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Facing these dilemmas…
what would you do?

Neutrality and independence in the fight against Ebola

Photo: ©LRCS”In the early stages of the Ebola virus disease outbreak, as the Liberian Red Cross Society [LRCS] took over the safe and dignified burials service, we had a real challenge in the area of neutrality and the use of the emblem,” says Neima Candy, national Ebola virus disease coordinator for the LRCS. “When we first took over the service from the Ministry of Health, we inherited a policy of armed escorts for safety.”

This posed a serious challenge for the team because even in areas of violence and armed conflict, staff and volunteers of the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement avoid using escorts from police or armed forces because the practice contradicts the Fundamental Principles of neutrality and independence. These principles aim to ensure that people understand these workers are not associated with any political, military or security agenda and that their motivations are purely humanitarian.

“The challenge was that we could not automatically change the policy. Because the government had been running the safe and dignified burials service, and at that time we were only supporting them, we couldn’t change the rules straightaway. Therefore, we weren’t able to use our emblem on the vehicles. And because we weren’t visibly Red Cross, the trust in the community, which understands our neutrality, just wasn’t there. As a result, we experienced continued aggression.

“In Liberia, the Red Cross has long-standing community respect because during the war (1999–2003), the Red Cross was providing burials. So people know that we take care of this service. But because they couldn’t see we were the Red Cross and  neutral, the existing mistrust (of government and health authorities), along with the rumours about Ebola, meant that people often didn’t trust us and refused to let us do our job. Community members were saying, ‘You people are saying you are Red Cross but we are not seeing a red cross’.

“Sometimes they would even fight, which was a concern for the immediate safety of our volunteers. It was also a concern for contagion because if they’ve come in contact with the bodies and then touch the volunteers it’s going to cause chaos.”

What would you do in this situation? How would you convince communities that you are neutral and at the same time convince the police to discontinue the escorts so that you can offer services under the Red Cross emblem?

In dealing with the dilemma posed by obligatory police escorts, Candy says her team looked at this issue from two angles. “Firstly, we wanted to let the people know that we were Red Cross and why we weren’t using our emblem,” she says. “So we increased our social mobilization efforts, especially in communities where we had had resistance. We raised awareness about why we were picking up bodies and the risks associated with bodies remaining in their homes and about how to avoid coming in contact with bodily fluids. Finally, we also raised awareness that even though we came in unmarked cars, this was a Red Cross team.

“The second element was negotiating with the police. At first, they insisted that they must accompany us. Then we started having some cooperation, so we suggested that we do a trial run, collecting bodies without the armed escort. Because we didn’t have any resistance when we went out with just the emblem, the police agreed to stop coming. As we had been scaling up and taking on more responsibility, we were better able to engage with them gradually and diplomatically change the armed-escort policy.

“Neutrality was central in making our decision, but because we had inherited government teams who didn’t have a Red Cross background, we had to work hard to brief those teams on the principle of impartiality. For instance, sometimes the teams would get a call that there was a body to pick up in their area, and it was sometimes difficult to teach some team members that they couldn’t prioritize that pick-up over others.”
As told to Anita Dullard, IFRC communications specialist.

Neutrality at the community level

Photo: ©Belize Red Cross SocietyIn Belize, one of the most common dilemmas faced while working with communities, no matter how large or small, is the interference of politics in humanitarian  action, says Lily Bowman, secretary general of the Belize Red Cross Society. “This causes disparities among community members and has contributed to tensions and conflicts that have lasted many years.

“When the Belize Red Cross began implementing the Resilience in the Americas project in eight communities in northern Belize, the project team experienced first hand the challenges of working with people divided by politics — a situation that truly hampered the neutral work of our organization. In the selection of beneficiary families, for example, if we spoke with people from one political party, then only their party members would be selected. The same was true if we spoke to those from the other political party. There was no focus on vulnerability or need.

“In order to apply neutrality, however, there can be no favouritism and one must avoid political controversies. In the village of San Victor, for example, we are constructing 20 elevated latrines to address the problem of water contamination caused by floods, as well as low-lying latrines for the elderly and disabled. When the project team first introduced the project, the San Victor community was deeply divided politically. Many community members were unwilling to interact with one another. The tension was heavy and it hampered our progress.”

What would you do? How do you maintain the principles of neutrality and impartiality in such a highly partisan environment?

Getting past the political divides that split local communities in Belize took some creativity and hard work. To address this tension, the Belize Red Cross formed community support groups and asked local people to join.

“These groups were comprised of community members who displayed genuine interest in creating sustainability, security, accessibility to services and economic opportunities  for their community, without a political agenda,” says Bowman. “Even  though they were from different political, religious and family backgrounds, they were willing to come together at a common table to address the problems and needs in their community.”

Group members were also introduced to the seven Fundamental Principles, in particular the principle of neutrality. Under the guidance of the project team, group members applied the principles to every activity and every decision-making process and discussion. By doing so, they were able to set aside their political differences and identify a list of the most vulnerable families, from both political parties, who should receive the latrines. The group is following a similar process in a project to create economic opportunities for young people. Bowman says the struggle in other communities continues, but there have been numerous successes by following models similar to this one.

Religious materials under the Red Cross roof?

Photo: ©Torbjørn PedersenDanish Red Cross volunteer and goodwill ambassador Torbjørn ‘Thor’ Pedersen recently found himself in an awkward position vis-à-vis the principles of neutrality and impartiality. Now on a worldwide tour of every country without taking an airplane, Pedersen always visits the National Society and writes about his experiences on his blog (

“One day I found myself visiting a National Society where, as always, I was greeted with warmth and hospitality. While I was there, the National Society invited me to sit in on a leadership seminar for Red Cross youth. I sat down in the classroom and was handed the same material as everyone else. To my surprise I also found a pamphlet from an evangelical Christian denomination known for its active recruitment methods. I looked around the classroom and saw the same pamphlet lying on the tables of the other participants. This outraged me as it strongly conflicted with my understanding of the Fundamental Principles.”

“I chose not to say anything during the class. Later when I was alone with the Red Cross youth leader I brought up the subject of the religious pamphlet. The leader remarked that he was aware of this. However he said the teacher was very good and had been a part of the Red Cross for many years as a volunteer educating young people. Besides, he said, the teacher never brought up the issue of religion while teaching. Having in mind that I was a guest, I discreetly questioned the youth leader if he could see that this was a problem. He just nodded his head and shrugged his shoulders. Personally, I think the local National Society should keep the educator but tell him that the distribution of unrelated pamphlets cannot take place under the Red Cross roof.’’


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