Much of central Canada is still ablaze. According to reports, wildfires just spread to the Saskatchewan province having torn through Fort McMurray over the past two weeks, scorching well over 100,000 hectares of land and displacing more than 80,000 people. The number of individual fires numbers at least 49, and more than 16,000 structures have been completely destroyed.
This is a harrowing disaster for those directly impacted. Their homes and belongings destroyed, they face an uncertain future and a steep hill to climb before regaining normalcy in their lives.
The Red Cross – in conjunction with Canada’s federal government – is trying fresh approach to disaster relief that places financial resources directly in the hands of those impacted by the wildfires. Debit cards have been distributed to people fleeing the destruction, with each adult receiving $1,250 with an additional $500 for each child. As of this week, the total funds distributed amounted to $65 million disbursed to more than 63,000 evacuees.
According to Canadian Red Cross CEO Conrad Sauve, the organization’s move is a milestone in disaster relief strategy, calling it “the most important cash transfer we have done in our history.” The ongoing disaster – set to break records for the costliest in Canadian history – certainly warrants bold efforts.
Directly distributing funds to disaster victims, however, is historically controversial, considered by some in the humanitarian sector to lack the oversight and transparency of top-down organizational spending through which aid groups provide services for the dispossessed rather than providing them financial resources directly.
This conventional wisdom was shaken following the Haiti earthquake in 2010, for which the Red Cross raised half a billion dollars from an energized international public struck by the tragic scenes splayed on television sets across the world. Much of the money vanished, without tangible infrastructure or humanitarian improvements in the poor Caribbean nation. A joint report from NPR and ProPublica found a number of dismaying statistics; for example, the Red Cross initially announced that it provided homes for 130,000 people, whereas reporters were only able to uncover six permanent homes.
The Red Cross is also known for its decision to use funds donated in the wake of 9/11 for general operating costs, infuriating the public and ultimately bringing down the organization’s chief officer.
As the Canadian wildfires represent one of the highest profile disasters in the Western hemisphere of the last decade, perhaps the decision to provide funds directly to victims is – in part – an attempt to pursue the organization’s mission without the liability of generating another front-page snafu tarnishing the humanitarian group’s image.
How the evacuees fair in the short- and long-term will indicate whether such a strategy is worth emulating for future disasters.