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"Amid ruins, volunteers are emerging as heroes" is the headline of the story by Anne Rochell Konigsmark and Rick Hampson in USA TODAY. It begins:

In his 67 years, Howard Peterson had never seen a Mennonite. But 11 days before Christmas he stood in the ruins of his kitchen, watching a crew of them gut and clean his flood-ravaged house.

Peterson and his wife couldn't afford to pay a contractor several thousand dollars to gut the one-story house, which sat in water for weeks after Hurricane Katrina inundated the working-class Gentilly district. So Peterson, who looks too frail to do spring cleaning, began trying to clear out the house himself. Then the Mennonites came by and offered a hand.

Clearly, charities and NGOs are heroes in New Orleans and government is a villian. (The story cites a Harris poll that shows Habitat for Humanity has an 85% positive rating for its work in the Gulf, while FEMA has a 72% negative rating.)

But that's not the whole story.  --MORE--

The story highlights a number of NGO's (non-governmental organizations, including those we know of as charities) that are doing vital work that the government is not. In one sense, it is a perfect holiday story, about the willingness to help and can-do spirit of the people, rather than the impersonal government.

Other quotes from this story:

Partly because politicians continue to dither, bicker and accuse, non-governmental organizations - "NGOs" ranging from large, non-profit agencies to church youth groups - are emerging as heroes of the recovery effort.


In New Orleans' devastated Lower 9th Ward, FEMA is so unpopular that its workers have been heckled and threatened. Some stopped wearing anything that identifies their agency.

The story quotes experts who enumerate reasons for the effectiveness of NGOs v. the government: NGOs are smaller and more nimble, they listen to what people need, government lost the people's trust early in the Katrina debacle and never got it back, the NGOs are more experienced in dealing with the kind of needs they see in New Orleans, and the kind of people in need,such as the poor, the elderly; various levels of government are bickering, and there is no effective leadership.  

All of this is probably true. But the article and its analysis leave out other important points. Government agencies like FEMA have been effective in the past. Why aren't they now? A great deal of responsibility for that must be borne by the Bush administration, and earlier Republican administrations, that bled dry the funding for public services conducted by or organized by government---by directly cutting budgets of federal agencies and programs, and by indirectly bleeding state and local governments.

Why did they do this? The "philosophy" as stated was that government is inefficient, but private enterprise has the incentive of efficiency to keep costs down and get the job done, because their profits depend on it.

Certainly the bled dry government agencies have largely failed, especially FEMA and the monstrous money-eating disaster called Homeland Security, where the corporate model meant "branding" the agency was more important than actually addressing its mission and tasks, as a Washington Post series is revealing.

Government is failing because the people in charge expect it to fail.  The resources, including people in the agencies with talent and experience, have been stripped.  Leadership fails because the Bush administration isn't interested in using government to meet people's needs, because it might just show that government can be effective in doing so.

There is also the conspicuous failure of private contractors in New Orleans to do anything but pig out on fat no-bid government contracts, leaving the real work to non-profits.

It's the same lesson as Iraq, where much of what the military used to do is being ineptly and expensively done by private contractors, who operate above the law (sound familiar?) and at least some of whom are stealing American taxpayers blind.

It isn't government that has failed New Orleans. It's the Bush government, and its policy of rewarding its corporate pals. It's privatization and the corporate model to do the public's business that has failed.

Originally posted to Captain Future on Thu Dec 22, 2005 at 09:06 PM PST.

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Comment Preferences

  •  600 investigators currently watching FEMA (4.00)
    Check this out! FEMA is so ineffective in getting traliers in place and arranging housing, that 600 investigators are in place watching the goings-on. As you've clearly stated here, if we take out the competent people and put in cronies, government is destined to fail. Self-fulfilling prophesy--we need corporate America to do effectively what the government cannot (anymore).
  •  Bush.... (4.00)
    ...actually benefits every time FEMA is criticized. His White House believes the Mennonites should be in charge of relief efforts, or perhaps the Baptists.

    They rejoice at the crumbling of Federal efforts and the criticism, provided an election isn't immediately pending. If it isn't, the propaganda machine is so powerful and so invasive, they will always have plenty of time to recover.

    "What luck for rulers that men do not think." - Adolf Hitler

    by Bensdad on Thu Dec 22, 2005 at 09:49:31 PM PST

    •  If I had to pick (none)
      I'd go for the Mennonites.

      They're good people. They won't push to convert you -- they'll just give you a helping hand when you need it. If you ask why they're doing it, sure, they'll tell you it's because they believe that's what God wants them to do. But they work on the principle of teaching by example.

      They specialize in helping people get back on their feet after a disaster. They're good at what they do. They'd be the first to say, though, that they can't replace government and don't want to -- they don't have that kind of money, and can't operate on that scale.

      But, you know... if someone did put them in charge of FEMA, I bet after the first appalled moment of looking at each other in dismay, they'd spit on their hands, buckle down, and figure out what needed to be done to make the organization work again.

      They could hardly do worse...

      Folly is fractal: the closer you look at it, the more of it there is. - TNH

      by Canadian Reader on Thu Dec 22, 2005 at 10:08:32 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Yes.... (4.00)
        ...but the Mennonites can't afford levees, only the US Government can do that.

        Perhaps for everything else all we need is the Mennonites, or the Vancouver Urban Search and Rescue team who were the first organization of any kind to show to provide assistance in St. Bernard Parish, just east of New Orleans.

        Thank you, Canada. You still believe we are our brother's keeper.

        "What luck for rulers that men do not think." - Adolf Hitler

        by Bensdad on Thu Dec 22, 2005 at 10:13:21 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  Many Americans do, too. (none)
          Just... not enough. And, too many of the ones who do, still haven't figured out that their present government doesn't.

          One at a time, one at a time. Americans wake up to the predicament one at a time. For each individual, there's some event, some action too far by the President and his advisors that finally turns on the light. And, once they've seen it, even if a major event brings back a temporary emotional resurgence of support, it can't last.

          You can see this happening in Dr. Pollkatz's approval graph. It's all downhill. With spikes, but each spike is smaller than the last, and then the trend resumes. There's 9/11, of course, and the start of hostilities in Iraq, the capture of Saddam... and I think the latest tiny bump is probably because of Saddam's trial, which reminds people that they used to think Bush was doing a good job.

          The one exception to the downward trend was the 2004 election campaign, where, at enormous monetary and ethical expense, the Republicans managed to heave the approval curve uphill just enough to scrape by. That was discouraging... but note what started to happen again, the minute the barrage of election ads stopped.

          One at a time.

          Folly is fractal: the closer you look at it, the more of it there is. - TNH

          by Canadian Reader on Fri Dec 23, 2005 at 08:06:59 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

      •  check out the story (4.00)
        I cited in USA Today.  In it, the authors record the Mennonites debating whether they should devote their efforts to New Orleans, when it was likely that such a disaster would happen there again because of its location, the dikes, etc.  They concluded that they really shouldn't, because it would encourage people to stay there. But the need was so great they did it anyway.

        That it was a moral quandary for them is also illuminating in terms of government responsibility on the larger scale of prevention.

        "The end of all intelligent analysis is to clear the way for synthesis." H.G. Wells "It's not dark yet, but it's getting there." Bob Dylan

        by Captain Future on Thu Dec 22, 2005 at 10:25:28 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  X-Men 3: New Orleans Christmas (none)
    Your diary sounds like the title of the next X-Men movie.

    That's how bad thing have gotten in the US now. Real US cities sound appropriate as comic book settings.

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