Red Cross workers help Camzuehgean Peter with blankets, tarps, kitchen kits and hygiene kits distributed by the American Red Cross at Camp Simon, Le Betemont, in the aftermath of earthquake in Haiti in 2010. Photo by: Talia Frenkel / American Red Cross

As the relief effort in hurricane-ravaged Haiti struggles to keep up with the devastation inflicted on the desperately poor nation, questions are being raised on social media about which aid organizations are best placed to most effectively carry out the mission.

Specifically, the American Red Cross has come under attack, with Twitter and Facebook users calling on donors to give their money to local Haitian groups instead.

Hurricane Matthew struck on Oct. 4 reportedly killing at least 1,000 people and displacing thousands more. Public health experts fear the situation could get worse if contaminated water leads to a cholera epidemic similar to one that broke out after a 2010 earthquake.

The controversy has also raised the question of who should people donate to if they are not going to give to the ARC. Currently there are a number of international agencies and NGOs working in Haiti including UNICEF, Médecins Sans Frontières, Oxfam, Save the Children, CARE and ActionAid.

Some prominent Haitians, including author Edwidge Danticat and Cleve Mesidor, Global Solutions Principal at The Raben Group, have used Facebook to suggest local charities to support. These include:

Gaskov Clerge Foundation 
Fondation Aquin Solidarite 
The Three Little Flowers Center 
Man Dodo Humanitarian Foundation 
Paradis des Indiens 
Project Saint Anne 

The disaster has brought the findings of a recent series of investigations by ProPublica and NPR into the ARC back into the spotlight with the Huffington Post, The Washington Post, CNN and The Independent all publishing stories calling into question whether to support the organization’s relief efforts in Haiti.  

The reports also spurred a congressional investigation, led by Sen. Charles Grassley, which concluded ARC was “uncooperative” despite legitimate questioning.

The NPR and ProPublica investigation found that ARC mismanaged the nearly $500 million it raised in donations after the 2010 Haiti earthquake, saying that only 60 percent went directly to support people in Haiti. The investigation also said ARC only constructed six permanent homes in Haiti with the cash. ProPublica has produced additional articles investigating the charity’s work outside of Haiti.  

The ARC, which is the 16th-largest charity in the world and has an annual budget of over $3 billion, has denied the findings of ProPublica and NPR and warned that the accusations could result in less funding going to Haiti. The organization has also been running its own social media campaign showing its workers on the front-line.

President and CEO Gail McGovern also published a blog post on Huffington Post, rebutting what she referred to as the “persistent myths” written by ProPublica and NPR about how her organization responded to the 2010 earthquake.  

“Another myth created by the ProPublica/NPR story is that Red Cross cannot account for the money we spent. This, again, is not true. All the money donated for Haiti was placed in a Haiti-only account and 91 cents of every dollar was invested in programs to help the people of Haiti.” she said.

McGovern also gave a stark warning, “It would be a shame if myths circulated online by people who want to help Haiti, actually end up hurting relief efforts,” she said.

CNN interviewed Lesley Schaffer, director for Latin America and the Caribbean for international services for the ARC, who said ARC was uniquely positioned to get aid to where it’s most needed in Haiti. But she also welcomed more organizations working to relieve the crisis.

"There is so much need in Haiti right now in response to Hurricane Matthew that really the more humanitarian organizations and the more grass-roots organizations that can work together to get critical relief supplies to the residents ... the better," Schaffer said.

A coalition of Haitian community organizations, the Haiti Advocacy Working Group also posted a list of best practices in disaster response, which are:

1. Support local community collaborations and initiatives.

2. Donate money.

3. Promote food sovereignty.

4. Provide cholera treatment and prevention.

McGovern has been plagued by controversy since taking on the role in 2008. ProPublica accused the CEO of cronyism after she installed a “hand-picked team” of former AT&T colleagues in senior roles, and “eliminating thousands of jobs and closing hundreds of local chapters”.  

The Canadian Red Cross has made it clear that it is a separate organization and manages its own funds in Haiti, according to Nonprofit Quarterly and CBC.

But some in the media have also pointed out that singling out the ARC for blame might be unfair.

The Independent reports that despite the international development community pledging nearly 9 billion pounds ($11 billion) in support after the 2010 disaster, parts of Haiti remained “little more than ruins” by the time Hurricane Matthew hit seven years later, with an estimated 55,000 Haitians still living in tents and makeshift shelters. The article blames the Haitian government, but also the global community for taking “too little oversight of donated monies”, for this lack of preparedness.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew, the international development community will be watching closely to measure the response to the devastation and the potential cholera epidemic in Haiti — and the American Red Cross will likely continue to face increased scrutiny since the fall out after the 2010 earthquake.

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About the author

  • Sophie Edwards

    Sophie Edwards is a Reporter for Devex based in London covering global development news including global education, water and sanitation, innovative financing, the environment along with other topics. She has previously worked for NGOs, the World Bank and spent a number of years as a journalist for a regional newspaper in the U.K. She has an MA from the Institute of Development Studies and a BA from Cambridge University.

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