Red Cross's Haiti Earthquake Relief Efforts Questioned

After raising nearly half a billion dollars for relief efforts following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the American Red Cross broke promises and squandered millions of dollars while making dubious claims of success, ProPublica and National Public Radio report.

While the Red Cross would not disclose how it has spent the $488 million in donations it raised for Haiti earthquake relief, the organization says it has helped some 4.5 million people through more than a hundred projects. Despite its claim that it has provided homes to more than a hundred and thirty thousand Haitians, however, ProPublica and NPR found that the organization had only built six permanent homes. Confidential memos, emails from top officers, and accounts of a dozen frustrated insiders suggest that an overreliance on highly paid expatriate aid workers — many of whom spoke neither French nor Creole, lacked on-the-ground expertise, and/or were culturally incompetent — led to enormous cost overruns and endless delays. Meanwhile, an internal evaluation found that in some areas, the Red Cross reported helping more people than actually lived in the communities targeted by its efforts. In other cases, the organization undercounted the number of people it helped, while in still others double-counting went unaddressed.

"Like many humanitarian organizations responding in Haiti, the American Red Cross met complications in relation to government coordination delays, disputes over land ownership, delays at Haitian customs, challenges finding qualified staff who were in short supply and high demand, and the cholera outbreak, among other challenges," the organization said in a statement. The organization also told ProPublica and NPR that it responded quickly to internal concerns and hired an expert to bring staff up to speed on cultural competency issues.

Among the organization's failed projects was a $24.3 million program to build seven hundred permanent homes in Port-au-Prince's Campeche neighborhood — an effort that morphed into a road-building project and the reinforcement or repair of existing buildings after the organization failed to acquire land rights for the new homes. Similarly, a $30 million partnership with USAID went nowhere for two and a half years while the agreement went unsigned and was ultimately canceled because of a land dispute.

Still, while many aid organizations faced difficulties in Haiti owing to the country's dysfunctional land title system, the Red Cross's failures went beyond such issues, ProPublica and NPR report. Indeed, an internal evaluation of a $13 million effort to rehabilitate roads in poor, rural communities and provide access to clean water and sanitation found that nothing had been done to improve water access or infrastructure, and the evaluation further noted that the organization's hand-washing campaigns were "not effective when people had no access to water and no soap." Subsequently, when a cholera epidemic raged through makeshift tent camps in Port-au-Prince, the organization's primary response — a plan to distribute soap and oral rehydration salts — was crippled by "internal issues that go unaddressed."

A lack of expertise and rapid turnover among personnel, resulting in increased overhead and delays, could explain many of the organization's challenges, the report suggests. Lee Malany, who ran the organization's shelter program in Haiti in 2010 but resigned the following year, told ProPublica and NPR that Red Cross officials wanted to know which projects would generate good publicity, not which projects would provide the most homes — an allegation the organization denies. Moreover, an April 2012 organizational chart obtained by ProPublica and NPR lists nine out of thirty leadership positions in its Haiti program as vacant, including slots for experts on health and shelter. And internal documents refer to repeated attempts to "finalize" and "complete" a strategic plan for the Haiti program, efforts that were delayed by changes in senior management.

"It's a cycle of overhead," said Jonathan Katz, the Associated Press reporter who tracked post-disaster spending for his book The Big Truck That Went By. "It was always going to be the American Red Cross taking a 9 percent cut, re-granting to another group, which would take out their cut."

"[The donations] have helped build and operate eight hospitals and clinics, stem a deadly cholera outbreak, provide clean water and sanitation, and move more than a hundred thousand people out of make-shift tents into safe and improved housing," the Red Cross said in a statement on its website in response to the report. "When land was not available for new homes, the Red Cross provided a range of housing solutions, including rental subsidies, repairs and retrofitting of existing structures, fulfilling our promise to ensure tens of thousands of Haitians are back in homes. We also built and repaired schools, roadways, and water distribution points vital to neighborhoods."

Justin Elliott, Laura Sullivan. "How the Red Cross Raised Half a Billion Dollars for Haiti — and Built Six Homes." ProPublica and National Public Radio 06/03/2015. "American Red Cross Responds to Latest ProPublica and NPR Coverage." American Red Cross Statement 06/03/2015.