Just four days after becoming secretary general, you issued
a warning about the high cost of food at the G8 meeting in
Japan. Does hunger particularly worry you?
Yes, it does concern me. Hunger has always been in the background
in the humanitarian world. Now it’s a crisis of civilization
with factors that aggravate hunger — poverty, disasters,
crop failures, population growth, unequal distribution of
food, increased demand for crops as fuel and a clash of cultures
that create a lot of conflict.
But we can also be hopeful. Human ingenuity will respond
in the long run with a solution. Hunger is the business of
the Red Cross Red Crescent in different ways. One is our response
to acute hunger. The other is building resilience, such as
through the International Federation’s five-year food
security programme in 15 African countries. Helping people
to help themselves is very important.
What other issues are at the top of your agenda?
Many lives are being affected — but many lives are also
being saved — through natural disasters, climate change,
urban violence, population movement and migration, diseases.
We are also contributing to community-based and indigenous
civil society decision-making, increased accountability and
even democratization. We’re contributing to peace, and
building capacity and civil society at a grass-roots level.
For example, the Afghanistan Red Crescent is present in all
of Afghanistan’s districts. Where no other organization
is present, the National Society is there. In Myanmar, where
they don’t allow external organizations, the National
Society is there. Governments and communities are recognizing
Volunteers work together across the board without distinction
of gender, ethnicity or colour. They work together around
the fundamental principles and they are really a very, very
good group. We can make a big difference in the world if we
What motivates you?
In 1984, I joined the Red Cross in Ethiopia on a Tuesday and
on the Thursday the secretary general took me to an area where
there was hunger. A couple came to me and asked for clothing
so they could bury their two children who had died of hunger.
“We want to wrap them up,” they told me. It was
the most shocking incident I have had in my life. You see
the emotional strain. You feel the bitterness of life in their
eyes, the hatred of life. They’re not crying. That was
extremely moving. I hadn’t seen anything like that.
We did everything to make sure their children had a decent
burial and supported them.
As a result of that experience, I had a tremendous determination
to make a difference. In Ethiopia, we did. We ran a very efficient
system. I worked around the clock.
It’s extremely painful to see children suffering from
lack of food and reaching a stage where they are malnourished
and dying. That weighs very, very heavily on my mind. It’s
one of the things that wakes me up at night.
What do you bring to your new role?
I have lived vulnerability myself. I know what it is. I come
from a poor family. I know what it is to go to school hungry.
I have served time in prison. And I know what it is to be
a refugee. This gives me insight. I know that if people are
supported they can turn around an adverse situation. I’m
really motivated to help them help themselves. It can be done.
What is the future of the Movement?
There’s no question in my mind that the Movement has
a very strong future. Disasters never stop, conflicts may
not end and people’s differences will still divide us.
Although there is an overwhelming impulse of human beings
to help others in need, deep differences still divide. This
is a contradiction in the human mind — saving lives
but at the same time not stopping conflict and violence.
National Societies are the basis of the International Federation.
The global network and the grass-roots community volunteers,
with our unique humanitarian principles — that is what
makes the Red Cross Red Crescent.