opinion

The reality of why your money can’t go to bushfire victims immediately.

On Thursday, NSW Emergency Services Minister David Elliott joined the chorus of criticism over the amount of time major charities are taking to distribute bushfire relief funds.

“My message to the charities is ‘pull your finger out’,” he said.

“This is not a time for us to delay, particularly while people are hurting so much.”

Watch: Emily Smith is among those who lost everything in NSW bushfires.

Video by Channel 9

His statement followed that of Transport Minister Andrew Constance, who slammed the organisations during a Thursday morning press conference: “The money is needed now, not sitting in a Red Cross bank account earning interest so they can map out their next three years and do their marketing.

“We need a very real change, very quickly so that the money can get to those who need it most … people are on their knees and we can’t have a drip-feed.”

The comments came after The Red Cross issued a statement on Wednesday that declared it had set aside $30 million to provide immediate financial relief to people in fire-affected communities — less than one-third of the $115 million that’s been donated to its Disaster Relief and Recovery Fund since July 2019.

It was a similar case for the St Vincent de Paul Society, who (as of Thursday) had spent $2.65 million of the $12.5 million donated to its bushfire appeal.

The Salvation Army said on Thursday it had distributed $8.4 million of the $11 million in funds received so far. Over $42m has been pledged to the Salvos Disaster Appeal since its launch on November 9, 2019.

The figures stunned some donors, who expressed concern via social media that the charities are acting too slowly. Some accused them of deliberately stockpiling money at the expense of traumatised survivors. Others said they’d never donate to a disaster appeal again.

Why it’s taking so long to distribute relief.

There’s no doubt there are Australians in desperate need of aid right now, but it’s worth acknowledging that planning and coordinating the distribution of funds during a disaster on this scale is anything but simple.

Thirty two people have been killed and more than 2000 homes destroyed so far this fire season, and that figure is rising by the day.

The three charities under scrutiny over the past 24 hours are largely distributing funds on two fronts. The first being trained volunteers and employees on the ground at emergency hubs, offering shelter, counselling, direct logistical support and so on to those affected.

The second — and this is the source of much of the recent frustration — is relief grant programs on offer to those who’ve had homes destroyed. Successful applicants will receive a lump sum payment to help them start the recovery process. In the Red Cross’ case, for example, that payment is $10,000.

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Determining eligibility is a complicated, labour- and resource-intensive process. It’s not a matter of walking through communities and handing out cheques.

“There are a lot of checks and balances”: The Country Women’s Association outlined how it distributed funds on The Quicky.

In the Red Cross’ case, applicants must, wherever possible, submit documents proving their identity and their place of residence. Staff must then cross-check these with relevant state and territory governments to secure proof that property was “destroyed or rendered permanently uninhabitable”.

The charities themselves have stressed that they are working as fast as they can through this process. As of Friday, The Red Cross had distributed $8.2 million worth of grants.

“We appreciate that this is a stressful and upsetting time, and we’ve tried to make the process as quick and simple as possible,” the Red Cross states on its website. “We’re getting many [fraudulent] applications from bots and from overseas, so we have to be able to verify applications to make sure the money is getting to the right people.”

In a statement, the St Vincent de Paul Society said, “The process of assessing people and establishing their need does take some time but we are focused on helping as many people as possible as quickly as we can. As we access more communities and establish need, we are also accelerating the rate of response.”

It has so far spent $1.1 million on financial relief packages.

These charities are just a few of the dozens of organisations and businesses offering funds to those affected, all of which are operating in tandem with Australian Government financial support.

As for the rest of the donated millions…

The Red Cross, in particular, is being questioned over its current strategy to reserve $18 million for “a minimum three-year recovery program” which some believe could be better-spent now.

However, the organisation believes that it’s important to maintain a presence in fire-affected communities after the world’s attention inevitably turns elsewhere.

“We have committed to staying in these communities, working with them once their needs become clearer; especially as the bushfires are continuing to burn and the full extent of the needs is yet to emerge,” it said in a statement. “We will not move on. We know from our long experience in disasters that recovery takes time and effort. We are committed to working with communities to shape how these funds can support them.”

There’s also the question of admin costs. While Vinnies does not use money donated during a disaster appeal to cover support costs, the Red Cross has declared a maximum of 10 cents in every dollar raised will be used for this purpose.

“This ensures we can pay grants promptly, track donations, collect and analyse information, have systems in place to deploy our emergency teams, and meet legal, privacy and protection obligations,” it said.

When donating, it’s always worth reading the fine print and visiting the organisation’s website for an outline of how they spend funds. Because once we part with our money, we must rely on their expertise and experience in putting it to work. And we must consider that in fast-moving crises like this one, they are sure to be doing their best.

Featured image: Getty.

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