Interview with Elhadj As Sy, Secretary General, IFRC

Published: 4 August 2014 0:00 CET

Elhadj As Sy, Secretary General, IFRC

“Making the IFRC the partner of choice”


What motivated your decision to follow a professional career in humanitarian and development issues?

 Those issues actually came to me. I grew up in an environment where people had to confront all kinds of humanitarian and development problems, from drought to floods to political crises.

The situation in Senegal was quite peaceful when I started my professional path, but in 1989 I experienced the conflict at the border with Mauritania, with 75,000 people on the move. That conflict was a tipping point in my professional life, and it further determined my personal commitment for humanitarian work. That was also the first time I engaged directly with the Red Cross at the professional level.

What was your first impression of the Red Cross?

I have always been impressed by the response of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in all situations, carrying out uplifting work – always being there at the onset of a disaster, providing health services, water and sanitation, or delivering first aid. What a privilege to be part of this movement now!

The first organization you worked with was Environment and Development Action in the Third World (ENDA), a well-known South–South network. What can you tell us about it?

ENDA Tiers-Monde, as it’s now known, came from the vision and dreams of highly committed people from different backgrounds but united by an engagement to change to fight poverty and respect the environment under the leadership of the exceptional late Jacques Bugnicourt. It continues to attract many people determined to change the world in different ways. We were committed to do everything to meet the short-term needs of the most vulnerable people, but also to call for long-term investment in protecting the environment.

The first Rio summit on Environment and Development in 1992 was indeed a validation of many of the issues we have been fighting for. I was privileged to be there again in a different capacity for Rio+20, and every debate reminded me of the pioneering work of ENDA Tiers-Monde, particularly the way it addressed systems and policies while remaining grounded in communities.

You started your career working with and within communities. How did this community perspective influence your professional direction and approach?

Too often poor people suffer from environment degradation for reasons they have absolutely no responsibility. The environment is a global issue par excellence, which brings to the fore the interdependencies of today’s world and paves the way to global citizenship.

By being in communities and addressing issues through their own lens, one can proactively work on determinants of stresses and crises and develop responses to protect lives and livelihoods and prevent natural hazards from becoming disasters.

The refocus on resilience mostly refers to the capacity to absorb shock through strengthened coping mechanisms. Effective community work makes it easier to anticipate disruptive events and to take early protective action based on community knowledge, local resources and with external support, as needed. It calls for greater accountability to beneficiaries, and it also means putting concrete substance to the buzzword.

This community-driven approach also provided you with first-hand experience of fast-rising issues such as HIV.

I personally witnessed hundreds of people in their most productive years dying of AIDS. I worked in villages where there was hardly any adult population, and witnessed stigma and discrimination killing like the virus. HIV and AIDS did indeed showed the best in communities –inclusion, care, support and protection- and the worst –exclusion, rejection, stigma and discrimination. When treatment became later available, it revealed the unbearable reality faced by the patients in the South not able to access drugs in North. Today’s solidarity at local, national and international levels has changed the picture, and made the AIDS response a success, even though it is not over yet.

What are your takeaways from your work with UNAIDS and the Global Fund?

Without a doubt, the most important takeaway is the recognition that affected people are not the problem but part of the solution:  their leadership put a face to the AIDS epidemic and contributed significantly to prevention and care.  I also witnessed first hand the crucial role of civil society organizations in making a difference and creating lasting impact. Building local knowledge and supporting communities have proven to be critical elements for any sustainable response to HIV. The same approach should prevail in the response to disasters and other humanitarian challenges.

Then came your experience with UNICEF. Tell us about that.

Who could not be compelled by a mandate to build a world where the rights of every child are realized?  Working to address the needs of every child, everywhere, I found in UNICEF an opportunity to leverage my experience and invest in the future.  It also resonated with my commitment to link emergency and development work.  The Federation is a long-standing partner of UNICEF, and I look forward to working with former colleagues to deliver meaningful results for vulnerable communities.

What will you bring to the position as secretary general of the IFRC?

My position at the IFRC will provide me with an opportunity to bring together the experience and aspirations I have developed over the years.

The ultimate goals remain the same: to respond to the needs of affected and vulnerable populations, and invest in capacities of community systems to resist shocks and minimize the impact of hazards.

I will build on the strengths of our Movement, which is well grounded in communities, supported by universally recognized emblems and served by millions of volunteers.

My long-time service, from community work to United Nations senior management posts, as well as my competencies in programme leadership, partnerships building and diplomacy will equip me well in my tenure as the IFRC’s secretary general.

We will keep the vulnerable and affected people at the centre of our action, and build the necessary partnerships to effectively respond to their needs.

What are the most pressing challenges the humanitarian community is facing today?

We are increasingly challenged by the protracted nature of crises that blur the lines between development, emergency response and recovery. Programming, funding and responding across a continuum of those different contexts will be critical.

Humanitarian space is shrinking, the security of aid workers and volunteers is increasingly at risk. Humanitarian Diplomacy must be intensified for easy access to affected areas and for protection of populations and aid workers.

Funding must be increased despite economic hardship, because the needs of vulnerable populations are greatest in times of economic hardship.

Current forecasts also point to an increase in natural disasters in terms of frequency, severity and magnitude.

 There is a school of thought that refers to natural hazards and manmade disasters. In that perspective, disasters result less from extreme events than from unmitigated vulnerabilities, lack of preparedness at all levels, unplanned urbanization or the non-respect of the environment. This is the reason why some countries can cope well with extreme events, whereas an earthquake of relatively low magnitude may become an unprecedented disaster in an ill-prepared country.

We should continue to work on preparedness and community resilience, and establish effective early warning / early action strategies.

Do you see a risk of a donor fatigue as we face more and more protracted crises or complex emergencies?

Yes, there is indeed donor fatigue, depending on the geo-strategic location of the emergencies and the interest of partners.

Our humanitarian mission is not guided by such considerations, and we will continue to work with all partners to make pertinent investment cases for all emergencies.

We will also seek enhanced support and financial contribution from governments in countries affected by emergencies.

And what about the risk of divide between donors and recipients?

This risk does exist. I believe, however, that as an International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, as a true global network, we can lead by example in bridging this divide and showing action through our principle of unity and a common understanding of our accountability standards.

Related to this, how do you see your role as secretary general?

To effectively manage the Secretariat that facilitates and nurture dynamic collaboration in order to expand our reach and build sustainable capacities, including through programmes, communications and information sharing.

To produce tangible results that every member will be proud to be associated with.

What are the main assets of the IFRC you identified?

The Red Cross or the Red Crescent is always there. This is how I perceived  the organization before I joined it, and that perception grew stronger as my detailed knowledge of the Movement deepened.

Through a network of 189 National Societies and 17 million volunteers, we have an unparalleled capacity to work with communities at all times. We have the greatest potential to engage and work with beneficiaries to design solutions that are grounded in communities and built on cultural knowledge.

As part of the network, each and every National Society also belongs to a much bigger collective in which we can develop solidarity and mutual support. We have a unique potential to share expertise, knowledge and resources that can benefit each and every National Society, as well as our collective.  Indeed every member of the Federation is both a contributor and beneficiary of our common good.

The federation has also a complementarity with ICRC that widens the opportunities of all Movement members depending on who’s best placed to deliver the best services.

How do you envision the way forward in leveraging these assets?

Having a mandate and a recognized identity is not enough. We need to earn the respect of our partners and win our seat at the table. We need to constantly show   our added value through a good management of our resources, the effectiveness of our coordinated responses and the results we produce for the benefits of people.

As one Federation, we will also have to provide more substantive analysis and data, and closely monitor situations in order to better equip ourselves when responding to crises and meeting humanitarian needs. In this new digital age, we will also be requested to be agile and to evaluate what is the critical mass needed to be decisive in terms of what we will focus on.

What will success look like, ultimately?

Ultimately, I would like the IFRC and its secretariat to be the “Partner To Go To”  – trusted for its up-to-date knowledge, coordination excellence, effective delivery and collective sense of accountability. To put it simply, I envision the IFRC to be the partner of choice in addressing today’s humanitarian challenges through stronger National Societies.

And one last thing, how would you describe your leadership?

Simply a colleague who takes his responsibility seriously to deliver results together with you all.

Elhadj As Sy - Secretary General


Mr. Elhadj As Sy 's biography as well as more information about him can be found here.