In for a Dollar
At the end of his press conference on 11 October, President Bush announced the formation of a fund to help children in Afghanistan. He asked each American child to send one dollar to the White House. Asking American children to help the less fortunate is a noble request. But there are other aspects to the fund. Establishing a cash fund in the White House is an endeavor fraught with peril. And, as events have proved, getting any funds to those who need it will prove extremely difficult.
It is bad policy for the Red Cross to encourage cash donations to an intermediary. While there are a number of reputable charities that collect cash from the public, organizations like the Better Business Bureau urge the public not to give cash to charities. According to its website, prospective donors should follow some basic advice, including the following.
Do not give cash; always make contributions by check and make your check payable to the charity, not to the individual collecting the donation.
Don't succumb to pressure to give money on the spot or allow a "runner" to pick up a contribution; the charity that needs your money today will welcome it just as much tomorrow.
President Bush urged children to send cash—not checks or money orders—to the White House, which is acting as an intermediary for the Red Cross. The American Red Cross has yet to explain on its web site who will count the money or who will make sure that funds go directly to the Red Cross.
It should be bad politics for the Republican Party to encourage a cash fund set up in the White House. If every American child up to 18 years of age sent a dollar bill in the mail to the Fund for Afghan Children, then the White House would have a fund of $70 million, all in cash. Students of American politics remember that much of the reason for the fall of Richard Nixon in 1974 was a $700,000 slush fund run out of the White House in 1972. The Bush Administration should have to account for every dollar that comes in. But when cash is involved, accountability is difficult: donors will not have cancelled checks as receipts, and auditors will not be able to use deposited checks in their examinations.
Even if the Red Cross and the White House are able to convince the public that their new fund is accountable and trustworthy, the public should have questions about its effectiveness. President Bush will find that getting money to the Red Cross will be logistically difficult. Getting Red Cross aid to Afghans will prove daunting. Turning the contributed money into meaningful aid may be impossible.
On 16 October, President Bush publicly announced the success of the fund. He spoke with admiration about the 90,000 pieces of mail that had arrived for the fund at the White House. He stressed that the need for money was urgent. The impending Afghan winter made the need for food, clothing and medicine. By 15 October, of course, authorities had already confirmed that an envelope addressed to Tom Daschle, the Senate Majority Leader, contained spores of anthrax. The return address on the letter to Daschle was that of a (fictional) fourth-grade class in New Jersey. By the time that President Bush could exult about the success of the fund, the federal government was already in a panic about anthrax and the mail.
If the fund continues to be successful, then millions more envelopes will arrive at the White House in the coming days and weeks. Staffers and interns will have to open the envelopes and count the money that arrives. Terrorists have already mailed anthrax spores to the House or Representatives, to the Senate, and to several media outlets. It would not take even an iota of paranoia for someone in the White House to think that it might be a possible target. Who does President Bush think is going to open those envelopes? It could take weeks to process millions of envelopes, even if all of them were known to be free of anything harmful. (5 million envelopes times 5 seconds per envelope = 25 million second = 6,944 worker-hours.) If some of the envelopes could be tainted, the process will take more time, per haps a lot more time.
President Bush mentioned on 16 October that the proceeds of the fund would alleviate the harsh winter conditions in Afghanistan. Even if the fund overcomes logistical problems in the White House, it will still find logistical problems in Afghanistan. As many commentators have noted, running humanitarian operations in the midst of war can be well nigh impossible. Many Afghans already rely on food aid from the United Nations, food aid that requires passable roads, secure warehouses, and trustworthy distributors. While the United States is airdropping prepackaged meals in Afghanistan, the airdrops are no substitute for the convoys of trucks that the United Nations runs into Afghanistan when it is safe to do so.
The generals in the Pentagon will choose targets based on their military worth, not on their worth to the food program. And the Red Cross already knows from experience that its operations in Afghanistan are possible targets of American bombs and missiles. Once the food, clothing, and medicine gets collected in the United States, they might not get distributed to the Afghan children who need them.
Even if the fund succeeds in collecting money and in distributing goods to Afghan children in a timely fashion, the aid that it collects may be inadequate. The CIA Factbook reveals that Afghanistan has over 11 million children under the age of 15. The President himself stressed that one-third of Afghan children are orphans and that one-half are malnourished. If all 70 million American children under the age of 18 donate one dollar to the fund, then the Red Cross will have all of $6.36 to spend on each child in Afghanistan, or less than $13 for each malnourished one. Those amounts will be woefully insufficient to serve all of the children who need help. If the President had stressed that the fund was a small part of a larger contribution towards alleviating ills in Afghanistan, then its insufficiency would be moot. The President, however, has always spoken of the fund as a thing that will stand on its own.
The President proposed the Fund for Afghan Children hoping, surely, for a tangible humanitarian gesture from all of the young people of the United States. He also hoped, just as surely, for political gains from the gesture. As Sheryl McCarthy wrote in Newsday, "the children's fund is pure public relations." It would be acceptable public relations if the fund had clear and attainable goals, and if the fund were a part of a broad humanitarian effort. President Bush, like many of his predecessors, uses visits to and from children to enhance his public image.
But establishing a charity funded by children and intended for children changes the nature of this particular public relations stunt. Instead of simply basking in the reflected innocence of schoolchildren, the President is figuratively using their money to boost his political fortunes. In addition, the President is using the awful nature of life in Afghanistan as a rationale for his public relations campaign. By its very nature, however, the fund will be unable to alleviate much suffering this winter in Afghanistan. The President knew, or should have known, about the myriad constraints on the fund. In touting its dubious virtues, the President used not only American schoolchildren, but also starving children overseas, for his own political gain.
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