Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The challenge of explaining complex scientific actions in disaster response and humanitarian aid in a parochial environment: The case of the American Red Cross

Joseph O. Prewitt Diaz, PhD
Alexandria, Virginia

As I was driving this morning I heard in NPR that the GAO had completed its review of the American Red Cross[1], and that one of the members of the House of Representatives[2], had proposed the “American Red Cross Sunshine Act”.

The American Red Cross is one of a movement of 189 Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies from around the world with a Headquarters in Geneva. The existence of the American Red Cross is guided by seven fundamental principles: humanity, impartiality, neutrality, independence, voluntarism, unity, and universality.

 I was pleasantly surprised that the query of such a prestigious entity such, as the GAO would conduct a thorough investigation comparing apples with apples. As I reached home I looked up both reports. Then sadness set in.

The GAO detailed their research methodology, they indicate that they compared the American Red Cross several entities, types of disasters, national and international response, and other non-government agencies in the United States. I was taken aback to see that GAO had not compared the American Red Cross and its “modus operandi” at least “three national societies” from resource rich countries comparable to the United States. So in essence lacking that valuable information, the report is rendered useless. It is another report for those that have the miotic vision and the lack of universal vision to see that this organization brings a lot of well being to the image of the American people, especially from countries that are resource poor and who have felt the helping hand of the American people through the American Red Cross in their moment of need.

Secondly, to legislate the work of the American Red Cross, as suggested in the proposed legislation “The proposed American Red Cross Sunshine Act comes in response to a government report, also being released today, that finds oversight of the charity lacking and recommends Congress find a way to fill the gap” (quoted verbatim from the NPR/Pro publica news article).  To provide oversight to a member of an international movement is in effect a direct move to do away with the the mission of the American Red Cross, and the fundamental principles that its work embodies.

My  take is that  (1) monies given by the U.S. government or its representative to  an entity in order that they may perform a specific task should be placed under scrutinty. I also believe the scrutiny should be such that there is respect from the US Government toward the integrity of said organization; (2) establishing a law with the specific purpose to “rein-in” an organization is a an attempt to destroy the principles of independence, neutrality, and impartiality. This may not be very important to politician in Washington or others who unscrupulously seek to say “gotcha” without an unbiased investigative reporting that includes “here say” and also includes desk research, and experiential learning.

In addressing this issue I am fully aware that I will be considered a  Vox clamantis in deserto”, but morally and with great respect toward those that have died in the past and present with the Red Cross vest providing humanitarian assistance, I couldn’t really be a bystander and keep quiet.

[1] GAO. (September 2015).  American Red Cross: Disaster Assistance Would Benefit from Oversight through Regular Federal Evaluation. Washington, DC: United States Government Accountability Office.

[2]  Elliot, J. & Sullivan, L. (Sept 16, 2015). American Red Cross Sunshine Act’ Would Open Charity to Outside Scrutiny. Washington, D.C.. National Public Radio & Pro Publica.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

American Red Cross and the NPR Report: Commentary on NPR program this afternoon

As I was driving this afternoon, I listened intently to the interview you had with Mrs Leslie Schaeffer from the American Red Cross. The reference for such interview was an article published by NPR/Pro-Publica related to Haiti. I re-read the report (Investigation) that NPR/Pro Publica had published on the American Red Cross. It is a report all right, but the credibility of investigative reports is questionable. It does not provide context for the disaster response by the American Red Cross or a timeline that could easily be followed by readers. Nor did it try to understand the international disaster laws, easily accessible in Internet, by which such responses are guided. According to the authors, the thesis statement has to do with the American Red Cross misusing funds in the Haiti response, probably because they lacked the background knowledge or the tempo of the response, and couldn’t explain it to their target audience.

Without discussing the value of the minutia let me reflect on some components that are missing in these reports:

1.     Did the American Red Cross have a pre-disaster agreement with the Haitian Red Cross, or a Haitian government entity to provide bilateral immediate response? The American Red Cross as partner, the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, followed the guidance of said organization to plan their response.

2.     Were agreements in place with local banks for transfer of funds or mechanisms for hiring local personnel?

3.     Were the ports open to allow equipment being brought by American Red Cross to the country. Did Haiti exempt American Red Cross from paying entry tariffs? What would happen with that equipment once it was used in Haiti?

4.     When was American Red Cross given clearance to begin on-the-ground assessment? Had all the bodies been recovered and the debris removed from the public thoroughfare?

5.     Were there people either native or Haitian descendant that specialized in disaster response? If not, did the American Red Cross exercise the “Do no harm” imperative waited past the gestation period (a period usually between six month to a year) where assessments are conducted, local people are trained, work plans formulated and evaluation mechanism are in place?

I cannot answer those questions because I was not there, but the reporters, who were there, I am sure cannot answers the questions either.

It is easy to be an spectator that with the passing of time develops compassion fatigue, to develop a warped vision of reality. It is also very difficult for reporters to do in-depth investigative work without having a working knowledge of the science of disaster response, reconstruction, and development.

Paraphrasing Mrs. Schaefer, well said in the program this afternoon, the American Red Cross did what it was supposed to do, continues to do what was planned, and will remain on the ground until all the identified programmatic needs, now using trained local personnel, are no more.