Every year around this time our mailboxes and in-boxes are stuffed with pitches from organizations to support those in need. The Red Cross, UNICEF, CARE — household names we associate with life-saving work — each makes a case for why we should support them.
They present compelling stories, even if they all end up sounding a bit the same. We write our checks, feel like we’ve done our part and inevitably find ourselves on yet another agency’s mailing list for yet another pitch.
I grew up in a philanthropic household and have always given generously to causes that mean something to me, but I wonder now if I wasn’t responding to an emotional appeal as opposed to one that is more grounded in truth.
Why this new questioning? For the last three years I have witnessed, firsthand, the recovery process of Haiti’s January 2010 earthquake. Hundreds of thousands of dollars — millions, even — donated by individuals like me have not accomplished many of the goals set by these organizations. If you ask, though, they’ll be happy to show you expensive, fancy, four-color spread sheets with numbers that include people helped as well as hygiene kits, tarps and tents distributed.
There is, however, a lack of transparency for detail that masks how much was also spent on consultancy fees, per diems, vehicle rentals, hotels and the like, and how much still rests in their coffers, for which they are earning interest. I know because I saw their vehicles clog the streets and felt the impact of their pocketbooks drive up local rents. I saw the lavish meals consumed and heard about their weekend beach retreats.
Yes, Haiti is considered a “hardship” post but the hardships are not at their expense. More than 300,000 Haitians are still living in deplorable tent camps without sanitation or potable water almost three years and billions of dollars later. That’s hardship.
The tactics organizations use to draw money from our purse vary, but what they share in common is that poverty is their commodity. During a pledge drive this year a South Florida National Public Radio station solicited donations for Food for the Poor — $50 to feed a child in Haiti for three months; $100 for six months. That’s less than 50 cents a day, hardly something I would boast for my son.
If we’re supposed to make people feel good about their donation, I would think twice about donating to this fund drive that, for a pledge of $150 gives you a free radio.
Then there are the videos. Water is Life has launched a “First World Problem” campaign to raise money to provide clean water to those in need. The 61-second video that went viral on YouTube provoked lengthy discussions in chat groups about the use of Haitians reciting English phrases that clearly contrast with their extreme third-world living conditions: “I hate when my phone charger won’t reach my bed” or, “I hate when I have to write my maid a check but I forget her last name.” The settings were meant to be a shocking contrast to the problems the Haitians were mocking, but ultimately one has nothing to do with the other.
Take the pitch for cholera, which struck Haiti more than two years ago and has killed more than 7,000 people. The head of one of the U.N. agencies recently called it the worst outbreak of cholera in the world despite the fact that almost every health organization working in Haiti asked for donations to fight the curable epidemic. Nearly a year after the virus was introduced, only 12 percent of the tent camps overseen by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) had installed hand-washing stations and, by its own admission, just 7 percent of camps that the United Nations surveyed had access to clean water, in contrast to 48 percent five months earlier.
Investigative journalists, watchdog groups, university teams and human rights organizations have tried to track the aid money in Haiti to little avail. While it doesn’t mean that the aid organizations have misused the money, it does mean that questions about their spending remain unanswered.
So should we stop giving? Definitely not. But with giving comes a responsibility, and that means holding people and agencies accountable. Ask questions. If you’re not getting the answers you want, ask again. If you’re still not satisfied, look around, there is probably a better fit for your donation.
Because of what I have seen in Haiti, I have reduced by half the number of agencies I support — but not the amount I give.
Sadly, as much as I hate to turn my back on world issues that are important to me, I’m no longer willing to take the risk of donating dollars to agencies whose work I don’t know firsthand, which can’t provide a transparent breakdown of their expenses.
These days, I’m more inclined to give to organizations in my own back yard, where I know the players, and can see the results. There are plenty of worthwhile projects just down the street doing phenomenal work. Sooner or later, I’ll probably be getting a notice from one of them in my mailbox, too.
Kathie Klarreich, author of Madame Dread: A Tale of Love, Vodou and Civil Strife in Haiti, has covered Haiti and lived there periodically since 1986.