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Born to volunteer


An interview with Tadateru Konoé, newly elected president of the IFRC

Since joining the Japanese Red Cross Society in 1964, Tadateru Konoé has dedicated his life to the Movement. For more than 45 years, including eight years at the IFRC secretariat in Geneva, he has responded to nearly every major conflict, natural disaster or health crisis of his era. Since April 2005, he has served as president of the Japanese Red Cross Society and in the same year, he was elected vice president of the IFRC. Red Cross Red Crescent recently caught up with him to learn more about what drives him and his vision for the Movement’s future.

Red Cross Red Crescent: You describe yourself as “a born Red Crosser” because you were born on Henry Dunant’s birthday. When you joined as a volunteer, what motivated you?
The extent of my awareness as a child was that my birthday was the same day as World Red Cross Red Crescent Day. It wasn’t until I was older that I learned about Dunant. But 8 May also marks the day that Coca-Cola first went on sale, and I suspect my friends would have respected that more. I discovered what the Red Cross Red Crescent actually did quite by chance, from a photojournalism book. It had a special report on the Red Cross, and I was very moved by this organization that did such amazing work, even in the midst of wartime. After that, I grew very aware of the Red Cross Red Crescent.

The cold war was on for the entirety of my student days; everything was weighed on the ideological scale, with a serious clash between the left and right in Japan, and war breaking out in a number of places overseas. Even in times like this, the Red Cross Red Crescent was everywhere, always acting, always non-partisan, and I started to feel drawn to it.

Do you remember when you first felt the urge to volunteer?
The Red Cross Red Crescent had a particular prominence in Japan, our country having lost diplomatic ties with a number of nations following the Second World War. The Japanese Red Cross Society was frequently at the front and centre of negotiations in resolving humanitarian disputes with those nations, filling in for the government. In addition, due in part to my adopted father’s experience with the Red Cross after the war, the organization grew to be a familiar presence in my life.

On my way home from a period of studying abroad, I travelled to a number of places where the East–West standoff was playing out and armed conflicts were taking place. I decided to volunteer for the Japanese Red Cross when I got back, until I found a job. I had no intention of working there due to the low salary offered, but my father knew the organization and encouraged me not to discount it as a full-time occupation. He didn't offer to make up the pay, however.

Now that you are president of the IFRC, how has your perspective and motivation changed or evolved?
I have always believed that even between the most rancorously opposed nations, peoples, faiths and social forces, there are shared interests and that chief among those is humanitarianism. What keeps driving me is the idea that, even if the dream of humanitarianism and peace is unattainable for the human race, why not follow that dream as long as it exists? What I hope to achieve, before any other goal, is dialogue, reconciliation and solidarity within the Movement.

How has the Movement changed over the years?
The Movement’s spirit of humanitarian ism is the same, now or 150 years ago. What has changed in recent years is the environment that surrounds humanitarianism. Humanitarian interest is high for conflicts or disasters, whether the issue be the natural environment, popul ation movements, healthcare, welfare services or poverty. But whatever we do, it is becoming harder to distinguish ourselves in a way that strikes people as “only with the Red Cross Red Crescent”. There are more players, fiercer competition.

The strength of the Movement is in the world wide network of National Societies, recognized as an auxiliary body to governments and active in a wide range of areas, at the grass-roots, national and international levels. We have three unique strengths: the synergy that comes from the joining of a diversity of activities, the scale of activity and the advantages of a network. When these three things are leveraged, we can actualize the power that you get “only with the Red Cross Red Crescent”.

In terms of the most recent example, we have the Haiti earthquake disaster. Even as the security situation and complete dis - ruption of government services posed an incredible challenge to relief activity, the Haitian National Red Cross Society, on the strength of the trust it had built up with local residents and the government through its consistent community-based volunteerism, lived up to its full potential and more. The other National Societies, from the Americas and beyond, backed their efforts. Where there is much solidarity, there are big results.

You have spoken of the need for the IFRC to become more unified and efficient. What are some of the key ways it can do that?
First of all, we are too ignorant, too often, about what individual National Societies are working on. We cannot create effective partnerships this way, whether we are giving or receiving assistance. What I would like to emphasize above all else is to know who we are. When it comes to major international relief activities, if individual National Societies act on their own reasoning and methods, and their activities are not backed by sufficient coordination, redundancies and waste cannot be avoided and it is doubtful that we will be able to see the big picture in terms of the Movement’s activities and prevail in international competition.

©Thomas Omondi/IFRC








“I have always believed that even between the most rancorously opposed nations, peoples, faiths and social forces, there are shared interests and that chief among those is humanitarianism.”








IFRC President Konoé with Haitian President René Préval.








IFRC President Konoé with Michaèle Gédéon, President of the Haitian National Red Cross Society, in Port-au-Prince on 20 January.






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