Has public sector disaster relief incompetence been outsourced for non-profit incompetence?
A damning expose accusing the American Red Cross of a series of bungled, dubious internal practices and politically driven responses during Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Isaac relief efforts, has left a slew of questions unanswered by the top dog humanitarian organization.
A joint investigation by ProPublica and NPR provided information from internal documents, company emails, after action reports and interviews with officials and victims who have claimed that public relations was put ahead of public assistant efforts.
These reports state that the American Red Cross was using emergency vehicles as back drops at press events and taking away precious resources from assisting in much needed aid relief. It also states that dozens of vehicles were sent out empty to drive around in front of the public, “just to be seen” according to former Red Cross driver, Jim Dunham.
The investigation started when ProPublica filed a Freedom of Information request after having difficulty locating public information on the $311.5 million raised by the Red Cross in aid donations following Sandy.
This request was initially refused by the non-profit Red Cross, on the grounds that it would impede their competitive advantage and expose trade secrets. A zero-sum game approach, one expects from a for-profit organization, was a startling reply from the self-proclaimed humanitarian organization.
Confidential documents and insider accounts paint a different picture than what officials are stating publicly. The eventual release of these internal documents detailed mishaps such as sex offenders being sheltered next to children, people with disabilities being left in their wheelchairs for days, an average of 30% of meals produced in the early days of the Sandy effort being wasted and high-ranked employees purposefully misleading the public.
The official line American Red Cross CEO, Gail McGovern, was touting “I think that we are nearly flawless so far in this operation”, can be seen as a false statement, or used as a smokescreen for suspicious company malpractice.
This is not the first instance of poor company practices by America’s favorite NGO. Claims of maladministration have plagued the Red Cross for over a decade now, with reports of financial mismanagement of the near $1 Billion raised after 9/11. Again, in 2005, after the poor running of Hurricane Katrina’s care relief, leading in a congressional oversight and a congress forced overhaul for the Red Cross.
The American Red Cross became a co-leader of national disaster relief care alongside FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) in 2010 and they currently hold a congressional charter. The question that comes to mind is that while the Red Cross is in the pocket of government organizations, how can there be a clear line between private, not for profit and public sectors? As the public invests and contributes donations to future aid care, they need to be well abreast of where exactly their funds are going and to who.
It is clear that after Hurricane Katrina, FEMA and local state bodies are completely ill-equipped to deal with mass care relief and have become heavily reliant on organizations such as the Red Cross to step in, but has public sector incompetence now been outsourced to non-profit incompetence?
If FEMA previously provided on the ground logistics, but failed so miserably that this responsibility had to be relinquished to an NGO then it might be that the Red Cross has become just as complacent. And if so, who is holding these organizations accountable for their inability to provide sufficient emergency relief care?
Currently the only level of accountability an agency like the Red Cross could face would be for them to lose their position as the top-perch players in the NGO sector. It is clear from their protection of “trade secrets” that they don’t want to lose that top spot. But this is a perverse form of accountability which leads to undesirable practices. If they have become the defacto disaster relief organization for the government, the accountability of the organization needs to improve.
While the above findings of mismanagement is a disturbing and disappointing revelation into the well-loved organization, what remains more disconcerting is why the Red Cross is the go-to in assisting failing government efforts when it comes to providing aid and support following national disasters.
It has been just over two years since Superstorm Sandy ripped through the East Coast, taking the lives of 148 people and destroying 650,000 homes. Victims of Sandy report that the first callers on the scene were a group of volunteers coordinated by Occupy Wall Street, called Occupy Sandy. Not FEMA, not the American Red Cross, not State or Local Police.
It was at the grass root level that those crucial first few days saw victims fed, clothed, kept warm and cared for. Given this, one has to question whether the Red Cross’s moves to centralize and consolidate regional resources is the most effective or efficient approach.
If the system is failing us, and in need for further improvement, the question is: how can we fix it? Perhaps it isn’t by blindly making donations to organizations that are opaque and withholding, but rather to employ a personal level of activism, and thus to be involved in the healing of our communities from a grassroots level.
Written by: Katy-May Hudson