President's Speech on the State of the Federation: 18th Session of the General Assembly

Published: 23 November 2011

Two years ago, I was elected President of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies under the slogan “Spirit of Togetherness.” With this phrase, I wished to express the potential of our Movement - while the individual capability of each volunteer, staff member or National Society is limited, when they join hands, they can make an incomparable contribution.

We have faced a number of major challenges in these two years. Earthquakes in Haiti, Chile, New Zealand, and Japan; floods in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Australia and Bolivia, the political instability in the Middle East and North Africa region, and the food crisis in the Horn of Africa.

When I arrived in Geneva from Japan a couple of days ago, I got some updates about the humanitarian situation in Syria. This is a difficult time for the people of Syria, but the dedication of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent volunteers and staff shines through. They are working tirelessly and even risking their lives in the course of their humanitarian duties. I am humbled by - and grateful for - their dedication, and that of other Red Cross Red Crescent volunteers operating under difficult circumstances.

During this period, the progress and diffusion of information technology accelerated, particularly in the field of social networking and new media. This has raised awareness of humanitarian issues in the international community, and our global network has been in a unique position to influence the public and decision makers. Information technology has also made beneficiary communications more dynamic, getting life-saving messages to people via mobile phones, keeping them up to date with our activities and getting their feedback to improve programmes. This has greatly improved our accountability to beneficiaries.

With this as a background, the Spirit of Togetherness has been demonstrated on an international scale. Participation in international relief efforts has involved a number of vibrant National Societies in emerging economies. In the case of the January 2010 Haiti earthquake, a record 100 National Societies – the largest number in the IFRC’s history - took part, including a large number of sister societies from across the Americas. The red cross, red crescent and red crystal emblems were seen in action, side by side, for the first time ever. When the Japan earthquake and tsunami and the resulting nuclear accident occurred in March 2011, 77 National Societies, governments and other international organizations responded with incredible generosity.

The public and donor response to disaster remains under the influence of media attention and other factors. Compare the huge amounts of relief money donated in the wake of the Haiti earthquake and the complex emergency in Japan to the level of attention or sympathy generated by slow onset disasters, such as floods or food crises. To tackle these neglected disasters, we are required to shore up our Federation-wide humanitarian diplomacy and take other realistic measures while stepping up support from the Disaster Relief Emergency Fund concurrently.

The slogan “Prevention better than cure” has been consistently advocated since the 1970s. And yet there is no pragmatic consensus resulting in effective action in risk reduction and preparedness, particularly at the community level, although we are fully aware that it is needed. The UN Millennium Development Goals attributes the root cause of disaster to poverty. If so, the scope of preparedness will expand infinitely. I believe we should focus on strengthening the resilience of people living in disaster-prone regions and National Society capacity building in responding to a disaster, using our Strategy 2020 as a guiding light.

The question is how to secure financial resources for development. Although the Red Cross Red Crescent is widely known as a relief agency, its recognition as a development body remains low, but I believe that it has great potential to become an agency that can accept support from governments or other funding agencies. With this as a backdrop, I consider it realistic for us to take a disaster as an opportunity for now and translate emergent relief efforts into recovery, reconstruction, and prevention seamlessly.

In this sense, the recent Governing Board decision that every appeal for international disaster response should include, as far as possible, a provision of at least 10 per cent for longer term disaster preparedness and risk reduction work is a step forward. As regards National Society capacity building, in recent years, peer support initiatives have been formed in some regions and bilateral or multilateral collaborative relationships have been strengthened in others. Although this is a welcome step, it is not enough. Thus, the IFRC hopes to promote humanitarian diplomacy to call attention to National Societies’ value as a cooperative partner in development.

When I met with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in August this year, he noted the importance of bolstering local partners and praised the role played by the Red Cross Red Crescent in accessing vulnerable people, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa. For the IFRC, we prioritise capacity building in order to help our member societies grow and be able to reach more beneficiaries and, as part of an effort to implement Strategy 2020, we are also striving to promote the Red Cross Red Crescent Learning and Knowledge Sharing Network vigorously. The IFRC needs to play an even stronger leadership role in capacity building, and cooperation with the ICRC in this regard should be further improved.

Looking at our Movement’s activities, whereas the National Societies, the IFRC, and the ICRC maintain their respective mandates, the number of instances where they act simultaneously in the same country is on the rise. Pakistan, which I visited last year, is a typical example. The ICRC, many National Societies and the IFRC have operated in various regions for many years and the Pakistan Red Crescent Society has entered into partnerships with all of them, respectively.

The major flood of last year happened against this backdrop. The IFRC issued an appeal immediately, at the request of the Pakistan Red Crescent Society, but it took time to receive responses and, as a result, it looked to the ICRC for cooperation as it had already put a relief infrastructure in place. Also, a participating National Society that has been active in the region for many years and is familiar with the area was carrying out its own activities in support of the Pakistan Red Crescent. This response operation highlights the importance of coordination and communication between Movement components active on the ground.

Coordination is the responsibility of the whole Movement – and I mean the WHOLE Movement - and I believe a more collaborative system, backed by mutual trust and reciprocity, is needed to maximise the benefits for our beneficiaries. Better coordination encourages better understanding of the respective mandate of each Movement component, which results in a better profile for each component and the Movement as a whole.  In this sense, the revision of the Principles and Rules for Red Cross and Red Crescent Disaster Relief towards 2013 would serve as a good trigger for bringing about even more effective ways of working together.

In drawing up Strategy 2020, the secretariat seized every single opportunity to contact National Societies and absorb their views and opinions. For this reason, I feel the membership has an extremely keen sense of ownership of the strategy. Sixty-two National Societies have built a strategic plan based on Strategy 2020 and another fifty-seven societies are currently working on a similar strategic plan, which is truly encouraging.

What I emphasized during this process was the importance of gaining an accurate picture of “who we are”. With Strategy 2020, we began with a good grasp and have been working on a fairly accurate National Society databank, Federation-wide reporting system and programmes to breach the digital divide. Research was also conducted into the number of volunteers in each individual society. Before that, the IFRC had claimed 100 million volunteers and members, although the rationale for that was not clear. A study commissioned by the secretariat, titled “The value of volunteers”, defined a volunteer as a person who had provided their services to us for four hours a year or longer and resulted in a verifiable figure of 13 million. I believe that getting a clear grasp of what a volunteer organization means both quantitatively and qualitatively is the starting point in figuring out “who we are” and the basis of recognition of the volunteers who are the core of our Movement. 

When it comes to my role as President of the IFRC, I have visited 17 National Societies and spoken with the heads of state of Indonesia, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Panama, Austria, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Singapore and Turkey; UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon; and representatives of various international organizations, such as UNICEF, OCHA and the International Atomic Energy Agency, over the past two years. Effective humanitarian diplomacy requires acting together, whenever we can, through shared priorities, strengthened National Societies, and well-targeted partnerships, to lift up our influence and image to the benefit of those in need.

Finally, I would like to give an overview of the actual situation of our members. National Societies across the globe are evolving, with a number of them becoming stronger in service and programme delivery, and others becoming providers of resources and services to others. To build on these successes, I encourage you to promote youth leadership development in order to strengthen National Societies further.

The changes in world order are reflected in the changing aspirations and re-ordering of relationships among National Societies, including the growth of regional and professional networks. This is a positive development for the collective strength of the IFRC to achieve more than ever before. This said, many societies have yet to be able to support themselves financially; as a result, they look to sister societies, the IFRC, and others for support. This issue is being given top priority. In addition, there are quite a few National Societies whose integrity is brought into question or whose leadership frequently changes; as a result, the continuity of the project or the society’s ability to accomplish it is questionable, which is a concern. Although the IFRC has a system to address this issue both at governance and management levels, its influence is limited.

All National Societies have to safeguard the principles of neutrality and independence in their relationship as auxiliaries to their government. The extent and intensity of the partnership with governments varies from society to society, and the same is true of bilateral activities. If the full picture of a society’s bilateral work is not systematically shared with the secretariat, it cannot be noted and reported on, with the result that these societies feel that their efforts are not acknowledged. It is my hope that this gap in communication will be closed with greater effort and understanding on both sides.

Although I do not disagree with bilateral activities altogether, unless information on them is accurately conveyed to IFRC, we can neither communicate the entire range of activities carried out by the IFRC to outsiders nor call for their support. I should say that coordinated bilateralism is one of the essential conditions for the smooth and efficient operation of our Federation.

Our one hundred and eighty-six societies are a microcosm: every religion, every culture and every political reality is there. There is so much that we can – and must – learn from one another. I strongly believe that the Spirit of Togetherness is the key to unlocking the capital that is embedded in this network. Gaps in communication and understanding persist. To overcome that, we need to practice and promote close dialogue at all levels, understand cultural context better and be considerate with one another. This General Assembly is an important step forward in that regard.

The Spirit of Togetherness is not rhetoric, but a necessity to ensure the survival and dignity of vulnerable people whom we serve and are accountable to.

With our efforts to cope with major disasters over the past two years heading the list, I believe that this spirit has been demonstrated as a whole. Let me close my report by sharing my joy with you all and pledging to work ever harder together. Thank you.