CUNY Assoc. Prof. Francois Pierre-Louis and CEPR researcher Jake Johnston discuss why non-profits like the Red Cross should not be involved in development when foreigners dominate leadership and bypass the communities which they claim to serve
JESSICA DESVARIEUX, PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore. So we all remember the massive earthquake in Haiti in 2010, and the outpouring of donations around this devastating disaster which killed more than 220,000 people and left millions homeless. There were all types of fundraisers, like the We Are the World campaign, which tried to persuade folks to give to the Red Cross. Well, a scathing expose released by ProPublica and NPR found out that despite the Red Cross raising half a billion dollars, they only built six homes. Yes, six. That sounds shocking, but the latest report doesn’t surprise our two guests, who have been tracking for years the lack of transparency and accountability for non-governmental organizations or NGOs in Haiti. Now joining us from New York is François Pierre-Louis. François is an associate professor of political science at Queens College. And joining us from Washington, DC is Jake Johnston. Jake is a research associate at the Center for Economic and Policy Research. Thank you both, gentlemen, for joining us. JAKE JOHNSTON, RESEARCH ASSOCIATE, CEPR: Thanks for having us. FRANCOIS PIERRE-LOUIS, ASSOCIATE PROF. POLITICAL SCIENCE, QUEENS COLLEGE: Thank you for having us. DESVARIEUX: Great. So Jake, let’s start off with you, since you’ve been following the reconstruction money quite closely post-earthquake. The Red Cross says that it provided homes for more than 130,000 people, but the investigation found only six permanent homes. Why such a discrepancy? JOHNSTON: Yeah, well, you see this sort of accounting trick quite frequently with the Red Cross, but also other NGOs both in Haiti and across the world. They give you these large numbers in terms of the number of beneficiaries. And I think what we’re trying to get to with this lack of accountability and transparency is how do they actually reach that number? And so when you actually start asking these questions and getting the breakdown things are revealed, like they only actually built six houses. Now, what they tell you is that they provided training to different people, they provided temporary shelters, tents to people in the immediate aftermath, and that that all gets wrapped into one sort of global shelter figure of whatever it was, 135,000. But when you start looking about sort of the sustainable, going forward, or what permanent homes were built, then you can see sort of what the real results are on the ground today. DESVARIEUX: François, what are some of the systemic issues with the Red Cross that keep, I mean, reoccurring in their work? We’ve seen it with Katrina, we’ve seen it with Sandy. Essentially, why are they and so many other–I mean, people would argue nonprofits–are so ineffective when it comes to development? PIERRE-LOUIS: I think first, nonprofits like Red Cross shouldn’t be in development. Red Cross was founded to assist people in emergency situations. Development is a long-term process that involves a lot of players and actors, primarily the people who will be affected by the development. So therefore when you come in as a foreign entity, like an NGO like the Red Cross, you come into the country and you assume that you can help with development, you are already taking in some assumptions that do not really fir with the reality. For example, a lot of times the Red Cross comes with experts who have no knowledge at all of Haitian culture, they don’t speak Creole or French. A lot of times they hire Haitian experts but they treat them as if they don’t know anything. They don’t listen to the population. And a lot of times they draw up their plans out in Washington, DC or somewhere else and try to impose it on the population. Moreover, the development is something that is definitely the purview of the government, because the government should have all the information in terms of demographics, environmental issues, in terms of places where [clearing] the urban space for the population. Therefore if you are not in contact with the government, you are not aware of the public policy issues, and also the issue of [land tenure] farms. And [land tenure] in Haiti, once you said you’re going to do development, you can either do two things. Either try to enrich the local [elite] that’s already taking on all the services that’s already there, or you bring in some outside experts who would be paid highly for their expertise, and once they’ve given you some advice they just leave, and nothing else [inaud.]. on the ground. So therefore a lot of the NGOs that are chasing money and chasing the emergencies should never have been allowed to even think of development in Haiti. Unfortunately, we have a very weak government that is unable to really challenge those huge NGOs. DESVARIEUX: Yes. And it sounds like there’s a major disconnect. I just want to be sure that we get what the Red Cross is saying, because they’re defending their work in Haiti. There’s a statement that was issued by the American Red Cross, we’ll pull it up for you right now. They said, quote: “Despite the most challenging conditions including changes in government, lack of land for housing, and civil unrest, our hardworking staff, 90 percent of whom are Haitian, continue to meet long-term needs of the Haitian people.” That’s from the American Red Cross. So I mean, you mentioned this a bit, François. But what would you say to that challenge? PIERRE-LOUIS: First, when they said 90 percent of their staff are Haitians, where are they? Are they in the position, the decision-making positions? Usually they’re not. Even though they are well qualified, they are not in the decision-making process. Secondly, Red Cross International has probably more money than the Haitian government itself. The more [budgetary] in term of their contact in Washington, DC. So therefore even if the Haitian government doesn’t include their policy, they have other ways of influencing the government. You have a government that 60 percent of its project is coming from outside of the country. Therefore it is susceptible to be manipulated by the foreign forces giving the, countries giving the money to the government. Therefore, authorities are afraid to even challenge the Red Cross. DESVARIEUX: Yes. And we know that the Red Cross track record is quite tarnished. We can look at delays of emergency supplies after Hurricane Katrina, the disarrayed and selective relief after Hurricane Sandy. Jake, I want to ask you, why does the Red Cross remain the charity of choice for ordinary Americans and corporations, and even the U.S. government? Because there was even a deal on the table for $30 billion that the U.S. was going to partner with USAID, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and the deal fell through but they were still willing to partner with them. Why do Americans keep looking to partner with the Red Cross? JOHNSTON: Yeah. I think first, I mean, you mentioned the response after Katrina and the response after Sandy. And I think if you look at those and the criticism of that response it really sort of directly contradicts the Red Cross’s statement defending their work in Haiti. They blame their problems on Haiti, the land tenure issues, the unstable government. But as we’ve seen, they fell down on the job in New York. I mean, are those problems also in New York? The environment no longer is a valid excuse for the Red Cross. We’ve seen it in too many places across too many different environments. I think if you start looking at why they’re still the charity, I think their name brand recognition–and you also, as you mentioned, get this high-level support. So when they were fundraising after the Haiti earthquake it was Michelle Obama who appeared on television ad spots urging people to donate. Large sports teams, right. And they have these connections and these ingrained political [connections] as François mentioned that really do give lasting impact to their programs and allow them to raise this record amount of money. And what you see is, as François mentioned, they’re not a development organization. They’re an emergency response organization. But they raised $500 million, and that’s just far too much for one organization to spend in a rapid manner right after the earthquake. As the ProPublica report pointed out, they didn’t have the capacity or the wherewithal to actually do that. And so they transferred themselves into a development organization with no expertise or knowledge of how to do so. DESVARIEUX: Okay. François, I’m going to let you weigh in, too. So at the end of the day for folks who want to give, or who want to be able to be helpful in developing Haiti, what would your advice be to them? PIERRE-LOUIS: I think the first advice, support the Haitian government. No matter how bad the government is, after all, it is the government of Haiti. It is a legitimate representative of the population. Now, in order to increase capacity in the Haitian government, you have to be able to help the employees get better paid, better training, and also a system of mobility where they can move from one position to another. In [other] terms [institutions like Red Cross] when they come in, they deplete the government of expertise. Because they promise high salaries and a lot of perks, but they’re not going to stay in the country for a long time. So once they move out, not only the government loses all those expertise you had before, but many of these people turn also experts on development, or try to emulate or copy what Red Cross or other NGOs were doing in the country, and therefore ending up undermining the state itself. So I would say we have to make sure that we push for solutions in the country to be reinforced. [Inaud.] the presidency, the judicial system, the court system, the local organizations that are doing work in the localities, those are the solutions we should reinforce, at any level, in order to make sure that Haiti gets out of its predicament, the situation that it is right now. DESVARIEUX: All right. François Pierre-Louis and Jake Johnston. Thank you both for joining us. PIERRE-LOUIS: Thank you. JOHNSTON: Thank you. DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.