Covering an area of the Pacific Ocean the size of India, but with a population of only about 15,000, the Cook Islands faces many logistical challenges.
The 12 permanently inhabited islands, with a total land area of just 240 square kilometres, punctuate a vast expanse of sea. Some of these islands have populations of less than 100.
Yet, despite the geographical challenges, Red Cross Principles and programmes have permeated throughout the islands to the point that the Cook Islands Red Cross Society is truly a united National Society.
On Friday, the advances made by the National Society were rewarded when it was admitted to the International Federation as a full member.
Much of the progress has been thanks to the leadership of Secretary General Niki Rattle and her staff, who have ensured the Red Cross continues to thrive in its Pacific hideaway.
Nine new branches
“Since I joined in 1993, we have moved five times from one little office to another - but we have also grown from one staff member to two and going on three, and we have seen nine new branches join the Rarotonga head office,” Niki recalls.
The fact that there are active Red Cross branches on nine of the 12 inhabited islands is an outstanding achievement – particularly in the face of distance, difficult travel and, sometimes, lack of good communications.
The plane to the northern island of Pukapuka, for example, only leaves Rarotonga when it is fully booked. That can take up to six months, Niki says.
“The only alternative is to travel by boat, which takes seven to 10 days. But, then the boat goes as soon as it has unloaded and reloaded, so if we are planning to stay longer than two or three days it means we may have to wait six weeks for the boat to return!”
On top of this, phone and fax services are also expensive, and e-mail does not exist on the outer islands. On some of the islands, the electricity is only on for six hours at a time.
The key to success, she says, is to have activities that are relevant and important for local people. “When people see activities that benefit them, they will go out and do what needs to be done to make those things available,” she says.
“We have never forced people to think about forming a branch, but have emphasised the importance of the activities that a branch can deliver, such as community-based health and disaster preparedness.”
“So, ultimately, they come to think ‘we could do this’ and organise themselves accordingly, instead of waiting for the headquarters to come to them.”
Today, as a result of these efforts, the Cook Islands Red Cross is active with a range of programmes throughout the territory.
This includes first aid training, dissemination of International Humanitarian Law to the police, HIV/AIDS prevention programmes, blood donor recruitment and disaster preparedness and response, with a special focus on cyclones.
The Society has two full-time staff positions, a strong base of dedicated members and volunteers, and a reputation for strong and well-functioning governance.
Niki says the last landmark on the path to recognition occurred on 11 February last year, when the Government recognised the National Society by law and adopted a ‘Geneva Convention and Additional Protocol Act’. By April, the instruments of succession to the Geneva Conventions, and accession to the Additional Protocols were deposited to the Swiss authorities.
Niki says that “a huge effort” went into making this happen, with support from the ICRC and the Federation, and which allowed the Cook Islands Red Cross to become the recognised member of the Federation that it is today.