The poor knights of the red cross

photo credit: Peter Preskar: History of Yesterday

I have had something of a romantic attraction to the order of the Templar Knights. The Red Cross on a white tunic was the symbol of this noble Middle Ages’ organisation. These were the guardians of the roads from Britain to the Holy Land to ensure the safe travel of the pilgrims. Rescuing people from life threatening situations was the life calling of these knights in shining armour. But along the journey they also got the idea to extend their ‘security’ services into the financial marketplace. They developed their system whereby, to protect pilgrims from robbery, the travelers could hand over their gold and silver to a Knight in England or France in return for a Templar Note that they could redeem once they reached their Holy Land destination, less a small handling fee of course. Those Templar Notes were Europe’s first travelers’ cheques and so the noble Templar Knights became the Bank of the Red Cross, Europe’s first bank.

This was only 900 years ago, modern times in the greater history of mankind and I wonder about how someone in that organisation first came up with the idea. I have no reason to think they exploited it, but from a cynic’s viewpoint, and experience has taught me it is always prudent to look at a cynic’s viewpoint, there was an inherent conflict of interest when it became obvious that the Bank of the Red Cross could profit handsomely if they were not always quite so diligent in ensuring that the pilgrims, whose gold and silver was in their safekeeping, actually did arrive safe and sound at their destination to collect their gold. Again, I have no reason to believe they were anything less than diligent in their moral duty, still they did become a very wealthy institution and human nature is fickle thing. Could they ever have imagined the banking industry that would mushroom over the centuries following the launch of their enterprise? The gold standard has long since disappeared in the banking world to be replaced by the US dollar and it is estimated that there are about 40 trillion US dollar equivalents in ‘cash’ flowing around through the cyberspace that is the banking world of today.

Cue sfx: knock- knock: “Good afternoon, sir, I am from Red Cross (flash: ID/ flash: smile) and may I say what a beautiful Audi car that you have in your driveway. Now, I am not here to ask you for your beautiful Audi,” the zealous young man quickly assured me, a silent companion watched on, enthralled with his technique, ” no , no, I am just asking for a small donation to the Red Cross”. He waited in vain for me to acknowledge his very insincere compliment about a 2004, entry level, shopping basket design of a reasonably reliable car. Getting no encouragement he started again with “because we have exhausted all of our funds helping the people of Canterbury recover from the terrible earthquake disaster a few years ago (pause, head bowed slightly, awaiting, in vain, for me to share in the ‘amen’ moment, to acknowledge my gratitude to the knights in shining armour for riding to the rescue). I left him hanging, he didn’t look like any knight I would bank on in a tricky situation. So again, albeit a little less confidently, he returned to the script and out came the very convenient direct debit form which, once signed, will mean I don’t have to think about it again; it’s a no-brainer because they will just dip into my account each month and withdraw the agreed amount of money without having to keep knocking on my door for further. How splendid, it’s the gift that keeps on giving. A no-brainer indeed, unfortunately for him I still have a functioning brain.

My first reaction is disappointment. Why would a reputable institution like Red Cross employ such snake-oil sales tactics to raise funds? I may be wrong but these two characters at my door did not have the appearance of volunteer fundraisers, more like commission salesmen. Don’t I recall they normally put people on the streets when disaster strikes, and we all come together as one community and raise huge sums to provide food, water, clothing, shelter and medical support to help victims survive a disaster? Red Cross certainly were impressive putting small armies of collectors on the streets all around New Zealand within 24 hours of the big 2011 quake in Christchurch that was quite a few years back now. But as I think about it, and I hadn’t until now, what else can I recall of Red Cross throughout the first few crisis weeks of that earthquake?

I most vividly recall watching videos of ordinary people doing the extraordinary, in frantic search for and assistance of survivors; I remember all the Rangiora community cooking and flying in thousands of kilograms of hot meals by helicopter; I remember images of our emergency services: the St John Ambulance crews, the police, firemen and defence forces who seemed to be everywhere, controlling traffic chaos, organising search and rescue efforts and transporting victims to either hospitals or the temporary morgue. I remember images of the urban search and rescue crews from a number of countries burrowing through demolished buildings. I recall an Australian Army medical team flew in and set up a field hospital. But my only recollection of the Red Cross, apart from the collection buckets, was reading something about them handing out some torches that they had stockpiled. But why did I have no vivid image in my mind of the Red Cross emblem on the streets, amongst the rubble, setting up emergency first aid tents?

I told the fundraiser to come back later while I thought about it and meantime, I consulted Mr. Google. I found out from Red Cross online publications that they collected $128 million dollars in donations for the Christchurch earthquake. I also found that most of this money was issued in grants to fund things like furniture storage costs, packing and shifting costs, providing independent advice including small business advice. Of course, WINZ and Housing NZ were also issuing emergency grants for similar things as were the Salvation Army and other Church and community led projects of support. I admit I was surprised. In my mind Red Cross was a front line, in the trenches organisation when it came to dealing with disasters. I did not expect them to primarily be fundraisers and distributors of financial grants after the event.  I wonder how much support the bucket collection would have gained if we had all known then that the intent of the money was for Red Cross to make social welfare grants at its discretion. Not that we would deny social welfare support, but simply that social welfare is primarily a government function and I have no understanding of how the government would manage the inevitable duplications and crossover in support claims and how Red Cross would knit into to the existing social welfare infrastructure.

My impression is that in the field of humanitarian care, the Salvation Army is probably better than anyone, so I checked Mr. Google on their contribution during the earthquake. I first learned that they received a comparatively modest $18 million in donations and that in the immediate aftermath of the 22 February 2011 quake, Salvation Army Emergency Services served up to 4700 meals a day to displaced residents and emergency service workers, providing more than 75,000 meals from the truckloads of food and water donated by NZ companies. Around 1200 Salvation Army officers and staff, from as far away as Australia, converged on the city to join psychosocial teams that visited more than 100,000 affected households in Christchurch and surrounding areas

Since the original September 2010 quake, The Salvation Army had spent around $8 million dollars in welfare support, including food, clothing, furniture, grocery, petrol and hardware vouchers, as well as the provision of $500 Care Cards for the financially strapped. Respite holidays have been provided for traumatised families and individuals needing to get out of the region for a break.

When domestic water and sewage services were in disarray, the Salvation Army provided $1 million to fund 20,900 chemical toilets. It also contributed three mobile, custom-designed shower units comprising 21 shower and changing cubicles, costing around $130,000 to build, ship and operate. In addition, many Salvation Army centres around the country saw steep increases in demand for their help as thousands of individuals and families left Christchurch to seek refuge in other parts of the country. The Salvation Army operated Community Care Vans, supported by Westpac Bank. who also established a website to provide up-to-date information on the location of the vans?

I had a quick look at a major disaster in Australia, the 2009 Black Saturday Bush Fires,for comparison. The Australian Red Cross was commissioned by the State Government to implement and manage the Victorian Bushfire Appeal Fund, based on its expertise and the ability to adapt its existing software. Once the Appeal Fund had received initial funds, the State Government established the Victorian Bushfire Reconstruction and Recovery Authority with the role of planning and coordinating the relief and recovery activities and authorising the distribution of the funds from the Appeal Fund. The Red Cross raised over $300 Million in donations. By comparison the Salvation Army in Australia raised $17.5 million for their work.

When the Red Cross fundraiser returned for his pledge, he was sent away empty-handed. I have no idea what they achieved with $128 million of New Zealanders’ donations to the Christchurch Earthquake, their reports are just too much like a consolidated corporate annual report to get a real feel of what impact they had at a humanitarian level. I assume it was all legitimate and accounted for to whatever government body they were accountable. But it was not used setting up emergency search, rescue and medical facilities around the disaster site which is what I had expected the donations were for.

This review of the Red Cross’ role in one of our worst natural disasters was an exercise well worth undertaking. I think I understand it better now. The modern Red Cross is quite a different organisation to the one I thought I knew. Their brand’s public relations efforts clearly remain impressive. No doubt the Red Cross today are professional, very organised, and very successful fundraisers in preparation for, and in reaction to disasters. If endorsed by government in that role then it is probably to reduce pressure on government tax-funded budgets to finance the recovery programme. All very understandable from government’s point of view, I guess. Otherwise, it would make balancing the books much harder in government and that often means a change of government.

But it all just has the feel of a well-organised, political fundraising operation, outsourcing to a specialised, professional fundraising organisation at a time when the donors are feeling at their most compassionate. To the donors it is a very human moment, but to the Red Cross, it seems that this is just another day at the office; the raising, managing (does that include investing?) and dispensing of hundreds of millions of dollars. It may be a necessary function for medium and long-term recovery, but that is just not the role I expected the Red Cross to be doing. I should have been alerted by the history of the Knights Templar; they are still the Bank of the Red Cross.

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