IFRC SECRETARY GENERAL, ELHADJ AS SY Remarks to the XX Inter-American Conference Houston, Texas 28 March 2015

Publié: 28 mars 2015

Ladies and Gentlemen, Vice President of the ICRC, President of the American Red Cross, Presidents here present, colleagues and friends, other volunteers, who are the backbone of our Movement and what we do,

Let me also recognize two former Secretary-Generals before myself who are present here in this room; George Weber and Pär Stenbäck. I am the newcomer building on your good work and achievements. My respect and recognition of the work that you have done that I hope to build on today.

Let me also recognize the Chairman of our Standing Commission, Greg, and all of you who make our Movement possible.


We are talking today about Strategy 2020 as well as the perspectives beyond 2015 with an important benchmark which will be the Sustainable Development Goals, which will be adopted by states in September, and that will contribute to shaping our world of tomorrow.


We often ask what the future is about, but the very question to be asked is: What are we going to be doing today so that we have, tomorrow, the future that we want?

Let me just as an introduction highlight some key elements both in Strategy 2020 as well as in the sustainable development goals, and then we keep those elements in the back of our mind to guide some of the points that will be developed a little bit further.

First in strategy 2020, let me recall the three strategic aims. The first one being save lives, protect livelihoods and strengthen recovery from disaster and crisis. The second: to enable healthy and safe living; the third: to promote social inclusion and the culture of non-violence and peace.

At the centre of these aims simply put, they are about people.

If we go to the SDGs, where six themes were proposed as axis around which some consultations and discussion should happen and that will be leading now to the 17 goals that are emerging, out of which there are a number of targets, over 20, will be discussed and agreed upon to lead us into the future.

The six axis were: eradicating poverty in all its dimensions and addressing inequality; tracking climate change and achieving more sustainable lifestyles; building strong, inclusive and resilient economies; promoting peaceful societies and strong institutions; renewed global partnerships and adequate means of implementation; reviewing progress on the sustainable development goals' commitments by paying attention to two complimentary issues: universality, the second one is differentiations. Meaning that whatever we commit to do at the global level, what matters at the end of the day are the results of the impact that we will be making in the lives of people at the local level.

And here again, as in the strategic aims of Strategy 2020, the sustainable development goals are, simply put, about people. People, who are at the centre of what we are about, people who are the center of our Movement.

If in the movement of Red Cross and Red Crescent we travel long ways, long ways through history, long ways through different geographies, long ways also in communities all around the globe, where we are faced with challenges of man doing to man the worst, but also opportunities of seeing the best in mankind; care, support, compassion, solidarity in the most difficult circumstances, where most of the time it is the poorest of the poor who share the last grain they have or the last cloth they have to welcome the stranger that is coming into their communities.

When I was walking up here this afternoon, I spent one second looking at the exhibition on the second floor, which is entitled “our children to your children.” And one of those strong messages of the children says “a stranger is simply the friend that you have not yet met”. This is I think telling us what we are about; our shared humanity, our shared commitment to people, no matter who those people are, no matter what their origins may be and no matter what their legal status. It puts us in a situation where we consider everybody in our country as a person; no different from whomever we might call the person of our country. That is what we see then, all of us in the Movement, responding in Lampedusa in Italy, where there is a massive arrivals of migrants from all around the world, or in Spain or, at it has been said this morning, unaccompanied minors at the border of Mexico coming into the United States.

I think that is what is moving us and what is taking us to this very long journey, where sometimes even if we do not have the response to the challenges we face we have to invent them. If we do not have the solutions that are at hand, we go deep into our humanity, spend a lot of hours then to develop those responses.

So I dare to say we are simply then maybe travelers and wanderers and we even do not know the road that we are travelling because every step that we put forward, that very step will be building the road, that road to the humanitarian response. That is all bringing us here together and then sharing our experience and our expertise. And in those very challenging times, sometimes when we don't find the solutions a priori a very simple answer of the people on the ground will put to us all possible responses that we will build day by day. Let me give some examples.

When our three countries Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia were hit by some of the most severe epidemics, which is the epidemic of Ebola, We did not know exactly how to respond to it. These were the volunteers on the ground who were confronted with a situation where people were dying day by day, mortuaries were full, and everybody was running away.

These are the kinds of disasters where we do not have, right from the beginning, coordination problems like we used to have. On the contrary, these are the kinds of disasters where everybody was running away and running out rather than coming in. And we realized that if a person is deceased, affected by this epidemic, that very person is up to 10 times more infectious than a living patient, and safe and dignified burials become one of the most important interventions to be conducted. But conducted by whom?

We did not know who was going to do it. But the answer as well as the question was proposed by the volunteers: “If we as the Red cross don't do it, who will?”

And that is that simple answer that opened the whole door to say then let’s equip ourselves to do it better. And then what was once called dead body management then we bring it back in the light of our humanity. It is not about bodies to be managed, it is not about bodies which are dead, it is about this being a human being that deserves the respect and the dignity that also living human beings have and it is our responsibility to safely, and in a dignified manner, accompany them to their last place of rest. These are the kinds of solutions that we always learn at the local level to bring it back to our strategy, which is simply put again, about people and putting people at the centre.

The same response we saw in some of the worst crises that we are experiencing today. We stopped this morning for a minute of silence for many of our volunteers who lost their lives in the line of duty. In the middle of Homs, in the the ruins of this very beautiful city, the volunteers of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, recognizing that 45 of them, their own friends have been killed in line of duty last year, ask that same question: If we don't do it, as Red Crescent, who is going to do it? And they continue to do so.

Just last week, we had a very severe natural disaster in Vanuatu. When I called the President of the Red Cross, he said first, “the island is flattened.” Those were his words, but in the same sentence he said, because the island is flattened we can plant easily, because the island is flattened, people can get to roots that they can turn into something they can eat and then prepare the ground for the future. If we talk about resilience, then let’s think about, how in the middle of a clear disaster, where everybody is mourning the loss, here are the Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteers standing up and saying “now is the time to plant, now is the time to take advantage of this situation, and then build back and build back better.”

What we are about is about people, and about being there at the side of people, being there all the time, and I emphasize all the time, at the side of communities to accompany them to respond to the needs of the hour.

And when those needs change we change, if we need to adjust we adjust, if we need to adapt we adapt.

And those needs are the variety of challenges that we face. It is sometimes providing what we call life-saving interventions, the shelter that is needed in the first hours and the food that is needed in the first hours. But more importantly, the dignity that people would have to recover and they will have to recover quick, so that they become the proud fathers and mothers that they used to be and not the beneficiaries of food packages that they are being turned into and by so doing lose, maybe, what they have dearest to them which is their own dignity. And that is the situation also reminding us that quite often, with bare hands, we have to find those words in situations where words even don't have any meaning.

And sometimes we will have to soothe those wounds that cannot be only soothed by the usual means that we have in our hands, because quite a number of times it's about very invisible scars that are leaving some blue spots in the souls of many young people and young children that will be needing many, many, many, many years and a lot of effort to recover. And the communities again teach us what solidarity is about. The majority of Syrian refugees today in Lebanon are in host communities. If you look at the Beka Valley the majority of children in public schools are from the Syrian community. The countries that are receiving these numbers are not necessarily the richest countries, they are the Jordans of this world, the Lebanons of this world, and in many other parts, including in the Americas, it is often the most deprived communities that are hosting those in need and helping them recover.

We talked about people, we talked about also livelihood and then life, and then ways of life and this is exactly what needs to be preserved and then protected and supported both in the Strategy 2020 as well as in the SDG’s.

We are here, then, today, gathered also to bring the different experiences that are coming out of the different countries of the region. I was asked to look at, based on these experiences, what the future looks like, the beginning of the answer I said, the future we want tomorrow will be depending on the action that we take today, to shape that future.

Now, if I have to refer to this region, which is very diverse, it struck me that quite often you refer to this region talking about sports. Football is very present in this country, baseball is no stranger here and basketball is the one I prefer, by the way. But if I have to quote one great baseball player, and philosopher, with the name of Yogi Berra, he is reported to have said once "the future ain't what it used to be".

Well, I think it's now our collective response to invent what the future will be, the present indeed is already challenging, with what seems to be many, many, many conflicts, many crises of all types, and these are having profound impacts on neighbours, and we are seeing also today the display of violence using some of the tools that we have available for us that could be serving humanities. But we are using social media in particular Facebook, Twitter to display the abomination of violence throughout the world including in this region.


But in a positive note we have a sense that the future will bring us extraordinary technological evolutions, as well as ones, which we barely comprehend today, but which may save our planet and its inhabitants. Many of us want to believe in the power of scientific advances that will enhance our understanding and allow us to conquer our environment, yet we have to remain humbled by the complexity, humbled by the magnitude of the different challenges that we face.

By coming here today, and in the coming days we seek a common understanding of the challenges of that future. What will be the needs, what are our capacities to address those needs, and what can we do about it?

These are the very questions of today. Well, if you look at the headlines that are populating much of our media, what constantly dominate there is challenges posed by climate change. The next decade will be marked indeed by humanity's effort to adapt and mitigate. If we do not adapt and mitigate, the safety and livelihood risks will amplify for people who lack essential infrastructure and services. And those are too many today. Water will be in the centre of that; a source of life is becoming more and more a source of death in many communities. A source of peace and stability, if we are not very careful, will become a source of conflicts in the future. In both urban and rural sectors, we will face that stress, but we have to recognize that more and more people are living in urban and peri-urban settings and in this region it sometimes can reach up to peaks of 80 per cent of older populations living in urban and peri-urban settings. What would that mean for response, at a time when most of our experience and expertise were based on rural models of water and sanitation? How do we shift now the paradigm and turn it into governance of water? How do we seek a good management of sewage, how do we make sure that cholera is going to be eradicated forever? And it is no longer just the fight of cholera in the rural setting like we used to have, boiling water.

And paraphrasing the wonderful title of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, "boiling water may be a sign of love in times of cholera", but now it may well mean that having good water governance, having good sewages in the urban and peri-urban settings will become the true sign of love in times of cholera.

We in the Red Cross and Red Crescent will advocate for the vulnerable whom we serve, to ensure that targets which are set both in the sustainable development goals and the pursuit of old strategies will remit and reflect their needs. I'm hopeful that the governments will do what is needed, I'm hopeful also that you will exercise our active citizenship and our active auxiliary role to be part of that process and make sure that our perspectives are not lost and those perspectives do only matter if they respond to the need of the most vulnerable and the needs of the hardest to reach.

The traditional drivers of conflicts and violence include inequalities and poverty, and economic and environmental degradation. We also see that on a daily basis. These will unfortunately amplify, if we do not act now to change the cause for the future. For displacement, particularly in developing and low-income countries, the risk of escalating our work in resilience, early warning, preparedness and response, in parallel with our efforts in health, water and sanitation will become even more critical in this world of rising tension and inequalities. And the key word here is inequality, which is again stressed very strongly in the sustainable development goals.

So we are living in a world of growing inequalities, while we see a globalization of many aspects; the globalization of poverty, the globalization of vulnerabilities, the globalization of senses of frustration, that are leading to the formation of new communities beyond the geographic confines that we used to have, and those expressions of frustration may be leading to the many challenges that we face today, translating in violence. And violence not only at the global level but violence in our cities, in our barrios, that we will be talking about a little bit later on.

We see in the sustainable development goals, the environment and development agendas in a big merge. This was high time. It has never been that in the last 30 years, and I can't remember as far back as 1992, (the) first Rio conference in environment and development, that we already understood that unless we bring the two together, our planet will not be protected and poverty will not be alleviated. Now, it is high time, it is coming back together, it is a little bit unfortunate that we are having the parallel track of the SDG's, to the parallel track of the climate conference in Paris and then next year the World Humanitarian Summit, but all of them happening within a period of 25 years.

As stressful as it may be, it provides a great opportunity, so that we bring the different linkages together and then use our own international conference as a platform where a very strong red pillar perspective can be developed and be conveyed in all those areas where the world agenda will be shaped. We must ensure that the setting and adoption of these goals will translate into transformative change, which is needed in all sectors of society.

In our movement, and in ourselves, as we continue to advocate for people to remain at the centre of all the efforts for achieving the sustainable futures with our partners, we must continue to strive for a world which is just, which is equitable and which is inclusive. A growth, which is not inclusive, will not bring any safety; will not bring any dividend for the critical mass that is required to change the course of history.

The biggest risk that we may face is now alienated generations, that have nothing and when they have nothing they will have nothing to lose, and if they have nothing to lose there is nothing to preserve, and this in turn will then become one of the greatest threats that we will be facing.

Protecting and promoting the health and safety of those we serve will remain a priority. We have seen in the Americas and globally that non-communicable diseases are becoming the greatest cause of premature death and disability. Promoting healthy lifestyles in innovative ways, for example in the IFRC's partnership with Google for health education and to mobilize community-level behavioral change, but more importantly also lead to the attitudes that will be supporting and sustaining the change of the behavior on the long term.

We talked quite a lot about behavior change in much of the work that we do.

We also realize that it is one of the most difficult things to sustain, and I think we have to come back to see how can we build the right partnerships at the local level, to support this process in a sustainable way.

We have also seen that violence is growing in the cities and some statistics tell us that 41 of the world's most dangerous 50 cities are in the Americas. Forty-one out of 50. And as you have documented yourself, and as the president has highlighted, social inequality and exclusion are root causes of the violence. Inequality remains one of the world's biggest humanitarian challenges.

The disparities between rich and poor which is growing. The disparity between men and women that needs to be addressed. The gap between the rural and the urban, and more importantly, also, what we have to make sure will not become a gap between this generation and the next one, and then give the right place and the right leadership to youth and any young people as partners that will be leading us into the future.

Let me say, then, two words about that. As national societies of the Americas, you have been exemplary in identifying the humanitarian challenges we face, and you, in the region, have gone quite a long way in agreeing on an approach, and we commend you for that. Following Strategy 2020 you adopted the Inter-American Framework for Action on how to approach and analyze the strategy according to the local context and the needs. And this is extremely critical, strategies do not mean much unless they are, again, customized and domesticated in the local context where challenges are better understood, social dynamics are better understood, but more importantly, all the levers for success can be built upon and then build the trust which is required and the partnership that is long-lasting.

Your target for strong and effective leadership is indeed essential. We must be leaders by example, facilitators, inspiring visionaries, persons of courage, humbled by the enormity of the task, yet with the confidence to galvanize the change that is necessary. And this we owe to the beneficiary, we owe to our partners, we owe to our supporters. We are living now at a time when governance and accountability is not only exercised in the boardroom, it is also exercised in the street.

We're being watched, we're being scrutinized, we're being criticized, we're being judged, we're being also admired and supported, depending on what we do. And now is the time that we want the transparency and good governance for ourselves, we want it for our own sake, we want it for our beneficiaries. Before, even, we want it for any donor.

Every observer is a governor of us. Every blogger is a governor of us, and everybody who has email address and access to internet is a governor. So transparency is not a choice. It is a must, and that is what we need to do and that is what we need to commit to do.

So generation divides exacerbated by fast moving advances in technologies are real and we need to face it, the dilemma we foresee today, young people will have to address in the future. So we owe it to the next generation, surely in more acute conditions of insecurity even that we see today, let us surely create that intergenerational leadership and partnership, youth engagement in all sectors of our work remains a priority and sincerely thank the youth commission and all the regional youth groups for their commitments and effort in that regard.

If you are living in Geneva and you travel quite a lot like I do, so you walk out the airplane and go through immigration you can read a lot of advertisement of watches in Geneva. And one of those is a very beautiful Patek Phillippe that tells you - you don't own Patek Phillippe you merely keep it for the next generation- so maybe they teach one thing. We don't own Red Cross we merely keep it for the next generation. Ashanta Michael we look up to you to lead us into the future.

We must continue to cherish and build what is the life force of what we do and what we are and these are our volunteers. Seventeen million we count. Hundreds of thousands, 150,000, serve in the Americas with selfless dedication and we have here in this room and outside of this room a good sample of it. We salute you; we thank you for making us look so good as this rainbow community united by our shared humanity.

We urge all national societies to take advantage of the accident insurance coverage available to national societies and to their volunteers. We cannot continue to measure the courage of volunteers by the number who are dying; we cannot measure the courage by those who are being put into risk. We have to use all the appropriate measures in our hands.

We cannot work alone, we recognize that strengthening and broadening our partnership with research bodies is one, and organizations that are engaged in the capture and management of strategic information that will continue to be critical to leveraging and complementing our own values. But we can lead and we can shape the agenda alongside all those partners. Last November, as I've said, not very far from here, in Cali, Colombia, a Declaration for "One Billion Coalition for Resilience" was launched together with representatives of international organizations and the private sector. We welcome that coalition.

We are moving now slowly form the M-word to the B-word, so the hundreds of millions are not sufficient if we want a critical mass to share the agenda for the future. Let's go for the billion. And what it seems to be at the beginning a simple aspirational goal, day by day, look to be something very realistic, because together as a Movement, together with our partners, there is no doubt that we can achieve it, and time is right for that. And that would be our biggest contribution. And I would say, historical contribution to all this debate about resilience which in our own words is nothing bad, again putting people at the center and being always there at their side to respond to their needs.

Our core strength is our ability to work together, neighbor helping neighbor, poor reaching out to peer, fully enabled geographic and sectorial cooperation and collaboration across the regions and across the globe. The Americas is a model for this. From Cali and into all the other partnerships with their bilaterals being in the sub regions of the Caribbean and the main lands and being there and sharing the common issues and addressing them. This is indeed a good example. The response to the Haiti Earthquake was a very good example to show how we can come together and respond together and make a difference in the lives of so many.

We encourage you to continue to contribute to the global processes of coordination, including the strengthening movement coordination and cooperation initiative that is bringing together all part of the Movement, National Societies, IFRC and ICRC through coordinated approach including, coordinated need assessment, joint narratives, coordinated resource mobilization and operationally a well-coordinated response and recovery effort.

We owe it to the beneficiaries; we owe it to the thousands and sometimes millions that are looking up to us to make a difference. To all those who believe in this emblem. And those of us of the privilege to be in the position we are, we don't have any other choice but to commit to make that work and stand, to be held accountable for the results that we will be achieving in that direction.

I can pledge in front of you my own commitment to that and the commitment of the Secretariat of the IFRC that I have the honor to lead to work in that direction without any ambiguity.

Your solidarity, your expertise, your ideas, your knowledge are fundamental elements to building trust in each other and our systems to ensure we function effectively in the eyes of the Movement.

It is not only about serving the national societies, is not only about serving the people, is about also capitalizing on their knowledge, on their expertise and make sure that they are not only a problem, but they are truly part of the solutions that we are finding.

Let me take this opportunity to highlight the fundamental principles which safeguard our access to vulnerable populations, they also safeguard the ability of communities to access the services you provide. We can make a difference for the vulnerable that we serve and we come together with them, walking the last mile and the extra mile to the most vulnerable and the hardest to reach. That last mile which is the matter of life and death for many, that mile to the next school for children, that mile to the next water point for those experiencing drought, that last mile to the next health post for the woman in labor that quite sometimes does not have anything to support.

Sadly we live in a world, where respect of these fundamental principles is not always guaranteed by all. I mentioned about the number of volunteers we lost, but this is not a reason to be discouraged. These principles have been tested over time, they continue to be tested and they will be tested in the future. But there is one thing that is sure, that we need to reinforce them and abide by them and promote them and strengthen them.

Even though we live in a world where the battlefields have moved from those very clear geographic confines and areas, we now, unfortunately, find themselves on our streets, in our mosques, synagogues and churches and quite often and unfortunately, even in schools, which is totally unacceptable. But that is no reason to doubt for one day, for one moment about the strengths of our fundamental principles.

Neutrality is not a call for silence. You can be neutral but at same time stand for the principles and stand for the causes of those we defend and for whom we stand for.

In this year the 50th Anniversary of the Red Cross and Red Crescent's adoption of the fundamental principles we are engaging partners, governments, beneficiaries and volunteers in a dialogue about these principles and about their continued relevance, despite the changing world in which we live.

I hope you will all join us at the international conference and every other relevant forum in calling on all actors to respect those principles. Let me return to where I begin. Perhaps the only thing we can predict about the future is the fact that the future is really not fully predictable, but the only thing that we know maybe is the fact that we can act today, to shape the future of tomorrow that we want and that is now the time to do so.

Let me also remind us that in the lead to the Sustainable Development Goals Summit, in our preparation for the World Humanitarian Summit, on the road to our International Conference in December when our Movement will convene with the world's governments, the dialogue we have today will have far reaching impact.

Every opportunity that we have together to share these ideas, these are great opportunities not to be missed, and they constitute very important milestones towards our global conferences to shape the agenda.

The reach of our Movement, every one of you present in this room, the national societies you represent, together with the ICRC and your Federation that Movement is vast and its power is big.

That is the power of humanity, which is the real power.

Let's learn from each other, listen to each other, and respect our differences focusing on what is complementing us, with the knowledge that we share and the momentum that we build here. Let us cease the opportunity to serve better together, united again in our shared humanity, united by our commitment to be always on the side of communities. Let's also remind ourselves that the road can be bumpy, it is a road that is also full of danger on its own, it is a road that is sometimes that is full of doubts, but doubts that can makes us richer. But doubts that will never paralyze us.

And let me then finish with this quote about paving the way. "Caminantes son tus huellas el camino y nada más."

(Translation) “Walker, your footprints are the path, nothing else, there is no road, there is no path, you make it as you walk. Walking becomes the path and you look, when you look behind, you see the path that you will never step on again."

To go on a journey, which we do not always know where it will end, and our footsteps are the road, and nothing more. There is no road, the road that really matters is the road that we are building by walking ourselves, by walking we make those roads and upon glancing behind, we see the path that never will be trod again.

Quite often I hear that we are the Red Cross and then we have our boots on the ground, but quite often I see we are the Red Cross and often we are on the ground even without boots. So let's continue this journey together. So the SDG's are the next milestone, but the future is much further and every action that we do today will contribute to shaping us.

Privileged to be part of you, we look up to you because you represent for many of us everything we would like to be. So, inspire us, lead us, and in particular the youth, lead us into the future.

Thank you very much.