Disaster Politics and the American Red Cross

Oct 30, 2014

This is a guest post by Wendy Wong, Associate Professor of Political Science at University of Toronto, Director of the Trudeau Center for Peace, Conflict and Justice, and author of Internal Affairs: How the Structure of NGOs Transforms Human Rights.

When the great fall from grace (especially those who have built their reputations on being high-minded and altruistic), it makes a great story. And that’s exactly the view of the expose written by NPR and ProPublica that hits us with the punchline: the American Red Cross (ARC) is mismanaged, somewhat incompetent at its job, and misguided in its priorities!

In their lengthy story, the reporters document missteps in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Isaac and make the case that the ARC has diverted funds that should be used for disaster relief for its own brand-promoting purposes. They use some ARC documents, but mostly base their claims on a handful interviews with external critics of the organization (current ARC representatives make cameo appearances).

To be frank, the ARC has had more than its fair share of high profile mess-ups, starting with 9/11 in the 2000s and more recently, with. There are real problems the ARC should deal with that the article does a good job pointing out: resource waste, sex offenders mingling with children in relief centers, slow response time unbecoming of the reputation of the organizations that was founded in 1881. But … is this really an expose, or are nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) at the forefront of trying to ameliorate overwhelming disaster conditions that no one, or even group, of actors could hope to address effectively?

Let’s put the report in perspective. First of all, despite its official “partnership” with the US government through FEMA, the ARC is really no different from the tens of thousands of NGOs that work in the US and the tens of thousands that work transnationally. It is not special – it is a work horse, a “force multiplier” (to use former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s artful terms), and it has no obligation to the people it serves other than the organizational mandate “to provide compassionate care to those in need.” What if we asked a different, implicit question untouched by this story: what should we make of the gaping holes in the US government’s response to these disasters – or local/state governments’ responses – and the inadequacies of the structures that elected leaders use to address the problems of the American people? Why are NGOs considered responsible for not properly delivering aid, and not governments?

The fact is, without NGOs like ARC or Doctors without Borders (in the ongoing Ebola crisis), there is no front line for disasters. If President Obama is telling you to give to the ARC to solve humanitarian disasters, that should tell you something: the government is outsourcing fundamental services to NGOs it should be providing. Sure, the ARC was named the go-to NGO, but there many more struggling to get money to try to resolve the same disasters. NGOs, for better or worse, have become trusted vehicles to make things happen at home and abroad that historically would have fallen to states or other private actors. NGOs take donations and deliver services to people, share information about important issues affecting us at home and abroad, and critique leaders who could be doing better. People and governments trust NGOs, and they have become legitimate political actors in the short time since 1945 when the United Nations formally incorporated them into global politics. What we say about the ARC, which itself is not an international NGO but is tied to two worldwide international Red Cross networks (The Federation and the Movement), has implications for NGOs working transnationally.  The business of international and domestic disaster relief has become NGO territory, both because they have claimed it for themselves and that states have receded from the foreground.

If NGOs are legitimate actors, then why can’t they share their accomplishments and gain publicity for them? The story makes it seem like the ARC was wrong in pursuing media coverage. But is it? While the ARC is superb in its abilities to raise money (it had revenues of over $3 billion in 2013), every NGO needs to build its reputation, claim credit, and be known for “doing something,” otherwise for the next disaster, they may not be tapped or given a shout-out by the President. There’s been a long conversation in the study of NGOs about whether NGOs are “principled” or “material” (e.g. Clark 2001, Sell and Prakash 2004).  The short answer is that they are both. They are doing good and solving market failures by providing services and advocacy to things that states and other actors let lie fallow. Who else is representing the whales or prisoners of conscience?  But they are also materially-motivated to show their potential supporters and donors that they are “doing something.” This can come in the form of quality service delivery, but it can also come in terms of media mentions, dollars received, testimony before government bodies, partnerships with private corporations … the list goes on. They also need to build brands and reputations so that people know what they do (and that they do it well).

What I’m trying to say here isn’t that the ARC is in the right, or that what has been happening with their service delivery in recent years does not need improvement.  But we need better ways to measure NGO “effectiveness” and “accountability” not just with anecdotes, disgruntled former employees, and leaders of competing NGOs (e.g. see Cooley and Ron 2002, Ebrahim 2003, Krain 2012, Hendrix and Wong 2013, Murdie 2014).

Given these dynamics, I think we need to ask ourselves: who else would be doing the work if not one of the most recognized brands in the occupation of disaster relief? Is there another group as well-poised, and indeed, as legitimate, as the ARC to take its spot? Who said disaster relief was easy, and how do we know if an organization has done “a good job?” The self-righteous finger pointing that flashes the ARC’s dirty laundry might make good headlines, but not good solutions.

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Charli Carpenter is a Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She is the author of 'Innocent Women and Children': Gender, Norms and the Protection of Civilians (Ashgate, 2006), Forgetting Children Born of War: Setting the Human Rights
Agenda in Bosnia and Beyond (Columbia, 2010), and ‘Lost’ Causes: Agenda-Setting in Global Issue Networks and the Shaping of Human Security (Cornell, 2014). Her main research interests include national security ethics, the protection of civilians, the laws of war, global agenda-setting, gender and political violence, humanitarian affairs, the role of information technology in human security, and the gap between intentions and outcomes among advocates of human security.