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Richard Walden

Richard Walden

Posted: October 9, 2005 12:55 PM

Where's the Red Cross?


Let's hope we are not treated to having to endure American Red Cross "pop-up" ads on all the major websites touting a fund raising drive for victims of the October 8th quake in Pakistan, India and Afghanistan.

I'm headed for my 4th trip since January to Aceh in Indonesia and all around Sri Lanka and I've yet to see any evidence of an American Red Cross presence, especially since the emergency phase is now over and they say they do not work beyond that first few days or weeks.

Well, they raised $350 million which is more than most of the world's goverments (save four) pledged to Tsunami victims. With that kind of money you'd think they would have made their mark, especially since they are gone now. But there is scant evidence of their having done more than send a quickie assessment team on missions to a few Tsunami affected countries. Queries to the Sri Lanka Red Cross and Indonesia Red Crescent -- when you meet them in the field -- usually bring quizzical looks. I'm sure someone saw them but finding that person is like finding Jimmy Hoffa or Judge Crater. The procedure is supposed to be that the Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Geneva makes a global appeal for funds on behalf of the national red cross societies of the nations affected by a disaster; or, the International Committee of the Red Cross (also Geneva-based) makes an appeal. Whatever each country's Red Cross-Red Crescent Society raises is supposed to be sent to Geneva or directly to the affected country's Red Cross. Those organizations have for 2 decades complained that they rarely see more than 20% of what's collected in their name. Instead, they are treated to quickie visits and good bye by American Red Cross personnel -- quickies because unlike the European Red Cross societies our Red Cross does not do rescue work or even its renowned mass shelter work when it's abroad.

It's all about money and the money is often unrelated to the program it is supposed to support. A visit to the national monument that serves as American Red Cross headquarters in Washington DC is all one needs to see what its spending priortities are.

Several members of the Bush Cabinet serve on its board (it's federally chartered and looks much like a government agency); United Ways across the USA give their local Red Cross up to 30% of their total annual United Way drives, often right off the top; Congress and FEMA make every effort to hide funds for Red Cross reimbursement in their emergency allotments for disaster response. The myth perpetuated by the Red Cross is that it's entirely privately funded -- but private charity means private money only and few private donors are aware of its government-like First Responder role.

What the Red Cross does better than any American institution is hone its fund-raising drives to each major disaster, take the money (and money in federal and state reimbursement after a Declared Disaster) and run. In Katrina and Rita, it may indeed have spent $1B or more but it did not do it out of some philanthropic motivation; it did it because it had to shelter the same number of people at the same number of shelters whether it collected $1B or 1 cent from private Americans -- that is its job and it's why the public purse pays them.

Let's hope Americans give to the dozens of great nonprofits who have actual experience working in South Asia and who are committed to something other than virtuoso fund-raising drives.

My advice is to look at Operation USA, Mercy Corps, Oxfam and Unicef and see which ones best match your concern for victims and the attention they'll need. Kashmir is not a place for a one night stand.