American generosity is the marvel of the world. The open heart, accompanied by the open pocketbook, is the American way to relieve the pain and loss of disaster. It’s how a wealthy society can spread largesse to those struggling with survival.
Six of 10 American households give to charity. Americans gave $335.17 billion to charities in 2013. The largest source of charitable giving came from individuals at $241.32 billion, or 72 percent of the total, followed by foundations ($50.28 billion, 15 percent), bequests ($26.81 billion, 8 percent), and corporations ($16.76 billion, 5 percent). Americans obey the Biblical injunction to be their brothers’ keepers in hard times.
This vast amount of money has inevitably attracted parasites and spawned a welter of bureaucracy and professional aid administrators. Some are more conscientious than others. A danger is that the bureaucracy is self-perpetuating and looks first to feather its nest.
The American Red Cross has raised $500 million to relieve the misery of the earthquake that devastated Haiti in 2010. Haiti is one of the poorest countries anywhere, and an exhaustive investigation by National Public Radio and the activist group Pro Publica could not find where the Red Cross expenditures went.
Suspicion of Red Cross aid is not new. The Red Cross, as any reporter with experience covering fires, floods and storms would typically tell you, arrives to set up an impressive public-relations operation, issuing streams of press releases. The Salvation Army and the churches arrive with blankets, clothes, sandwiches, coffee and doughnuts.
David Meltzer, the chief Red Cross lawyer and head of its international division, cites his charity’s aid during a cholera outbreak when the Haitian government was in “disarray,” which it usually is. The Red Cross nevertheless declines to provide a list of specific programs it ran, how much they cost and how much the charity spent on “administration.”
The Red Cross gave much of the money it collected to other groups to do the hands-on work, after first taking its customary administrative cut. The charities that received the money took their own fees as well. According to NPR-Pro Publica, the Red Cross collected an additional cut for what it calls the “program costs incurred in managing” these third-party projects. In one program reviewed by NPR-ProPublica, these costs ate up a third of the money that was intended to help impoverished Haitians. There is no dearth of highly polished pamphlets describing programs that function only to feed the bureaucracy.
A press conference in the capital of Port-au-Prince early this month, called by the Red Cross to answer charges in the NPR-Pro Publica investigation, descended into mostly noise. The Red Cross spokesman, Walker Dauphin, says the NPR-Pro Publica account had “misleading allegations” and that “in total, more than a hundred projects were implemented.” But Haiti’s most prominent newspaper, Le Nouvelliste, published an account of the press conference under the headline, “When the Red Cross drowns the fish.”
Rep. Rick Nolan of Minnesota, a Democrat, has called for the House oversight committee to look further into the Red Cross program in Haiti. That certainly seems appropriate. But given the growing list of national and international disasters to which American charity is devoted, something more is in order. More government regulation — especially given the scandalous way the Internal Revenue Service has ruled on the tax deductibility of charitable contributions — is clearly not the answer.
The major national and international charities themselves must set up the means to regulate themselves, to avoid further exploitation of American cash and good will, and to save the fish.