The problem with the Red Cross, cont.

By Felix Salmon
November 14, 2012
Eduardo Porter, today, has a great column about philanthropy, explaining that although Americans place trust in charity to help those in need, that trust is largely misguided.

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Eduardo Porter, today, has a great column about philanthropy, explaining that although Americans place trust in charity to help those in need, that trust is largely misguided. For one thing, he points out, “most philanthropists, generous as they may be, don’t usually see replacing government services as their job.” And more generally, human services charities receive less than 12% of all US charitable giving.

Which is why the Red Cross is exceptional: unlike any other charity, the government has given it the responsibility “to lead and coordinate efforts to provide mass care, housing, and human services after disasters that require federal assistance.” That, in turn, makes it accountable not only to its donors but to all taxpayers. And Ernie Scheyder’s article about the Red Cross today makes for very disturbing reading, on that front. Something, for instance, clearly went very wrong here:

As Sandy approached, the American Red Cross headquarters in Washington, D.C. arranged five staging areas in cities expected to be just outside the storm’s path, Lowe said. Supplies and staff were mo ved out of the New York region to avoid damage.

One of those cities was Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where Lowe said response vehicles and other supplies were stored. When contacted after the storm, though, local Red Cross officials in Harrisburg said they had prepared primarily to serve local victims. Only after they made sure Pennsylvania residents were all right – a process that took three days – were resources sent on to New York City.

The problem is only partially that there were mixed signals, and that the Pennsylvania officials thought the resources were for them rather than for New York. It’s also that no one at the Red Cross wants to even admit that there was a mistake. Instead, they seem to blame mythical traffic jams which were so bad as to hold up traffic for three days:

The Red Cross said traffic delayed by three days its efforts to serve Staten Island, the Rockaways, Coney Island and other hard-hit communities in and around New York City. That was despite all main bridges to those communities being open the day after Sandy.

The Red Cross is the charity which people give to reflexively whenever there’s a disaster — but look at where the Red Cross’s money actually goes: in 2010-11, for instance, it spent $271 million on domestic relief, $340 million on international relief, and a whopping $2.21 billion on blood and plasma services. It’s basically a blood bank with a disaster-relief agency attached, and a constrained one at that: the Red Cross says that its primary mission in a disaster is to supply food and run shelters, not to provide transportation, arrange cleanup operations or coordinate last-minute volunteers. And boy do they stick to that mission: when one woman asked the Red Cross for help moving a 90-year-old bed bound woman from the Rockaways, she was told that there was nothing they could do, that wasn’t a service they provided.

That reveals a level of bureaucracy and rule-following which is never appropriate in a disaster situation, where experienced operatives learn to respond to needs rather than to directives.

To be fair, the Red Cross is also constrained by its donors. After 9/11, it made the sensible decision that a lot of the money it had been donated would be best used in future emergencies, but the public outcry forced it to reverse course. As a result, the Red Cross has to deal with seriously backwards accounting: it basically has to pay for its disaster-relief operations with money received after the disaster occurs, and can’t use those donations for any other purpose.

Still, the way to deal with this problem is simple: don’t give money to the Red Cross. Give unrestricted donations instead to organizations like Doctors Without Borders or Team Rubicon, who know what they’re doing and who respond to need rather than to orders and conventions. The Red Cross does do good work. But there’s absolutely no reason why it should always get the lion’s share of post-disaster donations.

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