Should you heed the calls to donate to the Red Cross to help Japan? Maybe not. Here’s an Atlanta Journal-Constitution op-ed from January of this year:
When a 7.0 magnitude earthquake hit Haiti, the world community came to its aid. Millions of private citizens in this country and around the world reached into their household budgets and gave generously to the Haitian people who were grappling with the devastation…
Despite billions of dollars pledged from private citizens and world governments, a serious health scare has arisen. With poor sanitation, malnutrition, little safe drinking water and no sewage systems, the crowded temporary housing tent communities provide ideal breeding grounds for cholera.
One independent report has conservatively estimated that there is one toilet for every 273 people in the Port-au-Prince metropolitan area. Throughout Haiti, a year after we opened our hearts and wallets, the latrines are not cleaned on a regular basis and human waste spreads into the streams by the frequent rains. Now, a year later, limited water distribution continues, with little development of sustainable, municipal water-filtration systems.
In the face of these conditions, Haiti remains the non-governmental organization (NGO) capital of the world. Before the earthquake, there were more than 5,000 organizations on the ground in Haiti. From the International Red Cross to any number of church and civic organizations, Haiti is replete with people of good will who are there to make it a better place to live. Each of these organizations conducted their own fundraising campaigns after the earthquake and collected millions of dollars.
With millions of dollars at our disposal do we really lack the ability to support basic sanitation and clean water? Do we lack the ability to stop a preventable, deadly water-borne disease right off our coast? What happened to the money?
Many of the charities on the ground have reported they are setting aside a portion of their donations (sometimes up to 70 percent) for the “reconstruction” period. It’s clear from the outpouring of support many of those who donated from their own scarce family budgets believed they were giving to save lives immediately. In the face of a preventable public health emergency, like cholera, many will be surprised that more than half of their donations continue to sit in U.S. banks.
My organization has attempted for nearly a year to get the Red Cross to account for the money they collected for Haiti. In a recent meeting, I was told that 70 percent of their donations remain in “reserve” for longer-term reconstruction.
So here’s my question for any readers out there who know more about these things than I do (which isn’t much). Who deserves our donations? I’ve heard that Doctors Without Borders is on the ground early after disasters, has low overhead, and delivers immediate relief.
I’m also open to the possibility that the op-ed above is wrong, or that there are credible responses to or justifications of the points it raises. But I’d like to see those responses. It’s hard to fathom why the Red Cross would have 70 percent of Haiti donations still sitting in the bank a year later, while the country battles preventable disease outbreaks caused by poor sanitation.
MORE: A commenter points to this Felix Salmon post on Haiti last year, which also touts Doctors Without Borders (also known as MSF)—although I would guess that Salmon’s criticisms NGO efforts in Haiti may not apply to Japan. Another commenter recommends this episode of This American Life.
MORE: See also this Scott Greenfield post.