Saturday, March 7, 2009

Waiting for the scandal

When confronted with stories and images of peoples' lives lost and ruined, Australians donated generously to support victims of the recent Victorian Bush Fires. These donations are greatly needed, and it is heartening to see the outpouring of support.

However, we should be realistic in our expectations of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) like the Red Cross. Following every major disaster from September 11th to the tsunami in 2004, people open up their pocketbooks. Then, a few months later a scandal erupts about the inability of NGOs to spend the funds directly on the present disaster. (There are also scandals relating to fake charities set up to scam unsuspecting donors, but that is another topic.)

The Australian Red Cross is aware of this. Its website states that if it receives excess funds during this appeal, the funds will be used for future disasters in Victoria. The Red Cross is also working closely with Federal and State officials to manage and deliver the funds and has set up an independent committee of community leaders to oversee the Bush Fire Appeal Fund.

These measures are important, but I don't think it will insulate the Red Cross from impending accusations. The scandal will come from unrealistic expectations of NGOs. People often donate money expecting 100% of their donation to go to disaster victims. That makes sense on the surface, but how do you expect that money to be processed and accounted for? It costs money to deliver services and ensure that they are spent in a responsible manner. It is also physically impossible for someone to receive your online donation on Monday and purchase equipment, hire and train staff, and send them out to affected areas the next morning at 8am.

This isn't to say that NGOs always manage funds properly. We should demand accountability from NGOs -- as we should from governments and businesses, too -- but we should not have unrealistic expectations that set NGOs up to fail. Such scandals have a ripple effect, building a sense of distrust of NGOs, bolstering accusations of inefficiency, and denying public support.

By all accounts, the Victorian Bush Fires were a great tragedy, but they will not be the last ones. Whether natural disasters take place in Australia or overseas, we should be realistic in our support of disaster relief organizations like the Red Cross and provide the adequate funds they need to prepare and mitigate for future events.

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