“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.

 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.

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:

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? Apart from the cronyism that infects the Bush government, and the corporate philosophy that places image above real leadership, there is the toxicity of “privatization.”

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.

Anti-government stories play well. But Katrina’s lesson should be that only the federal government has the authority and resources, not necessarily to solve all the problems itself, but to ORGANIZE and coordinate an effective and timely response. When it fails to do so, the tragedy of New Orleans is the result.    

 Moreover, it has the responsibility to coordinate and effect preventive measures beyond the capacity of local resources.  When it fails to do so, the tragedy of New Orleans is the result.    

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.

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