Solveig Olafsdottir in Johannesburg
Speaking at a side event on Community Involvement and Volunteering in Sustainable Development co-hosted by the International Federation and United Nations Volunteers (UNV), Suárez del Toro said that the participation of volunteers fighting to reduce the impact of disasters in their own communities and responding to the HIV/AIDS pandemic, was crucial for the success of sustainable development.
He stressed that current events remind us daily of the enormous social, economic and environmental impact that natural disasters and emergencies have. Years of development efforts can be destroyed in a matter of hours.
"But when disasters strike, we also see how selfless voluntary action at the community level saves lives, alleviates human suffering and helps families and communities to recover.
"It is at the local level that is the first line of defence and where the difference is made," Suárez del Toro said. "We cannot wait for disasters to occur. We must focus our efforts on preventing and reducing the risks from disasters to vulnerable communities. Only by strengthening the capacity of vulnerable communities to respond, can we talk about achieving sustainable development," he added.
The president's acknowledgement that sustainable development can also only be achieved through close partnerships with governments, humanitarian organizations and the private sector, was echoed by other panellists at the event - Robert Leigh of UNV, Zoia Skweyiaya, Minister of Social Development in South Africa, Najma Heptulla, member of the Inter Parliamentary Council and Jane Nelson from the International Business Leaders Forum.
The president also underlined the role of Red Cross Red Crescent volunteers in the battle against HIV/AIDS and other preventable infectious diseases, which too was having a huge impact on development.
"More people die each year from preventable infectious diseases than from disasters and conflicts combined. We need urgent action to respond to the AIDS pandemic and improve the health conditions of the most vulnerable people," he said. "Again, it is voluntary action at the community level that will make the difference."
That difference was clearly demonstrated when the President visited the Soweto branch of the South Africa Red Cross. More than four million people live in Soweto, a township on the outskirts of Johannesburg. The battle against poverty, unemployment, drugs and crimes is a reality that the majority of residents face every day. Soweto also hosts the largest number of HIV/AIDS affected people in the Johannesburg area.
There, in an immaculately clean but impoverished house, Suárez del Toro met Joyce - a young HIV positive mother supported by a Red Cross home based care programme. A volunteer, Mantombi, had met Joyce few months ago during one of the Red Cross door to door visits aimed at finding people in need.
"I found myself new sisters and a new family in the Red Cross," Joyce explains. "I feel much better, and I know I am not alone. Mantombi helps me whenever I need it."
But the people in Soweto do not only rely on the assistance of the Red Cross. Twenty-six year-old Cleopatra became the sole breadwinner for her two brothers and her own daughter when her mother died of AIDS last year. Receiving help from the Red Cross, she was inspired and became a home based care volunteer herself and has now started her own business in selling second hand clothing.
Virginia has also taken heart from Red Cross support. She lost eight of her 10 children - some of them to AIDS and other infectious diseases and others to violence in the community - and is now taking care of four young children at an age when she should be taken care of by others. Two of the children are her grandchildren, orphaned by AIDS, but the other two were abandoned by parents she didn't know. Once a week, she also participates in a gardening project facilitated by the Soweto Red Cross branch for widows and old people.
The Federation president was clearly moved by the community spirit in this deprived area and he had the opportunity to meet some of the Red Cross volunteers who had inspired the residents of Soweto.
Patience and Thsepo tell the Federation president, a volunteer himself for 30 years, what motivates them to give their time to the Red Cross HIV/AIDS programme.
"Too many young people have nothing to do in Soweto. We cannot find jobs and we hang around at home. The Red Cross keeps us off the streets and from getting up to bad things. And we gain respect in the community for the work we do," they say. No mean feat, the work they do.
Appeal 2002-2003 - Health and Care in the Community
Make an Online donation