Dr Astrid N Heiberg,
President of the International Federation of Red
Cross and Red Crescent Societies
27th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red
Crescent, Geneva, 1 November 1999
Your Royal Highnesses,
At the heart of the Red Cross and Crescent lies humanity. Humanity as a
principle of preventing and alleviating human suffering, but also humanity as
the power of the human spirit – such as in our more than 100 million volunteers
keeping hope alive throughout the world.
«Keep hope alive!» was the motto of the 26th International Conference in
1995, which I had the honour to chair. Hope has been kept alive all through this
brutal and devastating century. Through world wars, cold war, ethnic wars. Hope
was kept alive in the mudded fields of Central America last year, in the
flooded areas of China and Bangladesh, in the rubble in Turkey and Taipei, in
the refugee camps in the Balkans, in the mine riddled lands in Angola.
And has hope survived this century, this age of extremes, then I believe we
will keep hope alive for the next century as well. But to do so calls for
commitment -- our, common, humanitarian commitment.
Preparedness for natural disasters
Even if war is a killer, nature can be
even worse. Over the last decade, natural disasters have on average killed
around 128.000 people and affected another 136 million every year.
We may speak of exceptional combinations of drought and flood, we may speak
of exceptional hurricane patterns. But what we used to consider
exceptional, has become regular. Our 1999 edition of The World Disasters Report
gave some disturbing messages:
- First, climate change is no longer a
doomsday prophecy, but a reality. It does take place.
- Secondly, the
changing climate means changing disaster patterns. We will see far more extreme
weather conditions in future, weather patterns that will cause disasters. These
days India is hit again by the fury of another super-cyclone.
New natural disasters are more complex and more comprehensive than in the
past. In Honduras last December, sixty percent of the country's economy was
destroyed in just two days. We see super-disasters that overload the world's
emergency response capacity, and drain the reserves of the global insurance
industry. In parts of the Caribbean, the insurance industry has stopped insuring
– it is too risky even for the industry living from risk.
Natural disasters hit the most vulnerable hardest. Over 90 per cent of all
deaths caused by disaster occur in developing countries; and the economic losses
are – relative to the size of the economy – 20 times greater than in industrial
countries. And outlooks are not good: With almost a billion people now living in
unplanned urban shantytowns, with deforestation wrecking ecological defences,
and with global warming making the forces of wind, rain and sun ever harder to
predict and counter, the poor people of the world are more at risk than ever
These are alarming predictions. But we must have the courage to move beyond
mere statements about the gloomy pictures and depressive statistics. We must
look at what solutions we can provide.
The first challenge is to prepare ourselves. Are we
An evaluation carried out last spring of preparedness and
reponse to Hurricanes Georges and Mitch found that international resources often
arrive too late to be of assistance during the immediate post-event phase. And
foreign medical teams actually placed «another burden on the health institutions
during the most critical time of the response.» Aid given was sometimes
misdirected, because local communities were not sufficiently involved in
needs-assessment or response, and coordination between affected countries,
international agencies and donors was not adequate. These were general
statements. But are we sure they are not also relevant to us? I do not exclude
New solutions are needed. More investment before disaster strikes – on
strengthening the disaster preparedness and response capacities of hazard-prone
countries – would mean fewer lives lost and fewer donor funds wasted in the
What does this all tell us?
Disasters can no longer be
separated from development. We must stop seeing disasters as disturbances in the
steady progress towards greater development and instead see them as part of
development. When governments are unable to cope with the burden of disaster,
then disasters have become a development challenge. Therefore:Governments,
financial institutions, and international organisations must integrate our
knowledge about disaster patterns in their development strategies.
We do have the knowledge needed to act. We know that
- We can mitigate
disasters by taking measures ahead of time to reduce their impact, such as
better forecasting and warning systems. Many natural disasters are becoming
annual events and can be predicted. What is needed, is to act on these
- We can prepare for disasters by integrating disaster
preparedness at all levels, and ensure that the international relief system
matches the local system. One important lesson from «Hurricane Mitch» is that
local preparedness must also imply being prepared to receive international
- We can respond to disasters by improving systems to release
funds more promptly.
- We can carry out rehabilitation in a way that
contributes to long-term improvements for the vulnerable.
We can do all this, if organisations, governments and international
organisations all pull in the same direction. But we cannot deliver if
governments continue the present trend of cutting back on development assistance
and emergency aid. Official development aid is now at its lowest level in the
history of development aid. And emergency aid has fallen by 40 per cent since
Negative as it may be, this trend is a reality. So rather than only
complaining -- everybody does that -- we would take the liberty to offer advise
on how to spend the limited funds available.
Dear friends: Investing in disaster preparedness pays off.
World Bank and US Geological Survey have calculated that economic losses
worldwide from natural disasters could be reduced by as much as 280 billion US
dollars by investing around one-seventh of that sum in preparedness, mitigation
and prevention strategies.
- Or, to speak of gains rather than losses: In
China, a recent analysis indicated that 3.5 billion dollars invested in flood
control has saved the economy 12 billion dollars of potential losses.
Preparedness makes the difference. But what do we mean by
That depends on the local reality. Let me give two examples.
- In Bangladesh, satellites track typhoon movements in the Bay of Bengal,
warning messages are relayed into threatened areas through dozens of dedicated
radio stations and up to 30.000 Red Crescent-trained volunteers with loud
hailers encourage people to use concrete typhoon shelters. This typhoon and
flood early warning system provides a succesful model of how technology and
community-based action can combine to save lives.
- Less sophisticated, but
no less important, are the simple signposts put up in the South Pacific,
indicating east, west, north and south. When people hear weather forecasts on
radio, they will know where the cyclone is coming from and can take precautions
So effective preparedness can be high-tech or low-tech, but it must be local.
And the backbone of local preparedness is volunteers. This is why the
International Federation pledges to this Conference to strengthen the role and
status of volunteers in our organisation.
Preparedness in times of armed conflict
The importance of local and
national preparedness is also evident in armed conflict. The last years we
have seen how military and militia campaigns can displace vast populations in
few hours and days. We see how social unrest has the potential of developing
rapidly into violence. In these circumstances, humanitarian action cannot wait,
and this is why we need to secure local and national preparedness.
We see how many armed conflicts are no longer international in the
traditional sense, but are rooted in complex, national or regional realities,
with history, culture and ethnic origins playing an important role. In such
situations there are limits to what outsiders can do, because the conflicts are
so all-encompassing, so intertwined with local realities. This is why we can
prevent violence more effectively with local Red Cross and Red Crescent
volunteers promoting humanitarian values, and doing so in a way that is adapted
to local and national reality. As an acknowledgement of this, our National
Societies will take on a more active role in promoting humanitarian values and
international humanitarian law, to make the next 50 years of the Geneva
Conventions even more succesful than the past 50 years.
Any society is a delicate network of history, culture, economy, politics, all
that shape local or national identity. When this network is threatened with
deterioration, because of conflict or disaster, then those living in the
society, those that are part of the fabric, are the ones best placed to prevent,
limit and repair. International assistance in times of emergency will always be
needed, but no international organisation, no donor government or donor National
Society can replace the preparedness on the spot.
Our Movement as well must acknowledge this in our international activities.
Our international efforts must be coordinated, and they must enhance local
capacities. In the «Seville agreement» between the ICRC, National Societies and
their International Federation, developing National Societies' capacities is an
important element. As we are now embarking upon shaping a Strategy for the
Movement, we will reinforce this joint effort.
Last week, the International Federation
adopted the Strategy 2010, the common strategy of all National Red Cross and Red
Crescent Societies and their Federation. Here, we commit ourselves to be more
focused in the way we work. A key focus is to improve disaster preparedness and
response capacities through our National Societies.
We cannot do this alone. Therefore I will use this unique opportunity when
our Movement meet with governments on a purely humanitarian platform, to invite
the governments to unite with us in a partnership for preparedness. We
have the local expertise, because we have the people, in virtually all countries
of the world. You have resources, however scarce, and they should be invested
with a better return. Together we can build local preparedness, together we can
improve national preparedness plans, together we can incorporate disaster
preparedness into development plans.
Together we can prevent a lot of misery. We always say we want to make a
difference to the lives of vulnerable people. Our challenge is that we actually
can. We can take on this humanitarian commitment. Let us do it.
Text submitted prior to
| top |
© 1999 | French (homepage) |