About those $83m dollar houses…

The focus of today’s minute of hate appears to be the NPR story about how the American Red Cross managed to waste hundreds of millions of dollars and to build only six houses in Haiti.

It’s pretty scandalous, there’s no doubt about that. They appear to have been awash in cash, without a clue about how to spend it. From the reporting, it appears that (surprise surprise) parochialism and a refusal to engage local skills and knowledge led to mistake after mistake, and years of delay.

As the internet worked itself into a righteous froth over the incident, we witnessed the familiar refrain that international NGOs are bloated, useless appendages designed for no other purpose than to provide salaries for over-privileged and under-qualified nabobs.

One rather under-informed commenter offered the following:

UNICEF [USA’s] expenses of 52 million dollars in expenses related to management and fundraising (out of a 600 million dollars budget, and that’s one of the best managed ones out there)

They are actually complaining about an administrative overhead of 9%? Seriously?

For comparison, Apple’s OPEX was a little over 25% of revenues as of March 2015. Google’s was a little less than 25%. Microsoft’s was 22%.

These are all operations that have significant global logistical operations, and involve a combination of scale and skill in their day-to-day operations.

I assisted UNICEF Pacific (as a local ‘fixer’) with their operations when cyclone Pam hit Vanuatu. (See here for a blow-by-blow account.) It is emphatically true that costs are very high in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. Spending time nickle-and-diming over expenses can cost lives. We needed phones, cars, room to work (their local HQ was damaged), food and water, and sufficient staff and infrastructure to move hundreds of tonnes of food and supplies at a time.

For the record: The Red Cross and UNICEF were the first organisations to deliver emergency supplies, because they had the foresight to pre-position materials and equipment in-country prior to the disaster. That was money well-spent.

And yet… and yet the biggest problem we faced was middle management second-guessing the people at the operational level, failing to support them because of the expenses they were incurring. And this fear continues to hamstring operations precisely because of stories like this.

Let’s be perfectly clear: It was the AMERICAN Red Cross that screwed up so royally here. Not the International Red Cross, which provides unique and necessary services throughout the world.

You wouldn’t tar every single technology company with the same brush as games maker Electronic Arts (who really do deserve their own special circle in workplace Hell). We didn’t stop buying telco gear when Nortel managed to lose $50b in investor money on its way into the tank. So why, when one NGO manages their way to disaster, does giving to charities suddenly become unwise?

I have witnessed—up close and in more detail than anyone could ever want—the effects of disaster. I’m still working to document the many successes and failures of cyclone Pam. And I will say without hesitation that the mantra here in Vanuatu was ‘we will not be another Haiti’. Haiti really was a clusterfuck from start to finish, mostly because of the local government’s inability to control and coordinate the response. In Vanuatu, government officials stayed on the front foot, and were unafraid to take NGOs to task when they refused at first to cooperate.

People need to be reminded: Disaster zones are shitty places to work. They are in fact some of the worst places in the world. And on top of this there are indeed thousand-dollar-a-day careerists who descend on them as a matter of course. But for every one person like that, there are hundreds of dedicated professionals who have devoted themselves simply to helping out. Many of them work on a purely voluntary basis. Mistakes get made every day, for countless reasons, but not least because in a post-disaster situation, you’re working with whatever information you’ve been able to gather by word of mouth; you’ve got virtually no means to coordinate your efforts, and you cannot know what the worst-affected areas look like until you go there yourself. On top of all that, you’re working as much as 20 hours a day, resting for maybe 10-15 minutes at most, and eating whenever someone stuffs an emergency ration into your hand.

Not to put too fine a point on it, It’s really fucking hard.

So yes, rag all you like on the American Red Cross. They have clearly managed a hall-of-fame calibre stuff-up. But do not ever attempt to state that there’s no place for disaster relief organisations in this world. A lot of my compatriots are alive and healthy today because of them. Until you can say the same about your work, I recommend you stop pretending you know what you’re talking about.