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The complications in distributing foreign aid

A worker unloads a truck on the loading dock of the Red Cross Blood Services Southern Region in Atlanta.

Bob Moon: Close to $1 billion in earthquake relief aid has been collected by Japan's Red Cross and other nonprofits. Some of that money has been spent, but no cash grants have yet been distributed directly to victims. The country's chief cabinet secretary wants the process accelerated. The Japanese Red Cross told the L.A. Times that cash grants should start flowing this month.

Joining us with more is Saundra Schimmelpfennig. She writes the blog "Good Intentions are Not Enough" and was a relief worker in Asia. Thanks for being with us.

Saundra Schimmelpfennig: Thank you for having me.

Moon: Are you surprised that none of the money collected by the Red Cross has been given out in Japan yet?

Schimmelpfennig: I think it's not surprising. I think that the average person has misconceptions about how quickly you can truly respond well to a disaster, and there have been numerous instances where spending the money quickly is not spending it well. Where a lot of aid, a lot of services go to a few people. It can be diverted to political causes or to cronies. There's been lots and lots of examples of past disasters that have shown that there really needs to be a coordinated thought-out response with the local people having some decision-making in it.

Moon: But what about this idea of handing out cash to disaster victims -- is that the way it's traditionally done?

Schimmelpfennig: No, actually cash transfers are pretty new. For a very long time, it was donations of goods; for instance, massive food shipments would be handed out, clothing would be handed out, toiletries would be handed out. But they discovered that cash transfers actually work a lot better because you may need something very different. Older people who eat a lot less food, and sometimes have to have a specialized diet, can purchase their specialized diet, and whatever money's left over, use that to pay for their medications which the younger people might not need. And so, there's a lot of kinks to be worked out and a lot of countries have never tried it before, which means the first time you do it, it's a little bit slower; you don't have your processes in place yet.

Moon: There was some experience with this most recently with the big typhoon in Vietnam last year. How did that go?

Schimmelpfennig: Overall, it went pretty well. People got the money, people were able to use the money for whatever they felt like they needed it for. Some farmers used it to get farm equipment, some elderly people used it to purchase medicine. It was overall rated very well. And from start to finish, it just took six weeks. And the expectation is that next time around, it'll just take four weeks.

Moon: What are the complications in getting this cash outlays to Japan?

Schimmelpfennig: Some of the complications include, how are you going to transfer the money? And this can get complicated because first of all, you've got to have some form of a cash transfer system. Is this going to be via phone, and if it's done via phone, you've got to have the bank or the phone system set up where people can actually go take their phone and collect the money. One of the other issues is, who gets how much money? Does every single person get the exact same amount of money? Do you give more money to families that are larger? Do you give more money to companies that have had their businesses destroyed? Do you give more money to people that are farmers? All of these decisions have to be made and they are generally made better with the consultation of the local government and the local people, but even then, once you've got that agreement down, you've still got to find everyone. Some people are in the larger temporary camps. Some people have moved back into their houses, even though they don't have water and electricity. So you've got to then track down everyone, know how much they're going to get and how you're going to get it to them. So it's a complicated process, it's not like you can show up in a truck and start handing out money. And in fact, when that's been tried -- I saw that tried in Thailand -- what would happen is that if you weren't there when the money came, you might not get the money. And so it's not as simple as showing up with cash and handing it out; you do need to make sure you have equitable distribution system, and one that gets to everyone -- that you're not missing people in the system.

Moon: Saundra Schimmelpfennig is a former American Red Cross program coordinator and Peace Corps volunteer. Thanks very much for joining us.

Schimmelpfennig: Thank you.

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I don't give money to the Red Cross. Over the years I've heard too many stories about its bloated bureaucracy, high living among officials, and money that donors designated for one cause being diverted to others. For the disaster in Japan, I gave money to established Japanese religious organizations. I bet they know how to get relief to the Japanese people.

I was disgusted with Ms. Schimmelpfennig's evasive response to the charge that the Red Cross has been dragging its feet on distributing aid to the victims of the earthquake/tsunami disaster in Japan. As a biologist, I travel widely, and when I have visited other countries after natural disasters, I have heard similar complaints about the Red Cross, compared to the glowing reviews that locals have given me about various European and Japanese charities. Indeed, the Red Cross seems to be generally regarded in many countries as the most ineffective of the major international aid groups. Other than making sure their CEO receives an excessive salary, is there any other reason that I should contribute to this organization?

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