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Friday, April 15, 2011

Red Cross generosity a vice

Red Cross generosity a vice

Last updated 12:38 16/04/2011
In the days after the February earthquake, at the end of a ravaged street in Avonside, was an old lady living on her own in her uninsured house, without water, power or sewerage. She had been cooking on a fire in the garden and using a hole for a toilet. This was to continue for several weeks.

When I spoke to her she was uncomplaining and quite overwhelmed by all the help she was being offered. She was prepared to box on, with her cats, until things improved. I didn't ask, but I'm almost sure she did not apply to the New Zealand Red Cross 2011 Earthquake Appeal for any help. She would have said far more deserving cases than her should get the money.

The appeal, which is overseen by a board of notables and chaired by the hard-nosed but affable former High Court judge John Hansen, closed off its emergency and hardship grants on Monday, having dished out $37m to about 42,000 applications.

So far about $51m has been donated to the fund. Some of the money has come from wealthy corporations and individuals, but a lot has arrived from poor countries, from heart-rending fundraisers both small and large and from ordinary mums and dads around the country.

We owe it to them to ensure the money is well spent. I have become increasingly uncomfortable about the eligibility criteria for Red Cross applications. I wonder if we have witnessed a national scandal, which will scare off donors in the future and make those who have given already wish they had not. My unease is shared by many.

I am not suggesting for a minute that life is a picnic after the earthquake and that we should knuckle down without expecting any help. However, when people donate money out of their own pockets for the relief effort, I think they have an expectation it should be reserved for the most needy and deserving cases.

I've just been reading about the increasing number of United States troops in Afghanistan who have sustained what they call catastrophic injuries, which translates to loss of limbs. The article reports Commander Joseph Sheldon, a Navy chaplain, speaking about the tears and silence when soldiers wake to learn what they have lost. "Everybody wants their life to be the way it was but it's not. Coming to grips with that is hard," he says.

It occurs to me we haven't heard much about all the people who suffered horrendous injuries in the February earthquake. The amputees, the broken limbed, the paralysed, the scarred, the brain injured and the mentally broken. You wonder how much is going to be left from the fund for those who truly need help. Of course they are covered by ACC, but the fund could be used to provide much more generous compensation.

So where has all the money gone? Emergency and hardship grants were handed out to anybody who could show they moved house because of earthquake damage to their dwelling or those who endured seven days or more without water, electricity or sewerage.

I have no problem with a family with three children under five living in a tent in their backyard getting lots of cash. But I know a case where a childless couple, who both retained their professional jobs after the earthquake, moved to the comfortable house of a friend after the earthquake and still got their grant. I wonder how many of the 42,000 applications represent true hardship.

The fine print makes it clear that being insured or getting an insurance payout does not affect eligibility for a grant. And cash from EQC, insurance companies or financial assistance from the Social Development Ministry is no bar to eligibility either.

I realised the other day we were eligible for a grant because we had been without water for more than seven days. Although no water is coming through our pipes, half the country seems to have mobilised to ensure we have plenty of fresh water at a convenient collection point. I shower at work and dug a long drop. Living without running water is no fun but I certainly would feel deeply ashamed to put my hand out for a grant.

The generosity with other people's money has not stopped this week. The Red Cross appeal is still offering bereavement grants - fair enough - but families can now get $500 for each child whose early childhood centre or school has closed because of the earthquake "to assist with the travel and other costs and the stress of having to cross town each day".

So if you are a parent with two kids at Linwood College, who now have to travel to Cashmere High in a free bus, you are entitled to $1000 cash for the stress of making sure they get to the bus stop on time.

In some ways I don't blame people for grabbing what they can even though they should have more pride. The Red Cross Earthquake Appeal is just short-sighted and badly set up.

In the same way EQC seems far too generous (watch your insurance premiums soar), Red Cross also appears to have made a vice of its generosity.

Those who have lost the most should get the money - not those who have experienced some inconvenience and discomfort and whose lives are essentially the same. If the less deserving forgo the money, there is more left over for those who really need it.

- The Press

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