many forces that have attempted to bleed Haiti dry. But if the communications department is looking for more publicity, we're happy to oblige.

Founded in 1881, the American Red Cross is a quasi-governmental organization that has marketed itself as a charity group, but has been ineffective in numerous cases and at various times racist.

As John Barry outlines in his book Rising Tide, after the Great Flood of 1927 devastated large sections of the Mississippi Delta, the Red Cross routinely distributed food to whites first.

Jim Crow techniques were also perpetuated in the Second World War, when the organization purposely segregated blood donations, even though Dr. Charles Drew, the physician who perfected the blood preservation technique, was African American. Drew resigned as director of the Red Cross's Blood Bank once he found out that the organization was segregating blood.

If this seems like ancient history, consider that the Pro Publica/NPR report found that one of the many factors hampering the agency's relief efforts in Haiti has been the attitude of senior officials toward working with and employing the local population.

An internal memo from local director Judith St. Fort blasted upper-level management for fostering an "implication that talented, smart, competent Haitians cannot be found in Haiti," and for making comments like "he is the only hard-working one among them."

Still, in its defense (sort of), the American Red Cross does have a long history of misusing funds to the detriment of people of all races, creeds and colors.

After the 1989 earthquake in San Francisco, the agency raised over $50 million for the victims, but it is estimated that only $12 million was spent on actual relief.

A decade later, wrote Joe Allen in Socialist Worker, "a congressional investigation revealed that--though it had promised that all 9/11 donations would all go to victims' families--the Red Cross held back more than half of the $543 million" it had raised after the September 11 attacks.

Perhaps most infamous is the role played by the agency in the early years of the AIDS epidemic, when, as investigative journalist Judith Reitman wrote in her book Bad Blood, the Red Cross could have stopped the spread of the disease via blood transfusions, but opposed testing its blood supply because "it would be cheaper to pay off infected blood recipients, should they pursue legal action, than to up the Red Cross blood supply."

Perhaps it shouldn't be a surprise that the agency has blurred the lines between aid and self-interest throughout its history. Its board of directors is filled with corporate executives, mostly from the finance industry. Red Cross President and CEO Gail McGovern is a former vice president at AT&T and president at Fidelity Personal Investments.

THE RED Cross is far from the only NGO that failed to fulfill its pledges to rebuild Haiti and provide substantive assistance to people on the ground.

In Travesty in Haiti, Timothy Schwartz outlines the horrendous record of various other giant agencies, such as CARE, which collaborated with the U.S. Agency for International Development to dump surplus U.S. agricultural goods in Haiti, compromising the local farming industry.

While there are organizations that provide necessary care and services, the nongovernmental-organization-industrial complex imposes an undemocratic bureaucracy that is part of a broader neoliberal structure perpetuating global inequalities.

As Ashley Smith wrote for SW, at the same time that the U.S. was convincing the Duvalier dictatorship in Haiti to implement an economy based on sweatshops and tourism, and later supporting multiple coups against democratically elected governments, it was stepping up funding for NGOs to do "everything from trash collection to health care and food provision in a chaotic patchwork of services that have replaced the incapacitated state."

More recently, few international NGOs have publicly challenged and organized with Haitians who oppose MINUSTAH--the United Nation military occupation that has been in place since the most recent U.S.-backed coup in 2004, whose forces have terrorized poor and working class Haitians and are responsible for a deadly outbreak of cholera. Many NGOs work directly or indirectly with MINUSTAH to further suppress mass social movements in the country.

Five years after the 2010 earthquake, over 85,000 Haitians who had lost their homes were still displaced. The World Bank estimated that less than a quarter of the population had access to a toilet.

This despite the fact that more than $13 billion was raised in aid after the quake. That's more than a thousand dollars for every member of the population--over half of whom make less than $2 a day.

But, of course, that only would only matter if the money were actually getting to the Haitian people. Virtually everybody in Haiti knows that the money hasn't arrived--as do many people around the world.

If the American Red Cross wants to mend its ways, it should stop spending more of the money people donate for disaster relief on tracking down the private e-mails of journalists who are correctly pointing out its dismal record.

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