Micronesia joins the Federation club

Published: 29 November 2003 0:00 CET

Andrew MacAlister, New Zealand Red Cross

For the Micronesia Red Cross Society, the challenges on the path to recognition as the 181st member of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies are nowhere better illustrated than in the task of holding an Annual General Meeting (AGM).

For most Red Cross and Red Crescent National Societies, holding an AGM is a relatively straightforward procedure. But across the islands that make up this disparate Pacific nation, it was a major exercise.

“Although we are called ‘the Federated States of Micronesia’, the country is made up of four island states that are separated by thousands of miles of sea, each with their own local language,” explains Suzie Yoma, Chief Executive Officer of the Micronesia Red Cross.

“It was proving impossible to bring all our members from the four states together in (the capital of) Pohnpei at one time,” she says, adding that the cost of travel across thousands of miles of ocean is prohibitive. Especially when the annual budget of this particular Red Cross Society is just US$78,000. This is a common problem among the Red Cross Societies of the Pacific.

Eventually, it was agreed that instead of a single AGM in Pohnpei, each of the four Red Cross chapters in Micronesia would hold its own AGM, but would use the same agenda and papers for the meeting. It was, Suzie says, the only “realistic and practical” solution.

The Federated States of Micronesia, with a population of 114,000 people, are indeed spread out, with 607 islands ranging from mountainous islands to coral atolls arcing across the western Pacific above Papua New Guinea. The nation is centred on four major island groups based around Pohnpei (Ponape), Chuuk (Truk), Yap, and Kosrae (Kosaie) - which are mirrored by four Red Cross chapters.

The Micronesia Red Cross is recognised as “the biggest and largest non-state actor” in the country, with a range of humanitarian activities undertaken, particularly in disaster management.

The country has heavy year-round rainfall and is on the edge of the typhoon belt and is, therefore, vulnerable to hurricane-force winds, flash floods and mudslides.

In July 2002, for example, tropical storm Chata’an hit Chuuk state causing more than 60 landslides on the worst affected islands, killing 47 people and injuring 109. The Red Cross played a lead role in responding to the disaster, making available non-food relief supplies from its disaster preparedness stocks and undertaking needs assessments.

Similarly, during a cholera outbreak in Pohnpei state in 2000, the Red Cross provided medical supplies and ran a public health education programme, mobilising more than 100 volunteers.

In addition, the Micronesia Red Cross runs community-based self-reliance workshops for isolated island populations. These teach disaster preparedness, first aid and community health skills. And in a bid to generate some revenue, the Red Cross is developing its ability to deliver commercial first aid training. Other activities include operating a blood donor service, youth programmes and campaigns to raise awareness on HIV/Aids issues.

All of this with just three full-time staff at headquarters and one staff member each at the chapters in Kosrae and Chuuk. Volunteers run the other two chapters at Yap and Pohnpei.

Suzie, who has worked for Micronesia Red Cross since 2001, says it is an exciting time to be involved with the organisation.

“We have been working so hard (to achieve recognition). The constitution has been travelling between Geneva and us the for the last two years. We are very delighted,” she says.

What does the recognition accorded to the Micronesia Red Cross on November 28, actually mean for the organisation?

“We hope that being a member of the International Federation will not only allow us to improve the delivery of our services, but will also bring us greater assistance when needed,” said Emilio Musrasrik, chairman of Micronesia Red Cross.

He sees the main challenges facing his National Society, apart from the logistical constraints of populations being so far apart, as being rising sea levels and finance.

“Our country is experiencing the effects of rising sea levels. But we don’t yet know how best to deal with this. Working with the International Federation, we may be better able to articulate the needs of the population and respond accordingly,” he adds.