Monday, December 05, 2005

The Politics of Charity ...

Washington Post reports today:

The American Red Cross has launched an aggressive effort to reach out to racial and ethnic minorities and add more of them to the charity's vast network of volunteers, in response to criticism that it treated them callously during the Hurricane Katrina relief effort.
More than two months after Katrina and Hurricane Rita ripped through the Gulf Coast and caused tens of thousands of people to flee their homes for Red Cross shelters, the organization is dealing with complaints that it failed to provide enough translators and overlooked cultural sensitivities. The concerns have been raised by members of Congress and groups representing blacks, Hispanics, Asians and Native Americans.

This might have seemed like common sense when Katrina struck. That it's happening several months after the fact is of concern.

There has been much conversation about FEMA's response, but little into the dealings of the Red Cross. Bringing in $1.2 billion in donations, and spending about $2 billion overall for Katrina relief, the Red Cross has been accused of hoarding cash from other charity organizations willing or in a much better position to help (particularly local organizations in the ravaged Gulf Coast area). This latest move by Red Cross leadership is more than just outreach, but a response to that criticism - similar to the response during 9/11 when they raised $1.1 billion and earmarked $200 million for future crises. Critics have long advised ARC to exercise much more flexibility and sharing of its funds. Supporters contend it's "envy" of ARC's "fundraising prowess." But, it also seems like common sense to not monopolize charity funds (for fear that such "hoarding" will come back to haunt you) and, rather, engage in aggressive and responsible sub-contracting to more localized groups in that region that have experience servicing disadvantaged groups. We emphasize "responsible" to encourage strict oversight in the event that occurs. The last thing Katrina victims need are scams perpetrating as well-intentioned charities.

We're not seeing this sort of outreach from the embattled and ridiculously misled FEMA for obvious reasons. Is it fair to ask if FEMA is using the Red Cross as a political buffer since ARC is the largest non-profit recipient of federal disaster funding ("Better they than us.")? Just a question to throw out there. ARC is first on the list to receive FEMA funding for disasters. Pat Robertson's "Operation Blessing" is third on that list.

This recent development may have more to do with the fuming political battles that raged since Katrina as African American organizations desperately sought attention, voice and funding for affected locations that are disproportionately Black. There had been a larger conversation looming behind the scenes where Black churches and organizations eager to assist Katrina victims - many African American - faced off with the seemingly untouchable ARC for being kept out of the donation loop and dismissed by the ARC hierarchy. A conversation regarding ARC's funding management seemed sacrosanct.

We hope that the collective of Black churches, organizations, non-profits and activists focued on Katrina recovery will now enter the next and most important phase of that discussion: asset-building for impoverished families as Katrina victims slowly recover. We've been encouraged by talk from co-Chairs and members of the newly formed Congressional Savings & Ownership Caucus (CSOC), which " ... is dedicated to exploring, debating, and advancing policies to build savings and assets for all Americans – low-income Americans in particular" and the partnering New America Foundation . The Congressional Black Caucus Foundation's "With Ownership Wealth" (WOW) program was initiated pre-9/11 and we hope it can be revived, expanded or somehow linked into the CSOC, although Rep. Harold Ford, Jr. (D-TN) co-chairs it.

This is something the ARC cannot or is unwilling to do. Outreach, translators and multi-cultural volunteers are fine steps in the right direction - but, seriously, that should have been a part of ARC's normal operations a long time ago. The fact that it took a scuffle with disgruntled "minority" interest groups seeking charity dollars to finally make that a reality confounds us and shatters the realm of the common sense.

Hence, shelters and food lines go but so far. There should be greater focus and more pressing discussion on the long term goal of asset-building.