half a billion blown by
THE RED CROSS OR DOUBLE CROSSED
Elliott is a ProPublica reporter covering politics and government
accountability. Previously, he was a reporter at Salon.com
and TPMmuckraker and news editor at Talking Points
neighbourhood of Campeche sprawls up a steep hillside in Haiti’s
capital city, Port-au-Prince. Goats rustle in trash that goes
forever uncollected. Children kick a deflated volleyball in
a dusty lot below a wall with a hand-painted logo of the American
late 2011, the Red Cross launched a multimillion-dollar project
to transform the desperately poor area, which was hit hard by
the earthquake that struck Haiti the year before. The main focus
of the project — called LAMIKA, an acronym in Creole for
A Better Life in My Neighbourhood — was building hundreds
of permanent homes.
not one home has been built in Campeche. Many residents live
in shacks made of rusty sheet metal, without access to drinkable
water, electricity or basic sanitation. When it rains, their
homes flood and residents bail out mud and water.
Red Cross received an outpouring of donations after the quake,
nearly half a billion dollars.
group has publicly celebrated its work. But in fact, the Red
Cross has repeatedly failed on the ground in Haiti. Confidential
memos, emails from worried top officers, and accounts of a dozen
frustrated and disappointed insiders show the charity has broken
promises, squandered donations and made dubious claims of success.
Red Cross says it has provided homes to more than 130,000 people.
But the actual number of permanent homes the group has built
in all of Haiti: six.
the earthquake, Red Cross CEO Gail McGovern unveiled ambitious
plans to “develop brand-new communities.” None has
ever been built.
organizations from around the world have struggled after the
earthquake in Haiti, the Western Hemisphere’s poorest
country. But ProPublica and NPR’s investigation shows
that many of the Red Cross’s failings in Haiti are of
its own making. They are also part of a larger pattern in which
the organization has botched delivery of aid after disasters
such as Superstorm Sandy. Despite its difficulties, the Red
Cross remains the charity of choice for ordinary Americans and
corporations alike after natural disasters.
issue that has hindered the Red Cross’ work in Haiti is
an overreliance on foreigners who could not speak French or
Creole, current and former employees say.
a blistering 2011 memo, the then-director of the Haiti program,
Judith St. Fort, wrote that the group was failing in Haiti and
that senior managers had made “very disturbing”
remarks disparaging Haitian employees. St. Fort, who is Haitian
American, wrote that the comments included, “he is the
only hard working one among them” and “the ones
that we have hired are not strong so we probably should not
pay close attention to Haitian CVs.”
Red Cross won’t disclose details of how it has spent the
hundreds of millions of dollars donated for Haiti. But our reporting
shows that less money reached those in need than the Red Cross
the expertise to mount its own projects, the Red Cross ended
up giving much of the money to other groups to do the work.
Those groups took out a piece of every dollar to cover overhead
and management. Even on the projects done by others, the Red
Cross had its own significant expenses – in one case,
adding up to a third of the project’s budget.
DID THE HALF BILLION GO? THE RED CROSS WON’T SAY
statements, the Red Cross cited the challenges all groups have
faced in post-quake Haiti, including the country’s dysfunctional
land title system.
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 charity said.
group said it responded quickly to internal concerns, including
hiring an expert to train staff on cultural competency after
St. Fort’s memo. While the group won’t provide a
breakdown of its projects, the Red Cross said it has done more
than 100. The projects include repairing 4,000 homes, giving
several thousand families temporary shelters, donating $44 million
for food after the earthquake, and helping fund the construction
of a hospital.
of Haitians are safer, healthier, more resilient and better
prepared for future disasters thanks to generous donations to
the American Red Cross,” McGovern wrote in a recent report
marking the fifth anniversary of the earthquake.
other promotional materials, the Red Cross said it has helped
“more than 4.5 million” individual Haitians “get
back on their feet.”
has not provided details to back up the claim. And Jean-Max
Bellerive, Haiti’s prime minister at the time of the earthquake,
doubts the figure, pointing out the country’s entire population
is only about 10 million.
the earthquake struck Haiti in January 2010, the Red Cross was
facing a crisis of its own. McGovern had become chief executive
just 18 months earlier, inheriting a deficit and an organization
that had faced scandals after 9/11 and Katrina.
the Red Cross, the Haiti disaster was seen as “a spectacular
fundraising opportunity,” recalled one former official
who helped organize the effort. Michelle Obama, the NFL and
a long list of celebrities appealed for donations to the group.
Red Cross ultimately raised far more than any other charity.
after the quake, McGovern announced that the Red Cross would
use the donations to make a lasting impact in Haiti.
asked the Red Cross to show us around its projects in Haiti
so we could see the results of its work. It declined. So earlier
this year we went to Campeche to see one of the group’s
signature projects for ourselves.
vendors in the dusty neighbourhood immediately pointed us to
Jean Jean Flaubert, the head of a community group that the Red
Cross set up as a local sounding board.
with us in their sparse one-room office, Flaubert and his colleagues
grew angry talking about the Red Cross. They pointed to the
lack of progress in the neighbourhood and the healthy salaries
paid to expatriate aid workers.
the Red Cross told us is that they are coming here to change
Campeche. Totally change it,” said Flaubert. “Now
I do not understand the change that they are talking about.
I think the Red Cross is working for themselves.”
Red Cross’ initial plan said the focus would be building
homes — an internal proposal put the number at 700. Each
would have finished floors, toilets, showers, even rainwater
collection systems. The houses were supposed to be finished
in January 2013, but none have been built. Many residents still
live in crude shacks.
of that ever happened. Carline Noailles, who was the project’s
manager in Washington, said it was endlessly delayed because
the Red Cross “didn’t have the know-how.”
former official who worked on the Campeche project said, “Everything
takes four times as long because it would be micromanaged from
DC, and they had no development experience.”
an English-language press release from the Red Cross website,
Flaubert was stunned to learn of the project’s $24 million
budget — and that it is due to end next year.
only is [the Red Cross] not doing it,” Flaubert said,
“now I’m learning that the Red Cross is leaving
next year. I don’t understand that.” The Red Cross
says it did tell community leaders about the end date. It also
accused us of “creating ill will in the community which
may give rise to a security incident.”
project has since been reshaped and downscaled. A road is being
built. Some existing homes have received earthquake reinforcement
and a few schools are being repaired. Some solar street lights
have been installed, though many broke and residents say others
group’s most recent press release on the project cites
achievements such as training school children in disaster response.
Red Cross said it has to scale back its housing plans because
it couldn’t acquire the rights to land. No homes will
Red Cross infrastructure projects also fizzled.
Cross effort to save Haitians from cholera was crippled by internal
issues. “None of these people had to die,” said
a Haitian official.
January 2011, McGovern announced a $30 million partnership with
the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID. The
agency would build roads and other infrastructure in at least
two locations where the Red Cross would build new homes.
it took more than two and a half years, until August 2013, for
the Red Cross just to sign an agreement with USAID on the program,
and even that was for only one site. The program was ultimately
canceled because of a land dispute.
Accountability Office report attributed the severe delays to
problems “in securing land title and because of turnover
in Red Cross leadership” in its Haiti program.
groups also ran into trouble with land titles and other issues.
But they also ultimately built 9,000 homes compared to the Red
about the Red Cross’ housing projects in Haiti, David
Meltzer, the group’s general counsel and chief international
officer, said changing conditions forced changes in plans. “If
we had said, ‘All we’re going to do is build new
homes,’ we’d still be looking for land,” he
USAID project’s collapse left the Red Cross grasping for
ways to spend money earmarked for it.
ideas on how to spend the rest of this?? (Besides the wonderful
helicopter idea?),” McGovern wrote to Meltzer in a November
2013 email obtained by ProPublica and NPR. “Can we fund
Conrad’s hospital? Or more to PiH[Partners in Health]?
Any more shelter projects?”
Jean Flaubert says the Red Cross promised to transform his neighbourhood.
“Now I do not understand the change that they are talking
about,” he said.
not clear what helicopter idea McGovern was referring to or
if it was ever carried out. The Red Cross would say only that
her comments were “grounded in the American Red Cross’
strategy and priorities, which focus on health and housing.”
signature project, known in Creole as “A More Resilient
Great North,” is supposed to rehabilitate roads in poor,
rural communities and to help them get clean water and sanitation.
two years after it started, the $13 million effort has been
faltering badly. An internal evaluation from March found residents
were upset because nothing had been done to improve water access
or infrastructure or to make “contributions of any sort
to the well being of households,” the report said.
much bad feeling built up in one area that the population “rejects
RED CROSS SAYS 91% OF DONATIONS WENT TO HELP HAITIANS
of making concrete improvements to living conditions, the Red
Cross has launched hand-washing education campaigns. The internal
evaluation noted that these were “not effective when people
had no access to water and no soap.” (The Red Cross declined
to comment on the project).
group’s failures went beyond just infrastructure.
a cholera epidemic raged through Haiti nine months after the
quake, the biggest part of the Red Cross’ response —
a plan to distribute soap and oral rehydration salts —
was crippled by “internal issues that go unaddressed,”
wrote the director of the Haiti program in her May 2011 memo.
that year, cholera was a steady killer. By September 2011, when
the death toll had surpassed 6,000, the project was still listed
as “very behind schedule” according to another internal
Red Cross said in a statement that its cholera response, including
a vaccination campaign, has continued for years and helped millions
while other groups also struggled early responding to cholera,
some performed well.
of these people had to die. That’s what upsets me,”
said Paul Christian Namphy, a Haitian water and sanitation official
who helped lead the effort to fight cholera. He says early failures
by the Red Cross and other NGOs had a devastating impact. “These
numbers should have been zero.”
why did the Red Cross’ efforts fall so short? It wasn’t
just that Haiti is a hard place to work.
collected nearly half a billion dollars,” said a congressional
staffer who helped oversee Haiti reconstruction. “But
they had a problem. And the problem was that they had absolutely
Malany was in charge of the Red Cross’ shelter program
in Haiti starting in 2010. He remembers a meeting in Washington
that fall where officials did not seem to have any idea how
to spend millions of dollars set aside for housing. Malany says
the officials wanted to know which projects would generate good
publicity, not which projects would provide the most homes.
I walked out of that meeting I looked at the people that I was
working with and said, ‘You know this is very disconcerting,
this is depressing,’” he recalled.
Red Cross said in a statement its Haiti program has never put
publicity over delivering aid.
resigned the next year from his job in Haiti. “I said
there’s no reason for me to stay here. I got on the plane
shelters like these on the outskirts of Port-Au-Prince, paid
for by the Red Cross, typically last three to five years.
Sometimes it wasn’t a matter of expertise, but whether
anybody was filling key jobs. An April 2012 organizational chart
obtained by ProPublica and NPR lists 9 of thirty leadership
positions in Haiti as vacant, including slots for experts on
health and shelter.
Red Cross said vacancies and turnover were inevitable because
of “the security situation, separation from family for
international staff, and the demanding nature of the work.”
constant upheaval took a toll. Internal documents refer to repeated
attempts over years to “finalize” and “complete”
a strategic plan for the Haiti program, efforts that were delayed
by changes in senior management. As late as March 2014, more
than four years into a six-year program, an internal update
cites a “revised strategy” still awaiting “final
Red Cross said settling on a plan early would have been a mistake.
“It would be hard to create the perfect plan from the
beginning in a complicated place like Haiti,” it said.
“But we also need to begin, so we create plans that are
Red Cross says it provided homes to more than 130,000 Haitians.
But they didn’t.
plans were further undermined by the Red Cross’ reliance
on expats. Noailles, the Haitian development professional who
worked for the Red Cross on the Campeche project, said expat
staffers struggled in meetings with local officials.
to meetings with the community when you don’t speak the
language is not productive,” she said. Sometimes, she
recalled, expat staffers would skip such meetings altogether.
Red Cross said it has “made it a priority to hire Haitians”
despite lots of competition for local professionals, and that
over 90 percent of its staff is Haitian. The charity said it
used a local human resources firm to help.
very few Haitians have made it into the group’s top echelons
in Haiti, according to five current and former Red Cross staffers
as well as staff lists obtained by ProPublica and NPR.
not only affected the group’s ability to work in Haiti,
it was also expensive.
to an internal Red Cross budgeting document for the project
in Campeche, the project manager – a position reserved
for an expatriate – was entitled to allowances for housing,
food and other expenses, home leave trips, R&R four times
a year, and relocation expenses. In all, it added up to $140,000.
for a senior Haitian engineer — the top local position
— was less than one-third of that, $42,000 a year.
Dorval, a Haitian administrator who worked for the Red Cross
coordinating travel and housing for expatriate staffers, recalled
thinking it was a waste to spend so much to bring in people
with little knowledge of Haiti when locals were available.
each one of those expats, they were having high salaries, staying
in a fancy house, and getting vacation trips back to their countries,”
Dorval said. “A lot of money was spent on those people
who were not Haitian, who had nothing to do with Haiti. The
money was just going back to the United States.”
after the earthquake, McGovern, the Red Cross CEO, said the
group would make sure donors knew exactly what happened to their
Red Cross would “lead the effort in transparency,”
she pledged. “We are happy to share the way we are spending
hasn’t happened. The Red Cross’ public reports offer
only broad categories about where $488 million in donations
has gone. The biggest category is shelter, at about $170 million.
The others include health, emergency relief and disaster preparedness.
After the earthquake, Red Cross CEO Gail McGovern unveiled plans
to “develop brand-new communities.” None has ever
has declined repeated requests to disclose the specific projects,
to explain how much money went to each or to say what the results
of each project were.
is reason to doubt the Red Cross’ claims that it helped
4.5 million Haitians. An internal evaluation found that in some
areas, the Red Cross reported helping more people than even
lived in the communities. In other cases, the figures were low,
and in others double-counting went uncorrected.
describing its work, the Red Cross also conflates different
types of aid, making it more difficult to assess the charity’s
efforts in Haiti.
example, while the Red Cross says it provided more than 130,000
people with homes, that includes thousands of people who were
not actually given homes, but rather were “trained in
proper construction techniques.” (That was first reported
by the Haiti blog of the Center for Economic and Policy Research).
figure includes people who got short-term rental assistance
or were housed in several thousand “transitional shelters,”
which are temporary structures that can get eaten up by termites
or tip over in storms. It also includes modest improvements
on 5,000 temporary shelters.
Red Cross also won’t break down what portion of donations
went to overhead.
Red Cross says that for each dollar donated, 91 cents went to
Haiti. McGovern told CBS News a few months after the quake,
“Minus the 9 cents overhead, 91 cents on the dollar will
be going to Haiti. And I give you my word and my commitment,
I’m banking my integrity, my own personal sense of integrity
on that statement.”
the reality is that less money went to Haiti than 91 percent.
That’s because in addition to the Red Cross’ 9 percent
overhead, the other groups that got grants from the Red Cross
also have their own overhead.
one case, the Red Cross sent $6 million to the International
Federation of the Red Cross for rental subsidies to help Haitians
leave tent camps. The IFRC then took out 26 percent for overhead
and what the IFRC described as program-related “administration,
finance, human resources” and similar costs.
all that, the Red Cross also spends another piece of each dollar
for what it describes as “program costs incurred by the
American Red Cross in managing” the projects done by other
American Red Cross’ management and other costs consumed
an additional 24 percent of the money on one project, according
to the group’s statements and internal documents. The
actual work, upgrading shelters, was done by the Swiss and Spanish
Red Cross societies.
a cycle of overhead,” said Jonathan Katz, the Associated
Press reporter in Haiti at the time of the earthquake 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 results produced by the Red Cross’ projects in Haiti,
Bellerive, the former prime minister, said he has a hard time
fathoming what’s happened to donors’ money.
hundred million dollars in Haiti is a lot of money,” he
said. “I’m not a big mathematician, but I can make
some additions. I know more or less the cost of things. Unless
you don’t pay for the gasoline the same price I was paying,
unless you pay people 20 times what I was paying them, unless
the cost of the house you built was five times the cost I was
paying, it doesn’t add up for me.”
story was co-published with NPR. Mitzy-Lynn Hyacinthe contributed
reporting. If you have information about the Red Cross or about
other international aid projects, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.