Red Cross Gives Money Directly to Canadian Wildfire Evacuees

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.

In Refugee Crisis, States Hinder Nonprofits

Nonprofits are now mixed up in the dispute over Syrian refugees. As leaders representing well over half of the 50 U.S. states have announced their opposition to accepting Syrians displaced in their country’s intractable conflict, organizations have begun receiving official requests to desist from settling Syrians. These letters amount to state interference with nonprofits’ operations.

In the wake of the Paris attacks, the rhetoric in the United States concerning the asylum of stateless refugees has reached a fever pitch, with political leaders and pundits voicing concerns that some refugees could be affiliated with ISIS – the terrorist organization responsible for the carnage in France. Donald Trump – the current frontrunner in the GOP presidential race – has referred to the acceptance of refugees as a “Trojan Horse” for terrorist cells entering the United States.

The process through which Syrians can gain entry into the United States takes between 18 months and three years, and involves intensive screening from multiple government agencies.

The protest of state governors is largely toothless, as elected officials possess little power to actually bar refugees approved by the federal government from entering the United States. They can, however, make the situation more difficult, redirecting funding from state-level refugee agencies. They can also bully nonprofit organizations working to help the settlement for approved refugees as painless as possible.

Greg Abbott – Governor of Texas and vocal opponent of accepting Syrian refugees – sent letters to nonprofits in his state that work with refugees asking that they refrain from working with Syrians. While the letters contained no actual legal power to stop nonprofits’ work, several groups capitulated to the demands.

Syria’s refugee crisis is a big test for nonprofits, as articulated by Rick Cohen in The Nonprofit Quarterly.

Cohen:

If the U.S. slams the door on desperate Syrian refugees, the nonprofit sector that claims to represent openness, inclusion, and democracy will find its credibility seriously damaged should it fail to do whatever it can to confront the politicians using fear and hatred as a tool for political advancement.

Whether or not nonprofits stand up to state pressure, the current situation by itself taints the United States’ self-avowed openness to accepting deserving immigrants into the nation’s storied cultural melting pot. Passionate nonprofit professionals committed to the social good need to stand up in the face of fear and anti-democratic bullying and pursue their missions with clear eyes and a sense of human decency.

In Wake of Slayings, Reflecting on Courage of Aid Workers

Humanitarian organizations and their workers face many dangers. Their work often pulls them into crisis zones that pose safety risks outside of the human experience or understanding of many average donors and nonprofit workers.

In particularly tragic circumstances, these risks can prove fatal.

On June 2, seven Afghan employees of the Czech nonprofit People in Need (PIN) and two guards were shot and killed, some in their sleep. Assailants attacked one of the NGO’s compounds in Northern Afghanistan. Local officials blamed the Taliban for the attack.

PIN has operated in Afghanistan since 2001. According to the organization’s website, the group’s operations are “based on the ideas of humanism, freedom, equality and solidarity.”

Just two weeks prior to the tragedy, another horrific attack transpired in Kabul, in which the Taliban attacked a guesthouse popular with foreign aid workers. Fourteen individuals were killed, including a British citizen who worked for the British Council, a U.S. Citizen, four Indian nationals, two Pakistanis, and an Italian citizen.

Over the past year, a host of tragic slayings of humanitarian workers occurred in territories controlled by the pseudo-state ISIS. In February, Kayla Mueller – a 26-year old U.S. citizen – was slain by ISIS after being held for 18 months. Another U.S. citizen (and also former solider) Peter Kassig was executed in November of 2014. In September of last year, British citizen and aid worker David Haines was killed by ISIS.

These tragedies are a jarring reminder of the extreme situations that require humanitarian aid. Driven by a desire to ameliorate others’ suffering, humanitarian workers deserve recognition not only for their selflessness, but also their immense courage.

Fundamentally tied to the conditions of suffering that aid organizations work to alleviate, the violence that claimed these brave lives only reenforces the import of humanitarian work in these regions. Without stable communities fostering peace, extremism only worsens, claiming more innocent lives.

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