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Introducing Bekele Geleta

 

The International Federation’s new secretary general, Bekele Geleta, was born in Ethiopia 64 years ago. He brings a wealth of experience in leadership roles in business, the humanitarian sector and government. But he has also known great hardship, as a political prisoner for five years and as a middle-aged refugee in Canada. Red Cross Red Crescent magazine finds out what moves him.

 

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 us.

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 pull together.

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.


Bekele Geleta
©INTERNATIONAL FEDERATION

 

 

 

 

 

Rosemarie North is International Federation editor of Red Cross Red Crescent.

 

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