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A closer look at the Red Cross response

Following the Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake, the American Red Cross raised more money than any other American relief organization working in Haiti – a whopping $486 million from 60 percent of American households. In its newly-released update on its response to Haiti’s earthquake, American Red Cross President and CEO Gail McGovern writes, “…while there is still much work to be done, I’m proud to say that real progress has been made.”

Upon initial review of the data presented in the report, it appears their work has indeed yielded significant progress – particularly in these three areas:

HOUSING: There are over 600,000 people counted in official camps recognized by the United Nations. The Red Cross (along with partners) has built, repaired or upgraded 7,387 transitional shelters and permanent shelters – which according to their figures means 36,270 people have received homes. Their five partners Agency for Technical Cooperation and Development (ACTED), Habitat for Humanity, Handicap International, Hope Haven International,and United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS), were selected through a bidding process. They have plans to build 6,500 more permanent homes this year.

WATER and SANITATION: The cholera epidemic has now claimed over 7,000 lives and has infected over 150,000 people. Red Cross’ main partner for distribution of clean water and waste management trainings is the Haitian Red Cross – its largest partner on the ground in Haiti. They say about 369,000 have benefited from activities like building latrines and bathing facilities, trash collection and drainage improvements across Port-au-Prince. They also funded organizations like the IRC, Catholic Relief Services, American Refugee Committee, International Medical Corps to supply cholera clinics along with distribution of soap and hydration tablets.

HEALTH: The weak public health sector has long been the main focus of the Haitian Red Cross, of which the American Red Cross is the largest donor. In its 13 regional offices, the Haitian Red Cross conducts health education campaigns for cholera prevention, along with malaria and HIV/AIDS. The Red Cross is also one of the leading funders for three hospitals and a prosthetics and rehabilitation clinic for the disabled. They claim their reach in general health care services surpasses 3 million people.

However, two years later the Red Cross has spent only $330 million of the $486 million raised in the weeks after the earthquake.


“We can’t spend $486 million all at once,” explained Judith St. Fort, director of American Red Cross Haiti programs, who joined the Red Cross in June 2010. “We would still be providing tarps as opposed to now building t-shelters. The Haitian government wanted the NGOs to focus on recovery… The money was raised for relief, but it was spent on the needs.”

Also, St. Fort explains, rights issues complicate the housing situation: Landowners don’t want organizations to build temporary shelters on their property.

When pressed to clarify the difference between pitching tents (as most of the survivors living in internally displaced camps had been doing for months) and building sturdier, weather-resistant temporary shelter, the Red Cross doesn’t have a clear answer.

“The immediate response for the Red Cross was to distribute tarps,” said St. Fort. “The tarp distribution was done on camps that people were already settled in… It’s not as simple as it sounds, to just build semi-permanent shelters on their land. Landowners don’t want semi-permanent structures on their land. The immediate need was to get people supplies to stay dry. How long will these people stay in these structures, no organization can make that decision.”

Yet, the Red Cross makes decisions about the allocation of its own resources for building housing, among its other services. It has budgeted, to date, $187 million to provide housing – of which only 48 percent has been spent.

“These funds were spent on tarps and temporary shelters,” said St. Fort. “The land issue will continue to be a problem. The government of Haiti has identified land outside of Port-au-Prince to build houses. If you speak to the government now, they’ll say, ‘Yes, we have land.’ But there are no economic activities, no ways to get back and forth from [some of] the remote areas where the government has designated land. We can’t build housing for people in the middle of nowhere, with no resources.”

The wariness to build outside of Port-au-Prince may come from lessons learned after last year’s dehumanizing failures at Camp Corail – which the government of Haiti heralded as a model camp for the displaced. Homeless survivors were lured there with promises of better shelter, access to services and jobs. They soon found themselves isolated from services, vulnerable to the elements and completely neglected. Corail symbolized the failed government and humanitarian aid promises.

St. Fort says the focus of services is on Port-au-Prince and the north, where the Red Cross partners with Haitian organizations.
“Shortly after the earthquake, we gave funds to FONKOZE to help them help their clients get back on their feet,” said St. Fort. “We funded the ‘host-family program’ to meet the needs of some of those host families, to purchase supplies and food.”

Given the broad range of services the Red Cross offers in Haiti through numerous large NGOs, it isn’t easy to pinpoint the impact of their work or how they hold their partners accountable.

For instance, the Red Cross says it’s very proud of its cholera response. They trained over 200 promoters around the country for a far-reaching cholera education campaign, supplied medical warehouses and provided 5,000 cots to patients in clinics. Yet, of the $186 million the Red Cross has yet to spend, it’s still sitting on relief funds that it has allocated for cholera ($6.9 million), food and emergency ($7.3 million) and water and sanitation ($5.3 million). Why? What’s the decision-making process to prioritize how funds that are already allocated for a particular service are utilized? How can the largest organization that provides health-related relief services in Haiti, not be out of money after a successful response to the cholera epidemic?

Once you go beyond the data and talking points, to probe the impact of the American Red Cross – and most of the large international organizations – on the lives of the still-vulnerable and displaced families in Haiti, you’re left with more questions than answers.

One thing is evident: two years after the earthquake there is not significant progress in the lives of the people for whom the largest sum of aid relief money was raised in modern history. That is not something to be proud of.