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From Sydney, with love

It’s fitting that as the Movement celebrated the 150th anniversary of the first National Societies, it held its statutory meetings in Sydney, Australia — the opposite side of the globe from the old cities of Europe where the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement began in 1863.

THE GATHERING WAS in many ways a reflection of how far the Movement has come; in geographic, cultural and technical terms, but also in terms of the complex humanitarian crises and issues the Movement seeks to address in the 21st century.

It was a rainy, grey day in Sydney when Movement leaders, volunteers and supporters from around the world donned red rain ponchos and brought vivid colour to the steps of the Sydney Opera House, one of Australia’s most iconic landmark structures, during the November 2013 Red Cross and Red Crescent statutory meetings.
Photo: ©Louise M. Cooper/Australian Red Cross

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.












Voices from Sydney

The meetings in Sydney were marked by many passionate speakers who addressed issues that will occupy the Movement in coming years. Here are just a few.

photo: ©Australian Red Cross

Charlotte Nordström
Photo: ©Australian Red Cross

Nuclear weapons

Charlotte Nordström, volunteer coordinator for the Norwegian Red Cross. From her statement to the Council of Delegates in support of a resolution calling for the elimination of nuclear weapons.

I grew up after the Cold War. The arguments defending the existence of nuclear weapons are therefore difficult for me to understand. But the scale of human suffering that they cause has never been clearer. That’s why exactly one year ago, the Red Cross youth in Norway took to the streets to collect support for our cause and we did it with great success.

I believe we can help break the deadlocks that have persisted for far too long in nuclear disarmament discussions. Prevention is the only viable option. We will not live under the threat that could destroy all life on our planet — and we will not leave this work to others.

Humanitarian targets

Fiona Terry, humanitarian and author, speaking at the Humanitarian Forum, a platform for debate of humanitarian issues before the opening of the statutory meetings, on the increased targeting of humanitarian workers.

Twenty-one years ago I boarded a cargo plane from Melbourne headed for Somalia. I landed in the epicentre of a famine. What we saw there was unimaginable. I was absolutely not prepared. And we had to do horrible things, like decide who would have access to feeding centres because we didn’t have enough food for everybody. And the reason we didn’t have enough food was because our humanitarian supplies were being stolen by armed militias. Confronted with that, we had to do as we could. Then we realized that the only way we could possibly bring food in — because there were about 200 people dying per day — was to hire ‘technicals’, which were these pickup trucks with machine guns mounted on the back, so they would protect the food and provide some security.

The ethical dilemmas this raised — paying armed security to protect us and deliver humanitarian aid over the barrel of a gun — was unimaginable. I had worked in northern Iraq and we had nothing like that. And we honestly thought that there could never be a situation as difficult as that which we faced in 1992 and 1993 in Somalia. But we were wrong. Because two decades later I’m back working in Somalia and I am not even able to go back to places where we went behind these ‘technicals’ 20 years ago.

Yes, we have become as a humanitarian community a lot more risk averse. I don’t think people would do today what we did then. But at the same time, we were not being targeted then as aid workers. We might be caught in the cross fire, but we were not killed back then or kidnapped for what we represented. This is the reality today.

Fiona Terry
Photo: ©Australian Red Cross



Lucy Yaneth Murillo, volunteer and leader, Colombian Red Cross Society. Murillo became paraplegic after a plane accident three years ago. A volunteer before and after her accident, she says the Movement needs to see people with disabilities not just as beneficiaries, but as volunteers, employees and future leaders.

When you have an accident that limits your physical ability, then you feel like organizations such as the Red Cross are not the best organizations to volunteer for because of the kind of work that implies. And discrimination comes from everywhere, even from other volunteers. So it is necessary that people with disabilities find a way of saving lives from another angle. It’s also necessary that the Movement makes the inclusion of people with disabilities an absolute priority.

Entrepreneurial spirit

Ben Huh, internet entrepreneur and CEO of the Cheeseburger Network. Huh describes himself as an internet entrepreneur who develops platforms that “help people make other people laugh”. At the macro level, we are moving away from a world defined by hierarchies to one of networks. And it’s not that hierarchies will go away or that they are bad. It’s that opportunity for future progress lies more in the acceptance of networks of peers. It’s no longer about power structures who say, ‘you must do this, you must do that’. It’s about organization of people whose collaborative methods of doing business are going to be far more profitable and far more effective over the long term.

Ben Huh
Photo: ©Australian Red Cross

Juliana Rotich
Photo: ©Australian Red Cross

Silos and open software

Juliana Rotich, executive director of Ushahidi, which develops free open-source software for use in crises around the world. The thing to think about from a local level and from a global level is: are you operating in silos? What are the systems and processes to break down those silos so openness can be a guiding principle? Because that’s how we can get back to principles of unity and universality. We are learning that closed systems don’t give you as much impact and scale, and they are not the kind of invitation for participation and community as you get with the open-source ethos.


The humanitarian torch

Abdulrahman Attar, president of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC), accepting the Red Cross and Red Crescent Peace Prize for Peace and Humanity on behalf of his National Society and its volunteers. Let me tell you what a SAR C female volunteer said when she was asked what volunteering means to her. She said, ‘My college closed its doors and I stopped teaching. I lost my job and my home. But I wanted to help my people and my country. I had nothing left but my soul, but I wanted to give it to SAR C and the International Movement, which I truly believe in.’ These are the principles of the SAR C volunteers. Maybe we, the International Movement, can’t solve the world’s problems, but we can line up the solutions if we keep the humanitarian torch alight.

Abdulrahman Attar
Photo: ©Australian Red Cross

Photo: ©Australian Red Cross

Critical mass

Cheryl Kernot, director of Australia’s Centre for Social Impact. Kernot challenged the Movement and large humanitarian organizations to engage and partner with small innovative grass-roots organizations and social entrepreneurs. There is a critical mass of young people who see the failure of big institutions and governments to address intractable social needs. That failure is a call to action for doing things differently. I want to ask you: does the way you are structured, the way you are governed, aid or assist the achievement of your mission? How quickly can you adapt to the cultural change that resides in the skills of young people and the fact that the IT [information technology] revolution has connected us more than ever with our brothers and sisters around the world? For me, [it’s about] the capacity to build collaboration and partnership across sectors, because the question is what is the legacy of humanitarian assistance and aid going to be? Is it a short-term, quick-fix, move-on-to-the-next area of need? Or is it about leaving a lasting legacy of empowerment, economic self-sufficiency, etc.?


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