Denis McClean in Geneva
A major dilemma highlighted in this year’s World Disasters Report is the increasing trend for donors to channel humanitarian aid towards emergencies and crises that rank high on the political and media agendas of the day.
After all who would want to invest time and effort in the laborious task of ensuring that a country like Nigeria with 128 million inhabitants has a well-functioning Red Cross branch in every state?
Is anyone really interested in whether the inhabitants of a small town on the east coast of Sri Lanka which has suffered atrocious inter-communal violence for years, should actually have a recruitment programme in place for youth Red Cross volunteers?
Would any sensible donor be remotely interested in the recruitment of volunteers in a drought-stricken state of Sudan so that some local disaster response capacity is established to meet community needs? Could anyone possibly come forward to fund the training of mid-wives in a barely accessible corner of the Amazon rain forest?
Amazingly enough the answer to all these questions is a resounding yes.
In a unique experiment which has been going on quietly now for seven years, the International Federation has been working with the governments and Red Cross societies of Canada, Finland, Norway, Sweden, and the United Kingdom to support civil society in a unique way in impoverished and troubled parts of the globe.
The so-called Tripartite Advisory Group (TAG) supports a Capacity Building Fund whose main criteria is to seek out forgotten humanitarian needs and address them through meaningful and targeted support to Red Cross and Red Crescent societies. Over the last three years of its existence, the Capacity Building Fund has provided timely support to over 72 national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies world-wide to enable them to expand their humanitarian action in favour of the most vulnerable.
“My point is that the Red Cross Red Crescent is very interesting for any governmental development partner. We know that civil society has to be in place in order to have sustainable development but it can be extremely difficult to identify reliable civil society actors,” says Christian Sundgren, who chairs the TAG group and represents the Finnish Government.
“In this context, the Red Cross Red Crescent model is unique. There is always a local Red Cross or Red Crescent society already in existence and supporting it will not harm any political process that may be taking place.”
Sundgren is also Deputy Director General of the Finnish Department for International Development Co-operation and describes his mandate as “developing co-operation between civil society in the north and south. We want to understand better which types of development give the best results in alleviating poverty. The Federation is the bridge between Red Cross and Red Crescent societies in the south and donors in the north.”
The first example of success cited by Sundgren is Nigeria where the TAG has been able to support the establishment of the only indigenous nationwide humanitarian organization in the country, namely the Nigerian Red Cross. “It is accepted by all ethnic and religious groups and is the only civil society actor providing humanitarian assistance countrywide. The TAG was able to support the process of building up the Nigerian Red Cross across all states.”
The TAG has also shone a spotlight on the role that the Red Cross can play in conflict-torn Sri Lanka. “It’s a sad and tragic situation. There is no war but there is no peace either. We have been able to support the rebuilding of the national Red Cross society through aiding the new team in writing a new constitution and getting a headquarters to orient its approach to becoming a volunteer-focussed organization,” says TAG chairman Sundgren.
He personally visited the Batticaloa branch of the Sri Lanka Red Cross on the east coast of the country, right on the ethnic fault lines between the Tamil, Muslim and Sinhalese communities.
“The branch was functioning very well with 700 volunteers and was built up from scratch. It succeeded quickly in getting the youth on board and is now providing a range of basic health support to the community.”
“A remarkable thing happened in Batticaloa recently when the LTTE or Tamil Tigers questioned the Red Cross’s use of two vehicles. A delegation of about 50 volunteers went to the local LTTE office and explained the work of the Red Cross. The LTTE accepted that the vehicles were needed by the Red Cross and didn’t make any fuss about it.”
The TAG group meeting in Geneva this week also heard about other successes notably in the Amazon river basin where Federation support has fuelled the strengthening of national Red Cross programmes in remote parts of Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador in a programme known simply as Amazonico.
“The real success story of the Amazonico is trust,” said Douglas Reimer, the Canadian who led an evaluation team, which reported to the TAG meeting this week after a lengthy visit to region. “The Red Cross delivers what it promises to these communities who have been messed around badly by various vested interests.”
In Ecuador he was particularly impressed by the Red Cross training of indigenous mid-wives to work in areas poorly served by health services and the respect shown for local culture in the support for traditional medicines and bi-lingual schools. “We saw a lot of creativity and commitment stimulated by small amounts of financial support,” he said.
The TAG group also heard a report this week from Sudan, which focussed on the support provided by well-functioning Red Crescent branches in the country to help re-establish the Red Crescent in Sinnar State – a region often subjected to floods and drought.
Esther Okwanga, a Zimbabwean development expert with the International Federation who specializes in volunteering, outlined how the International Federation is approaching capacity building in the Sudanese Red Crescent by using the organization’s own strengths to tackle its weaknesses.
“We were looking at national societies for a situation where there was potential for generating new ideas on capacity building. What’s fascinating about the Sudanese Red Crescent is its diversity with some branches even stronger than the HQ.”
“We found that it was not the operational environment which made the difference between a Red Crescent branch functioning effectively or not. We probed into what makes some branches tick and of the five branches we visited we found that the Sinnar State branch was not well-functioning in many areas.”
The innovative solution was to organize peer support including exchange visits with neighbouring State branches. The eventual aim is to have the Sinnar branch take its turn to assist in supporting other weaker branches.
Jean-Francois Goulay of the Federation’s organizational development department comments: “We are not talking about a lot of money here but what’s important is that we have created a wonderful platform for sharing what we do in capacity-building and energizing support for what might otherwise seem intractable situations.”