Of the many major charity organizations the American Red Cross definitely stands out in many ways. Aside from its sheer size and reach it is worthy of note how much confidence it enjoys in the corridors of power in the US. So much so that President Bush himself recently paid an "impromptu visit" to its headquarters to encourage the citizens to donate money to the Red Cross, among other things. And the loyalty between the Red Cross and the government appears to run both ways.
Naturally, one would become curious as to what predicates such a close relationship between what is chartered as an independent humanitarian relief organization and the US government. Some answers to that could be found in the Joe Allen's excellent article titled "A Bait-and-Switch Charity" (CounterPunch, October 20, 2005). Allen provides an interesting glimpse into the early history of the organization:
The Red Cross was founded in 1881 by Clara Barton, who became famous during the Civil War for organizing the distribution of food and medical supplies to Union Army soldiers.
The Red Cross is specifically mandated, according to its Congressional charter adopted in 1905, to "carry out a system of national and international relief in time of peace, and apply that system in mitigating the suffering caused by pestilence, famine, fire, floods and other great national calamities, and to devise and carry out measures preventing those calamities." The organization was also to carry out its work in accordance with the Geneva Conventions concerning the treatment of prisoners of war. Later, the Red Cross would also be entrusted with control of a large part of the nation's blood supply.
But who got relief after disasters has always been affected by the racism that has been part of the Red Cross' long history.
For example, during the Great 1927 Flood that destroyed large parts of the Mississippi Delta and Louisiana, Black farm laborers and sharecroppers without a doubt suffered the most. As John Barry documents in his epic history of the flood, Rising Tide, delta plantation owners refused to evacuate them out of the region for fear--rightly--that most wouldn't return to their miserable, slave-like conditions.
The Red Cross came in to provide temporary housing and food aid. What African Americans of the Delta got was prison-like camps where they were routinely beaten by white, racist National Guardsmen. Food distributed by the Red Cross was given to whites first, and if anything was left, it went to Black survivors.
Its legal status is also anything but ordinary:
People who think of the Red Cross as a "private charity" would be shocked to discover its actual legal status.
Congress incorporated the Red Cross to act under "government supervision." Eight of the 50 members of its board of governors are appointed by the president of the United States, who also serves as honorary chairperson. Currently, the Secretaries of State and Homeland Security are members of the board of governors.
This unique, quasi-governmental status allows the Red Cross to purchase supplies from the military and use government facilities--military personnel can actually be assigned to duty with the Red Cross. Last year, the organization received $60 million in grants from federal and state governments. However, as one federal court noted, "A perception that the organization is independent and neutral is equally vital."
The leading administrators and officials of the Red Cross are almost always drawn from the corporate boardroom or the military high command. Among the past chairs and presidents of the Red Cross are seven former generals or admirals and one ex-president.
What I found interesting is how uniformly police and security personnel in the region affected by Katrina expressed trust and confidence in the Red Cross while at the same time viewing other relief efforts with skepticism if not suspicion. Thanks to Joe Allen I think I have now got somewhat of a clue as to why.
If Allen's view of the Red Cross as essentially a branch of the government is correct then it is hardly surprising that the actual disaster relief might at times not be that organization's top priority, having yielded to policy considerations and the general "go along to get along" mentality permeating most governmental organizations. It is also hardly surprising then that it is more concerned with raising funds - and the PR needed to that end - than with actually doing the hands-on work of helping those in need. The government never turns down an opportunity to gobble up some cash, and if the Red Cross is essentially a part of it - is it so surprising it is acting in a similar fashion?
How many people would donate to the Red Cross if they knew all this?
I don't know but I for one sure as hell ain't giving them another penny.