IFRC Secretary General Report to the General Assembly 2013

Published: 12 November 2013

On 12 November 2013, Secretary General Bekele Geleta presented his oral report to the 19th IFRC General Assembly in Sydney, Australia.

Mr President, distinguished members of the Governing Board, delegates to the General Assembly, staff and volunteers.

It is a great pleasure and an honour to be with you and to share with you my final oral report to this distinguished assembly.

You have received my written report which details the progress made in programme implementation, capacity building, and humanitarian diplomacy and support services.

We have also shared with you other important reports including National Society Development Framework and consultancy reviews of decentralization and shelter and others on which we seek to have your thoughts and comments. The Senior Management is ready to answer your questions, and take your wishes and decisions to implementation as a next steps.

Building upon the information contained within the shared reports, I now wish to take this opportunity to reflect on what we have achieved together, on the challenges that our Federation faces today and in the future, and share my own thoughts based on my five and half years as Secretary General.

Today, I will comment on our journey together in three major parts I consider important. 

Firstly, what I call the business of the Federation – the well-known and the possible emergent areas of our business.  These include our services to vulnerable people, our collective work to build the capacities of all National Societies, our role in thought leadership and advocacy, and the business of internal change management - carried out to make the organization responsive to the changing environment within which we work. 

Secondly, global positioning of the organization in relation to our partnerships and coordination with public authorities and external actors, as well as within the Movement and with our own Governance structure. The nature of competition within our Movement and how we must reposition for greater collaboration, scale and impact.

Thirdly, understanding the global trends and responding to changing patterns of vulnerability and need. What are the possible scenarios for the future of our organization, and the lessons to be shared from my experiences as Secretary General.

Mr President, ladies and gentlemen.

Allow me to start with a story I hope all of you will find pleasant to hear.

Four years ago, the General Assembly endorsed Strategy 2020. This strategy included a capacity building package for National Society development. One of the tools provided was the Federation-wide databank and reporting system, which encouraged National Societies to provide data against seven indicators.

In these past four years, the number of National Societies taking part has grown and, today, 178 of you have contributed information to the databank. National Societies have submitted 138 strategic plans, 132 financial statements - 69 externally audited - and 130 annual reports.

I want to thank all of you. Because today, for the first time in our history, we have a clear picture of our achievements worldwide. Let me put them in context for you.

Across the global IFRC network we have more than 415,000 paid staff and our National Societies have more than 160,000 branches and local units.

Being a volunteer organization, in 2010 we established that the IFRC had 13.1 million volunteers. Today, we know that there are in fact nearly 15.5 million Red Cross Red Crescent volunteers saving and transforming lives.

People served by these brave and dedicated volunteers every year – say in 2012?

  • Disaster response and early recovery programming worldwide is more than 77 million people.
  • Long-term development programming worldwide is more than 77.2 million people.
  • So, that is more than 154 million people reached in 2012 alone – and half of them are helped by our development work - a statistical proof that we are an important development organization.
  • In addition, the data provided by you, the National Societies, shows us that more than 115.4 million people have access to Red Cross Red Crescent disaster preparedness and risk reduction programming.  And 33.9 million people have donated blood to NS blood services worldwide.

In 2012 alone, the global network’s total income was more than 31.4 billion Swiss francs, and its total expenditure was just over 31.1 billion Swiss francs. To me these are very impressive National Society services to their people.

Mr President, ladies and gentlemen.

These statistics are hard evidence of the scale and importance of the IFRC network in today’s changing world. And with this evidence, we can – individually and collectively – open new doors of influence and unlock new resource streams to take our programmes and our activities to a level that better reflects our experience, our size and the enormous potential of our business.

Over the past five and a half years, we have run efficient disaster and crisis response operations. We have given a voice to the world’s silent and forgotten disasters, and have been a leader in responding to the immediate needs of people affected by the major disasters of our time. In all contexts we have led by example as champions of principled humanitarian action.

We lead the humanitarian sector in our innovative use of cash in emergencies and beneficiary communications, where we are setting new standards in giving disaster-affected people access to information, and choice over how they use the funds and relief items we are able to mobilize on their behalf.

Despite our achievements, we have much work to do to address the gaps in global disaster response and to fulfil the potential of our networked response. We are increasingly constrained by a lack of funding, the inequitable distribution of the funds that are available, and challenges to humanitarian access.

There is an unequal power relation between donors and recipients that is too often reflected in our own relations between National Societies providing and receiving assistance, and between National Societies and their secretariat.

The growth in bilateral emergency response within our IFRC puts added pressure on disaster-affected National Societies for coordination, and undermines the multilateral response mandate of the IFRC. Many National Societies feel powerless or reluctant to turn down bilateral offers of support, despite the obvious inefficiencies.

Collectively we are seeking to address these imbalances through stronger principles and rules for humanitarian assistance within our IFRC and, in the years ahead, to negotiate stronger agreements for coordination and cooperation within our Movement.

While we must do more to promote compliance with our principles and rules, we still lack a robust system for enforcing collective responsibility and accountability for decision-making in disaster response.

The Haiti earthquake operation is a good example of where we have sought to introduce a well-coordinated and integrated decision-making forum consisting of involved National Society secretaries general and an oversight body of the Governing Board - a High Level Focal Group - with some measurable success. However, we need to establish a strong mechanism with the clear articulation of roles at all levels, if we are to deliver greater accountability for decision-making in a major operation.

Mr President, ladies and gentlemen,

Another vital aspect of our work lies in long term programmes in the areas of disaster risk reduction and resilience, food security, environmental protection, water and sanitation, preventive health in both communicable and non-communicable diseases including HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis, and in promoting non-violence and peaceful living - in general changing ways of life, attitude and mindsets.

National Societies work hard to improve the lives of millions of vulnerable people every year. We have accumulated enormous experience within our mandates and are important – if sometimes unacknowledged - contributors to development.

This has been achieved using humanitarian resources that have become grossly inadequate compared to our global potential, given our cumulative experiences and the volunteer and community capacities we have built over the years. 

Again, in the area of developmental funding and longer term programmes, some donor National Societies engage predominantly bilaterally without making sufficient effort to fully involve the host National Societies in decision-making. This damages the sustainability of any collaboration and can leave the host National Societies facing difficulties in downsizing after the project is complete.

In long term or developmental programs we would miss a big opportunity in growing the market share of the global network in addressing vulnerability within our mandate if we do not pull our efforts together to leverage the international position of the IFRC to partner with Governments, corporates and foundations at different levels, national and global.

Mr President, ladies and gentlemen,

The building of institutional and community capacities has been a mainstay of IFRC work for about three decades, and great progress has been achieved. Almost all National Societies have legal status in their respective countries, enjoy significant volunteer capacities from the levels of Governance to service delivery, and have strong systems of delivery and accountability.

So we should acknowledge that growing capacity brings growing assertiveness, and our rising National Societies rightly wish to enjoy future partnership assistance on equal terms – by which I mean they want to make their own decisions on where and how they are to develop.

In recognition of this, secretariat and donor National Societies’ decision-making processes need to be more inclusive of recipient National Society views on how resources are used, particularly at the end of a major operation.

Most importantly, as a global network belonging to the same Federation and Movement, all National Societies should be seen to be complying with the same sets of standards and rules. The current disparities must be swept away and replaced with true and respectful collaboration, allowing the flow of wisdom, knowledge, skills and experiences in every direction.

I believe that the universal application of the systems in the Strategy 2020 capacity building package - OCAC, learning and accreditation, the database and Federation-wide reporting system and the accountability framework - may contribute in generating mutual confidence and increased trust.

Mr President, ladies and gentlemen,

I promised the last General Assembly that I would commission an independent review into the decentralisation of the secretariat and present its findings at the next Assembly. The review has been completed and the report has been transparently shared with you all for this meeting. The findings, in brief, are that the decentralisation model works but requires some adjustment in structures to deliver further improvement in relevance, influence and cost efficiency.

The main preoccupation of the secretariat remains its role as an agent of change. We support National Societies to grow and to bring about their own changes themselves. This support has to take place close to the place where the changes are to take place, so decentralization is in order with necessary and appropriate adjustments made.

I now wish to discuss our global positioning.

The IFRC’s global Governance is established by the constitution of the organization. This is a membership organization where each member is sovereign, and Board decisions are implemented through the good will and commitment of the members.

The expectations, motivations and the culture of decision-making of the members of the Governing Board may differ, and this can hinder uniformity of decisions and actions. The requirements of geographical representation would remain important to our diverse global family.  This has served as a unique set up of representation and participation that has worked for almost a century, keeping the network together, united in purpose and goals, different from corporate and even UN governance.

It is very important to note that the changing world may place heavy expectations on the Governing Board. The nature of vulnerability, and the way it is addressed, is changing fast. We need to understand the trends conceptually and address big global issues as they arise to position the IFRC network high enough into the future.

The Governance of our member National Societies may require closer support from the IFRC leadership to deal with global challenges that may affect vulnerabilities in their own countries.

To influence global opinion leaders in the world, government and corporate leadership, our Governing Board members’ professional competence and senior experience would carry a lot of weight. In short, the quality of Governance matters a lot for the future success of the network. It is with this in mind that the incoming Governing Board should consider the findings of the recent Governance review and embrace the relevant and appropriate changes.

Mr President, ladies and gentlemen,

I must also stress the continuing importance of the auxiliary role, and how National Societies can use this to become the partner of choice of their national Government. The partnership carries obligations for Governments – freedom of movement and access, freedom of choice of what to do and whom to help, allocation of sufficient resources, and allowing their National Society to take part in the decision-making process for humanitarian and development activities.

We must collectively use our humanitarian diplomacy more effectively to reshape our relations with Governments, especially in accessing a share of the flow of resources. To this end, leaders from IFRC Governance and management have paid many visits to National Societies and used the opportunities to discuss improved relations with their Governments. A lot of awareness raising has taken place, and relations have been improved in a number of countries. But a lot more needs to be done.

Extensive efforts are underway to build relations with Governments, multilateral organizations, business corporates and learning institutions at national and international levels in close collaboration with the respective National Societies. The secretariat has signed several partnership agreements so far, and negotiations are underway for others.

Today, advances in information and communications technology are having a positive impact on the humanitarian sector. The IFRC is at the forefront of many ground breaking initiatives to “bridge the digital divide” – providing life-saving access to information and improving the speed and effectiveness of our assessment and logistics capabilities. To reap the benefits of technology we must partner with industry leaders and develop innovative applications of technology that are both ethical and efficient – that both protect and support vulnerable people and the work of our National Societies and volunteers.

Mr President, ladies and gentlemen, this brings me to relationships within the Movement.

As I mentioned earlier while discussing Government relations, National Societies have come of age. They know their people, culture, motivations and aspirations, and they increasingly look to the secretariat and sister National Societies to support and empower them in leading and delivering on their mandates in their respective countries.

Despite changes in the world around us, our coordination as the IFRC or as the Movement very much hangs on conventional approaches. Our Principles and Rules for Red Cross Red Crescent Disaster Relief were last approved in 1995 and were largely outdated. During this General Assembly you will consider adopting revised Principles and Rules that aim at maximising the mobilisation and coordination of Federation-wide resources and expertise.

One of the main changes in the revised document is that it is written from a National Society perspective with respect to the National Society role in its own country and with recognition of its increased partnerships.

This two-year dialogue over the revision of Principles and Rules has prompted a related but far broader process to strengthen Movement coordination and cooperation that will be launched during the Council of Delegates meeting next week. Underlying this new process is a commitment to a comprehensive review of the way we work together to design a new framework for Movement coordination that responds to the changing needs on the ground.

Although for long, Governments might have recognized specific roles to the different components, we experience more and more that National Societies assume lead roles in their respective countries in all areas of Red Cross Red Crescent mandates with full knowledge, acceptance and expectations of national governments and oppositions, partnering within and outside the Movement to meet the needs of vulnerable people, and thus blurring the traditional mandates of the two international organizations.

This may perhaps make it important that we, the ICRC and the IFRC, jointly commission an independent study to come up with how best to frame our future structure to support the development of the new framework. Whatever our future form, the Movement needs to present itself as a more coherent organization.

Mr President, ladies and gentlemen, I now move on to the third and final part of my report, where I speak of global trends and possible scenarios for the future.

The world is changing in many respects. The nature of conflicts, crisis and disaster is changing. Capacities to handle them have grown nationally and internationally.

Governments’ assertiveness and sovereignty is growing, but confidence and trust in governance and authority has significantly reduced. Power centres are eroding at all levels while individual and community confidence has increased.

Although there has been economic growth in the more developing world, inequality is also growing. Financial crises and economic slowdown in the developed world has brought increasing uncertainty about resource flows for the humanitarian and development industry. Competition continues to grow.

Given the global trends, how do we see the future of the Red Cross Red Crescent?

The changes are big, and we will not be able to adapt to the new situation by making incremental adjustments. We may need to conduct a holistic review of how much we may need to change - and how quickly.

The conventional approach to fundraising will not be sufficient to help us to remain an important humanitarian player in the world. We need and deserve big money. The resources are there and they could be accessed - provided we reshape.

Governmental and institutional resource flows are there to be accessed, provided we become the first choice of our respective partners. UN organizations could take us as preferred partners especially if our auxiliary relations grow and National Society delivery capacities become more reliable.

Corporate social responsibility resources should be explored and accessed through mutually beneficial partnerships. Needs-based transfers and crowd sourcing from Diaspora groups and others could be encouraged and developed with more effective use of technology, and this will be growing into the future. We can endear ourselves to the public with focus on the younger generation through open and transparent engagement using social media.

The most important driving factors for success to access these finances are leadership, strong auxiliary relations, and a critical balance between National Society sovereignty and respect for principles, values and rules.

Mr President, ladies and gentlemen,

In conclusion, let me leave you with three priorities for change in our IFRC:

We are successfully innovating, adapting and evolving to the changing humanitarian and development landscape – but we are doing this largely in an individual and ad hoc way. We need to invest more in strengthening our collective coordination, cooperation and collaboration and not be divided by competition.

We must reform our management and Governance systems to deliver professional leadership, and strengthen accountability and compliance.

We must redefine the value added of the secretariat and establish a business model for the secretariat that provides it with the necessary resources to undertake its mandated responsibilities with quality and accountability.

What truly matters in this changing world is that the IFRC is able to provide the very best services and support to the people who need us. In many countries and in many contexts, we are the only people who can reach them.

Your leadership and support over these past five and a half years has helped both in our services and in the way we deliver them as a secretariat, as the IFRC. But with the growing numbers and severities of disasters, crises and conflicts, and with the changing nature of humanitarian and development work globally, our principled humanitarian action is more relevant and important than ever. 

Thank you.