Originally published on Huffington Post.
When I was a kid, I remember that the esteemed American Red Cross was the joint for donating and receiving much needed blood that saved lives. When and how did the Red Cross join the transitional shelter and housing construction party? They would probably claim that’s part and parcel of disaster relief work. But by what method did they take in $488 million for Haiti earthquake relief and wind up building six houses in five years?
I’m not the only one asking. Even though I don’t usually find myself in agreement with any Republican anywhere, it is Iowa’s own suddenly-darling Senator Chuck Grassley, who jumpstarted a congressional inquiry into Red Cross shenanigans with funds destined for Haiti. Early in July this year, NPR, in collaboration with ProPublica, an investigative journalism organization, reported that Grassley demanded the Red Cross hand over all financial documents relating to Haiti fund allocations, and he wanted them by July 22, 2015. I am Haitian, but to be totally Californian for a moment, I was like, YAY!
So here we are in October, and the most recent update on the inquiry stinks of shadiness and corruption. According to NPR’s website:
Grassley, an Iowa Republican, sent a letter to the Government Accountability Office Monday morning saying that the Senate Judiciary Committee, which he heads, ‘has received additional information that Red Cross personnel did not provide unfettered access to the GAO even after multiple requests for relevant information.’
Grassley is asking investigators for a list of all the documents the GAO requested but ‘the Red Cross refused to provide,’ any records or emails the charity wrote that cite reasons for not providing records, and ‘a list of all the officials that did provide the material GAO requested.
Other reports indicate that Red Cross CEO Gail McGovern had also written last August to Democratic Representative Bernie Thompson, appealing for an end to the GAO inquiry into the Red Cross. You know, let’s just you and I work this out by ourselves. Here’s my cell phone. Call me, dude. It’ll be much simpler that way.
Bernie Thompson called the letter “unfortunate.”
I remember attending a panel discussion at the Rand Corporation in Santa Monica, California one year after the earthquake. A Red Cross representative announced that, at that point, they had received $170 million for Haiti disaster relief, the most in the organization’s history! And then an audience member asked what portion of the funds had been disseminated thus far. The answer: zero. I guess the money needed to rest peacefully in the Red Cross bank account, collecting interest, before being dispatched to that high stress zone!
Why do I care about the Red Cross and its activities (aside from consternation over a venerated institution’s link to this kind of disgraceful behavior — kind of like Bill Cosby)? I don’t usually donate to the Red Cross. I prefer giving to individuals or families I know, or to smaller, local charities, where following the money is a straightforward affair. It’s Haiti’s reputation I care about. It’s Haiti fatigue I worry about. It’s that Why can’t those Haitians get their act together already? mindset that I agonize over. Hell, after $482 million in donations, by now Port-au-Prince should look like Paris! Right?
In a July email communication with a friend of mine, who has often worked in Haiti pro bono since the earthquake, here’s what she had to say upon hearing about the congressional inquiry into the Red Cross:
It’s about time. They have to be accountable. I saw them in Haiti running around in their chauffeured, air-conditioned Range Rovers! They had cooks and maids, gardeners and dogs! They lived in the hill top villas and went to the beach on weekends! Their offices were stacked with snacks and ice cold bottled waters while the rest of the country was in dire need.
The Red Cross cannot be entirely blamed for Port-au-Prince’s lack of Parisian-esque boulevards, infrastructure, world-class museums and sophistication — although you can find first class art, gourmet cuisine, and a damn good espresso in the city! No, Haiti’s issues are many and varied. But thanks to NPR and ProPublica’s excellent investigative report and study on the seemingly crooked organization’s misuse of money destined to help Haiti’s ravaged citizens, the light continues to shine on just one important reason why Haiti can’t seem to get back on its feet.
Do us all a favor, Red Cross. Get back to the business of blood.