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Voluntary service
drives the future

by Ricardo Camacho Zeas

Many people working as full-time staff at National Societies had their start as volunteers. For example, in the Ecuadorian Red Cross, former volunteers are involved in shaping the future of their National Society.

When I was asked to write for the Movement's magazine, my first thought was: "On what?" My National Society? The Fundamental Principles? Humanitarian law? What would be of interest to the hundreds of thousands of volunteers, staff and members of the public who read the magazine? How about professionalizing the Red Cross?

I will tell you the story of a group of young people who joined the Ecuadorian Red Cross as part of the student brigade some 20 years ago.

In 1981, Ecuadorian Red Cross first aiders visited our school in Quito to promote among the youth the spirit of voluntary service to others. Some of my classmates and I signed up. We attended the training courses and joined the National Society as volunteers. I won't deny that what initially attracted us was the novelty of the act and the fact that it provided us with a social outlet, but gradually we realized the scope of the humanitarian work performed by the Red Cross and Red Crescent globally. When we started our work as first aiders, little did we know that 20 years later we would work as full-time Red Cross staff and turn a simple act of volunteering into a life-long commitment.

Throughout the years we juggled university studies, family responsibilities and our volunteer work with the Red Cross. We had been bitten by the Red Cross bug, and found it impossible to keep our lives and the organization separate. In the beginning it wasn't easy. We were too enthusiastic and impetuous. We had ideas: we wanted to set up a dissemination and communication department, develop national relief work, help with training, ambulances, and so much more.

We wanted to professionalize the institution that meant so much to us. This was not always welcomed by others. Then, and even now, we have to fight the exercise of absolute power traditional to so many of our National Societies. But we did find support. Some of our leaders recognized the potential of our vision. How could we forget presidents like Hugo Merino Grijalva or Tito Cabezas Castillo, or directors like Eugenia Sánchez, a youth trainer for so many years? They had the insight to support us, and they didn't consider us as institutional threats, but as future leaders of the National Society.

The volunteers must be given a tangible place in the institution. If they are not trained and assigned responsibilities, if they are not given useful tasks or allowed to be a part of the decision-making process, the Movement will continue to lose volunteers throughout the world.

The complexities of social and political realities today, coupled with disasters, call on National Societies to revisit the notion of professionalism. The Red Cross and Red Crescent of the 21st century is not merely a group of do-gooders taking a first-aid course, nor is it simply an association of women giving food to the poor, and it cannot be run as though it were.

ERC volunteers work together with indigenous communities on development projects.

In Ecuador, we continue to lose our best-trained and most experienced volunteers to others because we have not yet institutionalized the concept of professional humanitarian work. We invest time, knowledge and financial resources in people, expect them to carry out time-consuming jobs and do not consider that they should be integrated into the core staff of the Red Cross, nationally or internationally.

We look on in sadness, powerless to stop these people from joining other national or international relief organizations and putting everything we have taught them to use elsewhere because the Movement does not provide them with a professional outlet. When I think of all the worthwhile people we have lost over the years!

Volunteers should have the opportunity to view their participation in the Red Cross as having the potential of being a life-long commitment and career. What better than to hire volunteers who know the institution from the inside?

Service expansion

The Ecuadorian Red Cross (ERC) complements its traditional services with activities in the following areas:
Community work. With international support, the ERC planning and project department has initiated major ongoing projects for the country's most underprivileged people, from the construction of the biggest footbridge in the Amazon to the building of a school in one of the country's poorest towns, Camarones.
Institutional communication. The ERC communication and design department provides timely information to the press, making us a reliable and handy source for national and international news agencies. It produces TV ads, radio broadcasts, posters and brochures.
National relief. The ERC now has an operational system between headquarters and the branches for relief and emergency activities, using a national telecommunication network that allows it to stay in touch around the clock. In February, for the first time in Ecuador's history, people were displaced internally by violence. The Red Cross was the first humanitarian organization on the spot and provided those affected with emergency assistance.
Principles and dissemination. The ERC now has a dissemination department and has provided a seminar on the law of war for the armed forces. Courses on international humanitarian law are now taught in military academies, the National War Institute and the naval, land and air brigades and units. This activity is supported by the International Committee of the Red Cross.


Of the group of young men who joined 20 years ago, most of those who stayed now have senior management positions: Daniel Arteaga is national relief director, Javier Castellanos is a Federation delegate, Javier Sotomayor is head of training and yours truly, Ricardo Camacho, is director of communication. Each of us has set up a team so that in the medium term our staff, who also started out as volunteers, will replace us.

Today, our National Society is working in various fields, some of them traditional, others less so. This has won us the trust of the people of Ecuador — a recent survey found that over 70 per cent of the population has confidence in our organization. Our National Society has 21 branches working with hundreds of volunteers throughout the country; they distribute relief supplies, work with young people and women's associations, run blood banks, community projects, sea and air rescue services, ambulances, paramedical and urban rescue services, collect voluntary donations, provide training, work in communication, dissemination and social welfare for abandoned children.

In the 1990s, the total figure of volunteers globally dropped by 58 per cent — from 250 million to 105 million. Had it not been for the few leaders who welcomed us as an opportunity rather than as a threat, we too would be part of these statistics.

Ricardo Camacho Zeas
Ricardo Camacho Zeas is director of communications and dissemination, Ecuadorian Red Cross.

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