Red Cross: We paid for $1,500 meal

08:57, April 19, 2011      

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Exorbitant costs spent on a single meal by the Luwan district branch of the Shanghai Red Cross Society (Shanghai Red Cross) in February did not come from disaster relief donations, but from its operating budget, the charity organization said on Sunday.

An internal investigation found the branch's employees exceeded the standard 150 yuan ($23) meal expenditure per person. Shanghai Red Cross said the diners will repay the remainder of the 9,859 yuan and will be disciplined.

On Friday, a web user published the restaurant bill on the Internet, which was quickly re-posted more than 20,000 times. Many questioned how Shanghai Red Cross could spend so much on one meal and whether it used donations.

"We do deserve criticism and need to take it as a lesson," Tian Yongbo, the group's former publicity officer, told the Global Times.

Tian rejected accusations of abusing relief donations, saying it is a serious crime. "Our audit is very strict, anyone who dares to be corrupt risks his work prospects," Tian told the Global Times.

According to the probe, the meal was an official reception for some companies with 17 people attending, and the money came from its working budget.

The Shanghai government will carry out audits of donations to Shanghai Red Cross several times a year and disclose the results annually, Tian added. "Expenses above 50,000 yuan need approval from the mayor, so I trust there's no problem in fund management."

Unlike foreign charity groups, the Red Cross Society of China is an official body, with its leaders appointed by the government. "Official or semi-official charities are more trusted," Tian said.

In 2009, Shanghai Red Cross commissioned the Horizon Research Consultancy Group to carry out a survey on the credibility of local charities. Of the 1,000 families surveyed, 800 said they trusted Shanghai Red Cross.

NGOs usually use 3 to 5 percent of donations to cover operational costs. However, Shanghai Red Cross does not, as it is government-funded.

"Our annual budget from the government is too much to be used up, so why would we use donations?" Tian said.

Tian admitted that the cost of the meal was too high, but added some of their receptions were necessary.

To Christian Wang, Shanghai representative of the Library Project, a nongovernmental charity, the expense was excessive. "If they can disclose donations through audits, why not the budget?"

Gu Xiaoming, a Fudan University professor, believes the amount was reasonable. But he also said that China's NGOs are under bureaucratic management. "As long as it's funded by the government, high spending is unavoidable," Gu told the Global Times.

"Many citizens have not believed in official charities for a long time. This kind of symbolic crisis will stir up more serious distrust," Gu added. "Our NGOs should learn from international experience rather than bring in bureaucracy."

Source: Global Times
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