Hosted by the Australian Red Cross, a very tech- and media-savvy National Society with robust domestic and international operations, the gathering gave the 1,000-plus delegates who attended a chance to learn about the specific issues at play in Australia and the region.
“On behalf of the Gadigal, I welcome you,” aboriginal elder Allen Madden told delegates as he kicked off the grand opening ceremony. The Gadigal were the original people who lived in the area around Sydney, Madden explained, as the welcome continued with the warm, pulsing rhythm of the didgeridoo and a ceremony in which smoke from particular plants is used to purify or prepare a space for important activities or gatherings.
Meanwhile, the strong representation of Pacific island nations was a reminder that climate change — a central humanitarian challenge for coming decades — will directly affect the future of many nearby cultures. The effect of climate change on the severity of storms was also brought home forcefully by the landfall of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, just as delegates from National Societies around the world made their way to Sydney.
The response to the typhoon became a defining theme of the conference with many of the topics addressed in workshops — humanitarian diplomacy, Movement coordination, beneficiary communications, appeals for funding — playing out in real time as teams from the IFRC, the ICRC and numerous National Societies organized relief operations, held press conferences and launched appeals.
Similarly, the ongoing conflict in Syria, where the Syrian Arab Red Crescent is a playing a key humanitarian role (with ICRC and IFRC support), was another central theme in press conferences and public appeals for protection and support of humanitarian relief efforts.
The meetings were also a chance to tackle some thorny internal issues, such as cooperation between the IFRC, National Societies and the ICRC, as well as some critical future external challenges, from automated weaponry to nuclear weapons or the diminishing respect for humanitarian workers in many contexts.
The Movement also welcomed two new National Societies (Cyprus and South Sudan) with official admission to the IFRC. The Sydney meetings also marked the first time that the Global Youth Summit was held just before the General Assembly, a deliberate move by organizers to bring the energy and momentum of young people in the decision-making process, according to Ashanta Osborne Moses, chair of the IFRC’s Global Youth Commission. “We are only achieving a small portion of what we have the potential to do because our young people have not been fully part of the decision-making process,” she said.
Your ‘stitch’ in the development ‘tapestry’
The post-Millennium Development Goals (MDG) agenda was another central, forward-looking theme. Given that key promises made as part of the United Nations (UN) 2015 MDG (eradicating extreme poverty, providing universal access to clean water and health care) will not be met before next year’s deadline, how can the Movement help turn things around?
Amina Mohammed, UN special adviser on post-2015 development planning, challenged National Societies to help set the agenda. “We want a development agenda that we all recognize as our own, in which you see your stitch in the tapestry of the post-2015 MDG agenda,” she told the gathering. “What we don’t want is an agenda that’s carried from New York to the countries and then we spend the next five years trying to implement it.”
Many National Society leaders, such as Anselme Katiyunguruza, secretary general of the Burundi Red Cross, responded by saying that building and sustaining local volunteer networks is a crucial step. “If we want to meet important development goals, we need to transform vulnerable people into people who are empowered to help others,” he said.
By Malcolm Lucard
Malcolm Lucard is editor of Red Cross Red Crescent magazine.