The Red Cross’ Haitian Boondoggle
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The Red Cross’ Haitian Boondoggle

Disaster relief and aid to developing nations is big business. Really big. While the documentary “Poverty, Inc.” examines whether this business helps or hurts, it’s very clear from this NPR/ProPublica story that the Red Cross did not help Haiti. And the Red Cross didn’t help Haiti to the tune of $500 million.

The Red Cross claims all the money went to Haitians. Haitians say no. Former Haitian prime minister Jean-Max Bellerive:

I’m not a big mathematician, but I can make some additions. It doesn’t add up for me.”

From ProPublica:

In late 2011, the Red Cross launched a multimillion-dollar project to transform the desperately poor area, which was hit hard by the earthquake that struck Haiti the year before. The main focus of the project — called LAMIKA, an acronym in Creole for “A Better Life in My Neighborhood” — was building hundreds of permanent homes.

Today, not one home has been built in Campeche. Many residents live in shacks made of rusty sheet metal, without access to drinkable water, electricity or basic sanitation. When it rains, their homes flood and residents bail out mud and water.

The Red Cross says it has provided homes to more than 130,000 people. But the actual number of permanent homes the group has built in all of Haiti: six.

After the earthquake, Red Cross CEO Gail McGovern unveiled ambitious plans to “develop brand-new communities.” None has ever been built.

Where did the money go? That’s the $500 million question. The Red Cross refused to disclose the particulars about this money donated for Haiti. They did say it was tough getting aid to people in Haiti, given the lack of rule of law, corruption and other hindrances. Red Cross CEO Gail McGovern, in a newsletter on the 5th anniversary of the Haitian earthquake, reported on the NGOs programs in Haiti:

The projects include repairing 4,000 homes, giving several thousand families temporary shelters, donating $44 million for food after the earthquake, and helping fund the construction of a hospital.

“Millions of Haitians are safer, healthier, more resilient, and better prepared for future disasters thanks to generous donations to the American Red Cross.”

One project, meant to improve roads and sanitation, represents the disastrous Red Cross plans.

Two years after it started, the $13 million effort has been faltering badly. An internal evaluation from March found residents were upset because nothing had been done to improve water access or infrastructure or to make “contributions of any sort to the well being of households,” the report said.

So much bad feeling built up in one area that the population “rejects the project.”

Instead of making concrete improvements to living conditions, the Red Cross has launched hand-washing education campaigns. The internal evaluation noted that these were “not effective when people had no access to water and no soap.” (The Red Cross declined to comment on the project.)

Some say that Red Cross workers in Haiti spoke neither French nor Creole, rendering their ability to work with many Haitians non-existent. While the Red Cross said, early in the campaign, that they would make it a priority to hire Haitians, yet there are those who say few Haitians were employed.

Shelim Dorval, a Haitian administrator who worked for the Red Cross coordinating travel and housing for expatriate staffers, recalled thinking it was a waste to spend so much to bring in people with little knowledge of Haiti when locals were available.

“For each one of those expats, they were having high salaries, staying in a fancy house, and getting vacation trips back to their countries,” Dorval said. “A lot of money was spent on those people who were not Haitian, who had nothing to do with Haiti. The money was just going back to the United States.”

While it is unclear as to whether this is a case of where helping hurts, charitable donations becoming big business or a case of abject failure on the part of an organization that should know better, the Red Cross has a lot to be held accountable for … and it’s not just money.

Elise Hilton

Communications Specialist at Acton Institute. M.A. in World Religions.