Markku Niskala: a Red Cross career

Published: 28 November 2003 0:00 CET

Marie-Françoise Borel in Geneva

The newly-appointed secretary general of the International Federation, Markku Niskala celebrates his 58th birthday on December 5, which is International Volunteers Day. Smiling at the coincidence, he underlines that "volunteers are really the lifeblood" of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, but that the way they carry out their work today has changed.

"More and more people are participating in Red Cross activities on an ad hoc basis. Today, there are fewer people committed on the long-term. They participate here and there, in whatever is most attractive to them,” Niskala says.

“We are in competition for their time with many other organizations and for this reason we must improve the conditions for voluntary work. The Federation is committed to continuing to help National Societies support their volunteers,” he stresses.

Markku Niskala has been with the Red Cross for 33 years. Reflecting on the evolution of humanitarian assistance, he says: "I think governments in many parts of the world have been developing their disaster preparedness and disaster response mechanisms and in light of this National Societies have had to face challenges in how to better use their resources and focus their work to avoid duplication in some cases," he says.

Planning ahead

Pointing to the importance of long-term commitment to achieve sustainable development, he adds: "Much more emphasis is being placed on prevention and decreasing vulnerability. This requires a lot of planning and thinking in advance and this is reflected in much of our work today and in the broadening of our work to include humanitarian advocacy as well."

The 57-year-old former secretary general of the Finnish Red Cross began his career as a district secretary in 1970 before moving up through the ranks of his National Society.

Eight years later, he entered the international arena, becoming the representative of the League of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, as the International Federation was then called, in Zambia, then Tanzania and Zimbabwe.

That three-year stay in southern Africa was a turning point for Niskala. It allowed him, he says, to gain a greater understanding of Red Cross work, from collecting funds in his home country to being in the field, meeting beneficiaries and seeing how the assistance was being used.

Missions in Africa

He oversaw the implementation of the South African Programme, whose aim was to make nine Red Cross Societies in the region self-reliant over ten years.

After a stint as Head of the Europe department at the Federation's Secretariat in Geneva, from
1985 to 1987, his Red Cross career brought him back to Africa for a series of missions to countries like Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Ethiopia.

In 1988, he became secretary general of the Finnish Red Cross and has also served, since 1992, as chairman of the Commission for the Financing of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Asked about the priorities for the Federation over the next four years, he points to the need to continue developing and improving partnerships and coordination with all those involved in humanitarian assistance activities.

"I believe we will continue to be the most important global humanitarian network in the world, thanks to our 100 million members and volunteers around the world, who are bringing effective assistance to those who need it most at the community level, where it really makes a difference," he says.

Niskala has been serving as acting secretary general of the Federation since 1 July, 2003. He is married, holds a Masters in Public Administration and speaks Finnish, Swedish, English and German.