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Millions were donated to Red Cross for Haiti earthquake relief. Why haven’t more been helped?

In 2010, a catastrophic earthquake ravaged Haiti, leaving 1.5 million people homeless. The American Red Cross raised nearly $500 million for relief efforts, announcing plans to create new communities. But an investigation by ProPublica and NPR has concluded that the Red Cross response has been plagued by failures. Jeffrey Brown interviews NPR investigative correspondent Laura Sullivan.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    The American Red Cross is under scrutiny once again for the way it operates, and how it’s using the money that people donate to it, the latest item, a joint investigation by two news organizations pointing to what they say is a failure to deliver on promises of housing in Haiti after the earthquake there five years ago.

    Jeffrey Brown has the story.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    January 12, 2010, a catastrophic earthquake ravaged Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, shaking whole neighborhoods to bits, and leaving 1.5 million people homeless.

    The American Red Cross raised nearly $500 million for Haiti’s relief, far more than any other charity. And a year after the quake, Red Cross CEO Gail McGovern announced plans to create — quote — “brand-new communities.”

  • GAIL MCGOVERN, CEO, American Red Cross:

    We’re working on a planned partnership to build permanent housing for people that were left homeless during the earthquake. Under this partnership, USAID would identify and pair at least two locations in Haiti for permanent homes that would include roads, drainage, and other infrastructure. The plan is that the American Red Cross would build these homes, including water and sanitation.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    But an investigation by ProPublica and NPR has concluded the Red Cross response was plagued by failures. Despite the lofty goals, documents obtained by the two media organizations show that only six permanent homes were built with Red Cross funds.

    They also found inaccurate numbers on how many people were helped by various Red Cross programs. NPR and ProPublica say many displaced Haitians were given short-term rental assistance or housed in temporary shelters like these, prone to termite attacks and unable to withstand tropical storms.

    Haitians themselves say they are still struggling just to survive.

  • CARLINE PIERRE (through interpreter):

    The living conditions are very hard for the poor. We are sitting here, and people don’t really come to buy products like they used to. Things are difficult.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    In a statement today, the Red Cross criticized the report and touted its accomplishments in Haiti, building and operating eight hospitals and clinics, providing clean water and sanitation, and moving more than 100,000 people out of makeshift tents.

    As for housing, the agency argued that Haitian government red tape blocked it from gaining crucial land rights for building. For instance, an agreement for the new communities project was ultimately canceled because of a land dispute.

    Laura Sullivan of NPR is one of the two journalists on the team who reported this story. We invited the American Red Cross to join us, but officials there declined our offer.

    So, Laura, let me ask you, first, give us some background on how this came about and how you reported it.

  • LAURA SULLIVAN, National Public Radio:

    This was a partnership that NPR did with ProPublica, myself and Justin Elliott and another reporter named Jesse Eisinger, back in the fall, where we looked into Hurricane Sandy and Isaac and the Red Cross’ response to those storms.

    And we found that there was — they spent too much time focused on the public relations effort in those storms and failed in a lot of aspects. And then we also looked at in the fall some of the questionable things that they say about how they’re spending donors’ money.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And so it was looking at Haiti from there?

  • LAURA SULLIVAN:

    Exactly.

    We ended up being able to see hundreds of pages of internal Red Cross records, e-mails and memos that senior managers wrote to one another. And we also talked to dozens of — a dozen current and former Red Cross employees about what happened in Haiti and what happened to the money.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Well, so on the specific issue of creating more housing, the Red Cross cites a lack of land to build on. They cite red tape that made property rights impossible. They are saying that they — they basically changed — they had to change course and, therefore, did.

  • LAURA SULLIVAN:

    And that is true.

    It is very difficult to build in Haiti. And a lot of nonprofits had a lot of trouble. But, still, it is possible to do. And at this point now, five years after the earthquake, other NGOs have been able to build 9,000 homes. The Red Cross has had half-a-billion dollars and five years in Haiti, and they have built six homes.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    When you’re citing the reasons for this failure, the prime one that comes through is what you see as a lack of experience by the Red Cross in how to carry this kind of thing out.

  • LAURA SULLIVAN:

    That’s something that we heard from a number of Red Cross officials and through the Red Cross’ own documents, which just show that this is not an area that they have a lot of familiarity with.

    They have years of experience doing immediate disaster relief.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    So, how does…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • LAURA SULLIVAN:

    … providing things like blankets and water. And they did that in Haiti as well.

    But what they do not know very well how to do and have very little experience doing is rebuilding in a developing country. And yet they outraised other NGOs by hundreds of millions of dollars, even after the immediate disaster relief was over, so that they could do just that.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    So, how does it play out? There’s a certain amount of money that goes to immediate emergency relief. And I saw that a year after it happened…

  • LAURA SULLIVAN:

    Absolutely.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    … when they were there providing all kinds of things.

    But you’re saying that, after that, they didn’t have the knowledge or resources — well, they had the resources, but not the knowledge?

  • LAURA SULLIVAN:

    They had the resources. They didn’t have the knowledge.

    And one of the senior officials we talked to was in charge of their Haiti program — their Haiti shelter program, Lee Malany. And he said they just never had a plan for housing. Other people we talked to said, this is not anything that they knew how to do. And they were kind of flying blind in some ways in terms of being able to get these housing projects off the ground.

    And the housing projects that they — they weren’t ever able to build any homes. They say they provided homes for 130,000 Haitians. This is another number that just did not add up when we actually dug down into it.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The Red Cross has pushed back pretty hard at you today, saying in a statement: “The Red Cross is disappointed by the lack of balance, context, and accuracy in the most recent reporting by ProPublica, NPR. It is particularly disappointing to see our work misrepresented, considering we answered more than 100 questions in writing and provided an interview with the head of our intentional programs.”

  • LAURA SULLIVAN:

    And that — it is true the Red Cross has done — has provided a lot of disaster services in Haiti. And they have certainly spent millions of dollars providing shelter and providing, you know, water and things like that.

    But, at the end of the day, they didn’t do what they promised Haitians they were going to do. And they didn’t also do what they promised their own donors they would do. They did answer a lot of our questions. It went back and forth for many months, and it is good to have that information from them. But what that information did show for us and what their own internal documents show is that they were not able to provide Haitians the kind of assistance that they had promised them.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Let me ask just you finally, we can stipulate that it is hard to work in Haiti, right…

  • LAURA SULLIVAN:

    Absolutely.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    … to get these kinds of things.

    Did you see examples where things were working, where housing was…

  • LAURA SULLIVAN:

    Absolutely.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Yes?

  • LAURA SULLIVAN:

    So, that’s what — was one of the most interesting things about it, is that a number of NGOs have been able to build 9,000 permanent homes at this point.

    And we went to one project that was done by Global Communities and PCI, where we saw more than 300 homes being built. In the project now, they’re building 75 homes that have running water for people. And those — and they say that a lot that is because they hired Haitians to do the bulk of the work.

    Some of the sources and documents that we read show that the Red Cross had a very difficult problem not hiring enough Haitians, and that they had a number of expats that were extremely expensive and also didn’t even speak either of Haiti’s languages. And one person said, how can you go to a meeting with Haitian government officials when you can’t speak the language?

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    All right.

    Laura Sullivan of NPR, thank you so much.

  • LAURA SULLIVAN:

    Thank you for having me.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    We have put a link to the full ProPublica/NPR report on our home page. That’s PBS.org/NewsHour.

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