Red Cross backlash
Richard Walden's recent LA Times op/ed makes some critical points about FEMA, philanthropy, and the Red Cross.
Many Americans don't realize that the Red Cross is both a charity and a contractor. The Red Cross receives millions of dollars in federal contracts for disaster-relief services over and above the money it receives through charitable donations. According to Walden, FEMA will reimburse the Red Cross for the cost of sheltering 300,000 evacuees.
As a private charity, the Red Cross is not directly accountable to taxpayers, even though it is a major player in a publicly-funded relief effort; and as Walden explains in the op/ed, the Red Cross is only minimally accountable to its donors.
Perhaps most troublingly, the Red Cross is not directly accountable to the evacuees that it serves.
There's a huge difference between a charity and a social program, even if the services rendered are the same. You can feel that difference in the shelters. The evacuees are treated like charity cases, not like citizens exercising their legitimate entitlements.
We saw the charity dynamic play out over and over again the shelters of Baker and Baton Rouge. We took calls from shelter residents who wanted to volunteer for the Red Cross but who were refused simply because they were residents. At that point, anyone could walk in off the street and sign up to volunteer. Bob and I did. The staff told us to fill out the volunteer forms because it was the only way to get admitted to the meeting where we were invited to give a presentation!
We also took statements from Red Cross volunteers who were being sent home by their immediate supervisors for complaining about a racist clique of officials who gave white families preferential access to food and clothing. These volunteers had no right to appeal their supervisor's decision and no official channels to lodge their allegations of discrimination.
Most troubling of all, the shelter residents have no voice of their own. Mothers told us they were afraid to complain about an alleged sex offender who was volunteering in a clothing distribution center. These women were unwilling to speak out because the Red Cross has no guarantees of non-retaliation. Alleged "trouble makers" can and do get kicked out with no right to appeal.
On the whole, shelter residents are treated more like prisoners than clients. The Red Cross doesn't give evacuees any say in how their shelters are run. A participatory model might have been impractical in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, but now that situation has stabilized, it's time for evacuees to play a more active role in shaping their temporary communities. Approximately 1 million people have been displaced by this year's hurricane season. Not all of them are in the temporary housing system, but most will continue to recieve some form of aid from the Red Cross for a long time.
For all its good deeds, the Red Cross is a huge private bureacracy. It isn't accountable to the people it serves, it isn't accountable to taxpayers, and it isn't directly accountable to its donors. This model may be acceptable in the immediate aftermath of a poorly managed disaster, but it's not an appropriate way to run a long-term relief effort.
Obviously, we're stuck with the Red Cross this time around. They're in place and they're doing a lot of good. However, the 2005 hurricane season should prompt us to rethink the relationship between private charity and federal disaster response.