Being CAREful About How we Give Our Financial Support to Haiti Relief
There is not story in Bolivia this week, or anywhere in Latin America, that is more urgent than the devastating earthquake in Haiti and its aftermath. With deaths measured in the tens of thousands and individual stories of terror, pain and suffering greater than any most of us could even conjure, Haiti is home to one of the largest single tragedies that most of us will see in our lifetime.
And so we must help.
For most of us the only real way to help is to send money to groups and people on the ground that are in a position to help more directly. In the immediate aftermath of the quake that means clean water, food, and medical support. Later, when Haiti begins to recede from our immediate memories aid will be needed for massive rebuilding and support of a nation in tatters.
In the bits and pieces of television I have seen as I travel across the planet this week (en route to Asia) it is evident how people all over the world have risen to the call, giving tens of millions of dollars in aid and support to Haitian relief efforts.
This generosity also needs to be combined with a closer look at who we give our money to in this relief effort. Some groups will get that aid to the people who need it quickly and without skimming any off the top. Others, some of the bigger groups, will eat up huge portions of that support in overhead and administration before it ever crosses the Caribbean.
This is a concern that calls up memories of a different environmental disaster (certainly a much smaller one) in Bolivia exactly a decade ago this month, and the operations of one of the biggest of the international "relief" organizations – and biggest seeker of relief donations, CARE. It was exactly a decade ago that an oil pipeline operated by Enron and Shell cracked wide-open and spilled toxic fuel for three days into the Rio Disaguadero, decimating more than a million acres of indigenous farmlands in Bolivia's highlands. When Enron and Shell went looking for someone to put the right public relations spin on its minimalist compensation program for the devastated villages that were the recipients of the companies' black poison, CARE is who they picked. And the "relief" group made a good fortune from that alliance.
Below is a segment from the chapter on the Enron/Shell spill – A River Turns Black: Enron and Shell Spread Destruction Across Bolivia’s Highland, by Christina Haglund – in the Democracy Center's recent book, Dignity and Defiance, Stories from Bolivia's Challenge to Globalization. I can't speak to CARE's current efforts in Haiti, but this excerpt certainly paints a cautionary tale based on CARE's dubious work for Enron and Shell.
Because our readers include so many people knowledgeable about Latin America, I encourage you to use the comments section for this post as a place to share information about groups you know doing good work today in Haiti. We should open up our wallets to provide relief in this crisis, and we should do so wisely.
Compensation Wrapped in a CARE Package
[Excerpted from: A River Turns Black: Enron and Shell Spread Destruction Across Bolivia’s Highland, by Christina Haglund – in the Democracy Center's recent book, Dignity and Defiance, Stories from Bolivia's Challenge to Globalization.]
Getting compensation to communities would not be as easy as writing a check. Transredes addressed this challenge as one of its corporate parents, Shell, had done before in Nigeria. It contracted the globally known international development organization CARE to handle the compensation process on the company’s behalf. The contract signed between the two proclaimed that CARE would “turn a very simple process of compensation into a contribution to the sustainable development of a very poor region.”
The director of CARE Bolivia, Victor Rico, told me, even before I asked, that the dollar amounts for compensation were already determined before CARE got involved. The aid organization stamped a humanitarian face on Transredes’ process and was paid more than $800,000 for its services.
According to Transredes, the compensation program that CARE managed would return people’s lives equal to or better than pre-spill conditions. Compensation in cash was never an option, another decision made unilaterally by the company. Instead, communities could opt for in-kind purchases, such as land, animals, or machinery. Or they could choose community projects, such as road building, electricity installment, or tourist development.
The communities of El Choro decided on a soil rehabilitation project, to improve the conditions of the earth for planting. Several communities put their compensation amounts together to buy a tractor. Their project also included training for the operation and maintenance of the machine. Six years later this tractor sits rusted and broken, the metal equipment worn down by the severe altiplano weather conditions.
Don Vidal, the man who thought my tent was a spaceship, took off his hat to wipe away his sweat. He shook his head and said that the parts to get the tractor fixed are too expensive and too far away.
The cold winter month that I spent in Acopata revealed how yet another of CARE’s compensation projects proved better theory than reality. The aid organization awarded community members enough red bricks and cement to construct homes with a metal door, tin roof and a window – a 250-square-foot dwelling. The people of the region themselves constructed the houses. In the frigid altiplano winter of 2006, I found many of those houses empty. Families opted instead to sleep in their adobe homes, which, according to them, provide far better insulation than brick and concrete.
Don Benedicto is an Uru fisherman who is missing his two front teeth and lives on Lake Poopo. He explained that his community’s CARE project was the purchase of a used car – one that would ease the fishermen’s long trek to the lake. This car only lasted a year. It broke down and the village didn’t have the resources to repair it. This once-prized piece of the community’s compensation now serves as play equipment for children.
Transredes officials claim “there is no doubt that this was the compensation model that brought the best results and benefits to the population and local development.” The physical evidence and the testimonies of community after community, however, tell a story that does not trumpet the same level of success.
How did any of these projects repair environmental damage caused by the oil spill? How were pertinent issues such as water, or food for animals addressed? While in theory, development projects and in-kind purchases were to be equivalent to damage done by the spill, this was far from the reality on the ground following the compensation process. New animals purchased as replacements for the ones that had died or fallen ill still grazed on contaminated lands and continued to drink contaminated water.
Ripped and faded CARE calendars were nailed into the adobe and brick walls of several homes in my travels along the Desaguadero. The top of the poster calendar read, “It is the hour to hold our hands together to get out of poverty.”
CARE distributed the equivalent of $1.2 million to just less than 4,000 families through these various projects. This works out to about $60 per affected person, just short of the minimum wage in Bolivia for one month. The $818,372 that CARE took home for its efforts was equal to 68 cents for every dollar it distributed in compensation.