Should You Donate to the Red Cross?

Sunday, March 13th, 2011

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.

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57 Responses to “Should You Donate to the Red Cross?”

  1. #1 |  Small is Tremendous | Imagine Today | 

    […] giving the money to an organization that actually uses all of the money you donated to help Japan. (As opposed to organizations like the Red Cross that have not been totally accountable with donations….)  Here’s a fairly exhaustive list of charities to start from to help Japan… although […]

  2. #2 |  Quasar | 

    @Don Duncan: Humanitarian workers are not journalists, for good reason. Neutrality and confidentiality are central tenets of humanitarian work, and neutrality in armed conflicts has been one of the core principles of the Red Cross since its founding in 1863. If relief workers routinely, or even occasionally, relayed information to the media or foreign governments, supported a political agenda, or took sides in a conflict, relief organizations simply would not be allowed into most war zones and trouble spots. The goal is to bring food, medicine and other relief to the vulnerable, including in oppressive countries, in the middle of wars, in prisons (even Guantanamo), etc. It is not to help the “good guys”. Helping the victims of war means helping the victims on both sides. See e.g.

  3. #3 |  Where my soul blossoms… I free my mind!: Japan’s 2011 Tohoku Earthquake & Tsunami | 

    […] tight up in the organization. and as I read somewhere, Red Cross or any international non-profit organizations are not the […]

  4. #4 |  Bruce Vaughan | 

    My father served in World War II, he observed about the Red Cross that they would come in followed by the media and when the media left so did the Red Cross. Why would anyone support an organization owned mostly by the Catholic Church?

  5. #5 |  Ken | 

    I’m in St. Louis, Missouri. Our family’s home was destroyed by a tornado last week, not damaged destroyed. We got to the basement and everyone is safe. While we have insurance to rebuild – it takes weeks for the insurance company to get their assessment done. We kept hearing about all the food, clothing, and money being raised locally for the Red Cross. We decided to see what resources would be available to us, so we went to the local community center where we were told the Red Cross was set up. The man said, “what do you need?” We said, “we want to understand what’s assistance is available.” He said, “the community center has a few things in the back – and we have bottle water.” In the back – they had a little of nothing. It was hard for us to even walk in the door and ask for help. I don’t want to sound ungrateful – but this isn’t what I expected. On a positive note, a local church was very generous, our school district has been amazing and Service International crews are working like crazy (another learning, did you know that most insurance companies don’t cover the removal of tree debris?)

  6. #6 |  anita | 

    Ken im soo sorry to hear this! The red cross must be exposed. I know where their money goes. Big time advertising on tv and all over begging for more money and the people at the top im sure are raking in the dough. Its sickening. I just did tons of research about Joplin and the devastating tornado that hit. EVERY SINGLE WEBSITE BLOG POST ETC SAID THEY NEEED SUPPLIES, FOOD, WATER, BLANKETS ETC. …..EXCEPT can you guess? THE RED CROSS. they need money send us money money money money. I packaged up a large box of supplies listed and am shipping it off tomorrow. I can say he LDS church is a great resource. They disclose where the money goes. 90% +is volunteer work and they are usually there right after a major devastation bc they always have an airplane packed and loaded for emergencies. People donate year round and it all gets prepared before disaster strikes so they can be there on scene with the typical disater relief items. Its a great resource for donations.

  7. #7 |  Kathleen | 

    Just a some points to think about.

    First, the mission of the Red Cross is to help those most in need. That means they do not just hand things out, but try to determine who needs what.

    Second, the Red Cross has several parts: the ICRC, the IFRC and the national societies. Whilst all national societies are to adhere to the mission, they are independent organizations, and some function better than others. Please do not make the (common American) mistake of assuming that because your Red Cross does things a certain way that all of the Red Cross does.

    Third, please distinguish between relief and recovery efforts. Much of the work of the Red Cross is in recovery and capacity building although it does some relief as well. Recovery and capacity building are long term, which means years, so the money collected is intended to last.

    Lastly, the Red Cross does not usually distribute supplies. It tries to work with other organizations and does not want to duplicate efforts – if someone else distributes food and clothing or whatever, the Red Cross is not going to compete, so it does not have the facilities to handle such donations.

    Bear in mind that the Red Cross has been around since the 1860s and is in almost every country in the world with millions of volunteers. It requires that all it national societies abide by the fundamental principles, which includes working in all parts of their country without discrimination, and without taking sides.
    It is the guarantor of the Geneva Conventions (it created them) which are the start of International Humanitarian Law. Its code of conduct for relief workers is used by many other relief and humanitarian agencies. This does not mean it does not have faults or make mistakes or that all national societies function well or that you should not donate to other organizations, just that you should look more closely at what it does and give credit where it is due.