National Press Club

Red Cross Chief Executive Outlines Haiti Relief

January 12, 2011

Gail McGovern, president and CEO, American Red Cross

Gail McGovern, president and CEO, American Red Cross

Photo/Image: Michael Foley

Raising nearly $500 million for Haiti relief, erasing a budget deficit and strengthening its ability to generate donations through social media are among the accomplishments of the American Red Cross over the last year, according to its chief executive.

“The depth and breadth of what we do continues to amaze even me,” said Gail McGovern, president and CEO of the American Red Cross, at a Jan. 12 National Press Club luncheon.

The event was held on the first anniversary of the devasting Haiti earthquakes, which was also McGovern's birthday. The American Red Cross raised $479 million and spent $245 million for Haiti relief last year.

Haiti was already struggling before the earthquakes hit, McGovern said. Only one in three Haitians had access to clean water and the illiteracy rate was 45 percent.

Facing these challenges, the Red Cross found itself “building infrastructure for the very first time,” rather than rebuilding in many instances, McGovern said.

Other Red Cross successes in 2010 included achieving a “modest surplus,” which closed a deficit from the prior year, McGovern said.

She also was proud that the organization was able to raise more than $32 million for Haiti disaster relief from texting. The feat was even more remarkable given the fact that “[individuals] were only allowed to text $10 two times each,” McGovern said.

The children of Haiti took a special interest in the transparency of Red Cross efforts in their country.

McGovern recounted two stories to illustrate her point. A Skype interview with a fourth grade class, which she admits originally thinking would be “easy,” turned into a series of hard hitting questions from the students.

Later, when she was walking through an airport, a 10-year-old Haitian approached her to ask how her texted donation was being spent.

“I take two factors into account (when making spending decisions for Haiti),” McGovern said. “Would it make donors proud and would it help the people in Haiti?”

She said she imagines donors sitting at her desk when she makes difficult decisions asking her tough questions.

McGovern oversaw a six-pronged strategy in rebuilding Haiti that encompassed improving food, water and sanitation; building emergency shelters; jump-starting livelihoods through jobs and grants; strengthening health services and establishing future disaster preparedness.

In Haiti, the Red Cross gave $30 million to the United Nations food program; spent $14 million on readymade meals, clean water and latrines; provided more than one third of the country's tarps; gave more than 1 million vaccinations; provided loans and cash grants to catalyze business development; and trained hundreds of thousands on how to prepare for the next potential disaster.

McGovern said she has learned through her experience to “be flexible during emergencies.”

During the rebuilding in Haiti, the Red Cross faced setbacks that included a Cholera outbreak and difficulties in establishing its cash transfer program and finding unclaimed land on which to build shelters.

Haiti for her has been one of the most memorable and emotional projects she has ever worked on, McGovern said. She held back tears when speaking about the lack of emotion she saw during her first trip to the devastated country. When she returned, the blank expressions were replaced with smiling children flying kites that they had made from scrap cloth and finding joy in what little they had.

-- Tim Young, timyoungjd@gmail.com