The Red Cross’s conduct in Haiti is even less defensible after one learns how some in the organization initially reacted after first hearing about the earthquake in 2010. Instead of expressing sorrow for the thousands of lives lost before rushing to aid the country, Red Cross officials reportedly recognized the disaster as an opportunity for the group to make millions from sympathetic donors:
“When the earthquake struck Haiti in January 2010, the Red Cross was facing a crisis of its own. McGovern had become chief executive just 18 months earlier, inheriting a deficit and an organization that had faced scandals after 9/11 and Katrina.
Inside the Red Cross, the Haiti disaster was seen as ‘a spectacular fundraising opportunity,’ recalled one former official who helped organize the effort. Michelle Obama, the NFL and a long list of celebrities appealed for donations to the group.
The Red Cross kept soliciting money well after it had enough for the emergency relief that is the group’s stock in trade. Doctors Without Borders, in contrast, stopped fundraising off the earthquake after it decided it had enough money. The donations to the Red Cross helped the group erase its more-than $100 million deficit.
The Red Cross ultimately raised far more than any other charity.
A year after the quake, McGovern announced that the Red Cross would use the donations to make a lasting impact in Haiti.
We asked the Red Cross to show us around its projects in Haiti so we could see the results of its work. It declined. So earlier this year we went to Campeche to see one of the group’s signature projects for ourselves.
Street vendors in the dusty neighborhood immediately pointed us to Jean Jean Flaubert, the head of a community group that the Red Cross set up as a local sounding board.
Sitting with us in their sparse one-room office, Flaubert and his colleagues grew angry talking about the Red Cross. They pointed to the lack of progress in the neighborhood and the healthy salaries paid to expatriate aid workers.
‘What the Red Cross told us is that they are coming here to change Campeche. Totally change it,’ said Flaubert. ‘Now I do not understand the change that they are talking about. I think the Red Cross is working for themselves.’
The Red Cross’ initial plan said the focus would be building homes — an internal proposal put the number at 700. Each would have finished floors, toilets, showers, even rainwater collection systems. The houses were supposed to be finished in January 2013.
None of that ever happened. Carline Noailles, who was the project’s manager in Washington, said it was endlessly delayed because the Red Cross ‘didn’t have the know-how.’
Another former official who worked on the Campeche project said, ‘Everything takes four times as long because it would be micromanaged from DC, and they had no development experience.’
Shown an English-language press release from the Red Cross website, Flaubert was stunned to learn of the project’s $24 million budget — and that it is due to end next year.
‘Not only is [the Red Cross] not doing it,’ Flaubert said, ‘now I’m learning that the Red Cross is leaving next year. I don’t understand that.’ (The Red Cross says it did tell community leaders about the end date. It also accused us of ‘creating ill will in the community which may give rise to a security incident.’)
The project has since been reshaped and downscaled. A road is being built. Some existing homes have received earthquake reinforcement and a few schools are being repaired. Some solar street lights have been installed, though many broke and residents say others are unreliable.
The group’s most recent press release on the project cites achievements such as training school children in disaster response.
The Red Cross said it has to scale back its housing plans because it couldn’t acquire the rights to land. No homes will be built.
Other Red Cross infrastructure projects also fizzled.
In January 2011, McGovern announced a $30 million partnership with the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID. The agency would build roads and other infrastructure in at least two locations where the Red Cross would build new homes.
But it took more than two and a half years, until August 2013, for the Red Cross just to sign an agreement with USAID on the program, and even that was for only one site. The program was ultimately canceled because of a land dispute.
A Government Accountability Office report attributed the severe delays to problems ‘in securing land title and because of turnover in Red Cross leadership’ in its Haiti program.
Other groups also ran into trouble with land titles and other issues. But they also ultimately built 9,000 homes compared to the Red Cross’ six.
Asked about the Red Cross’ housing projects in Haiti, David Meltzer, the group’s general counsel and chief international officer, said changing conditions forced changes in plans. ‘If we had said, ‘All we’re going to do is build new homes,’ we’d still be looking for land,’ he said.
The USAID project’s collapse left the Red Cross grasping for ways to spend money earmarked for it.
‘Any ideas on how to spend the rest of this?? (Besides the wonderful helicopter idea?),’ McGovern wrote to Meltzer in a November 2013 email obtained by ProPublica and NPR. ‘Can we fund Conrad’s hospital? Or more to PiH[Partners in Health]? Any more shelter projects?’”