Questions about how Red Cross is spending Haiti relief funds mounting
By FRANCES ROBLES | MCCLATCHY NEWSPAPERS Published: April 28, 2010
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Fred Sajous, a Haitian earthquake survivor armed with a video camera and a cause, is a man on a mission: to figure out how the American Red Cross spent the $430 million it raised for the disaster.
The former Broward Community College student in Florida visited the tent city across the street from the American Red Cross' Petionville headquarters in Haiti. Tent city leaders said they had not received anything from the Red Cross. With the organization's monthly report in hand, he went to a dozen more settlements.
"I couldn't find the $106 million," said Sajous, a 29-year-old mechanical engineer who left Fort Lauderdale, Fla., for Port-au-Prince after being laid off last year. "I didn't see a single sticker or anything."
More than three months since the American Red Cross raised hundreds of millions to aid Haiti in the aftermath of the 7.0-magnitude earthquake that killed an estimated 300,000 and left 1.3 million homeless, the organization says it has spent about a quarter of the money.
But after consuming $106 million in the first 60 days, the Red Cross in the past month has tapped just $5 million more and has come under fire for what critics call anemic spending.
Other aid groups, members of Congress, bloggers and even a former board member are among the growing chorus asking what the Red Cross is doing with such a massive amount of money raised in such a short time.
Red Cross records are not public, so Sajous settled on registering a watchdog organization called Kontrol Aid and making a video about his hunt for Red Cross relief supplies, which he posted on YouTube. American Red Cross President and CEO Gail J. McGovern last week countered with an Internet video of her own, responding to those who say the organization lacks visibility.
She also scheduled a conference call with members of Congress, underscoring the agency's sudden drive to explain how it funded 43 percent of the global Red Cross efforts that assisted 2 million people, gave tarps and other supplies to 450,000, and distributed almost 24 million gallons of water.
"Slapping our logo on people's temporary homes just didn't seem right," McGovern said in the video. "I can assure you that our presence is being felt by the people of Haiti. We have to answer not just to our donors; we have to answer to the people of Haiti."
The Red Cross said that expenses so far have included $55 million for emergency relief, such as food and supplies, including $30 million to the World Food Program; $43.6 million for shelter, including tarps; $5.5 million for water and sanitation; and $1.5 million for health costs.
The organization says that after an initial flurry of spending, operations have slowed as the American Red Cross shifts to a three- to five-year recovery plan. Rather than spend donations distributing water bottles, the Red Cross says it will fund water sanitation systems instead.
"That's not disaster relief, that's long-term recovery, and that's not the Red Cross' mission and not the donor intent either," said former board member Victoria Cummock, a longtime Red Cross advocate and volunteer who has given the organization over $300,000.
The Coral Gables, Fla., resident resigned from the national board of governors in 2008 after it disbanded the disaster oversight committee. She was disappointed in what she said were tepid responses she got from Red Cross officials when she asked about its operations in Haiti, so she decided to donate $25,000 each instead to Project Medishare and UNICEF.
"You have to start to take credence in the outcry of the people saying their needs are not being met," she said. "If there are hungry people across the street from the Red Cross, what is that about?"
A lot of the grumbling in Port-au-Prince comes from other aid groups, which covet the organization's largesse and first lady Michelle Obama's public appeal on its behalf.
"Everybody is saying the same thing. People are going: 'Where did that money go?' " said Eric Klein, CEO of CAN-DO, a small disaster relief agency that prides itself on cutting through red tape. "Show me one thing you have done. Show me a village or location of the camp. Are they going to show a pie chart?
"People are starting to scratch their heads."
According to Red Cross reports, the organization spent "or allocated" $80 million the first month after the quake, and another $26 million the second month.
The latest report says the group has spent $111 million, and it no longer differentiates between what was spent and what was allocated.
"I get a little cranky when people suggest we aren't spending the money," said Nan Buzard, senior director of international response and programs, 60 days after the quake. "That is a lot of money to spend in two months. In an emergency, you can spend 30 percent more because everything is expensive and you are racing against the clock and not being efficient. You can't spend $300 million in two months wisely."
According to the report, the American Red Cross expects to spend about half its donations this year, and will use the rest for long-term recovery issues such as disaster preparedness, transitional shelters, housing in rural areas, economic development, sanitation and cash grants.
Nine cents of every dollar will go toward overhead, and the organization has promised not to divert the funds to other disasters.
In her video, McGovern said the organization lacked visibility because it chose not to spend money flying in thousands of volunteers who consume resources for shelter and food — and it decided against delaying supplies by labeling them.
But Red Cross officials also acknowledge that $20 million of the money spent went for the materials to build 30,000 shelters, which are stuck in storage while the Haitian government finds land with clear property title for them.
"This is not a normal disaster where there is an emergency and then you move to recovery," Buzard said. "We can't do recovery without people in homes. If the land piece isn't worked out, it is going to be like a big African refugee camp.
"I feel good about what we have spent and where we are going," she said.
Sajous insists that despite the reports, there is no evidence of the donations in Haiti.
"Did they distribute a high-energy cookie from the United Nations and then say they fed so many families?" he said. "I am looking for transparency, I am not looking for them to rebuild Haiti."
Florida Democrat Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz told a Florida radio station earlier this month that she'd think twice before advising people to donate to the Red Cross.
"We were actually pretty struck by the fact that we didn't see the Red Cross anywhere, at all," Wasserman-Schultz said on WTFL radio after a visit to Haiti.
But Wasserman-Schultz toned down her remarks after getting an explanation from McGovern, the Red Cross president.
"They could have gone the route of spending quickly and getting out," Wasserman-Schultz said in a telephone interview. "If they had spent it all fast, we'd all be saying, 'Where did it go?' Instead, everyone is saying, 'Why aren't they spending it?'
"I think they struck a balance."