Outgoing IFRC Secretary General Bekele Geleta says the future will bring radical changes in the way humanitarian assistance is conceived and delivered.
Bekele Geleta ’s career has been nothing if not diverse and full of challenges. In his home country of Ethiopia, he worked as a transport official before being arrested and detained as a political prisoner. Later, he served as his National Society’s secretary general before leaving Ethiopia to become a refugee in Canada, where he eventually got a job with the Canadian Red Cross Society. After stints working at the IFRC secretariat in Geneva, then back again in Canada, he applied for the job of secretary general of the world’s largest volunteer-based humanitarian organization. As his tenure as IFRC secretary general came to a close, we asked him what he’s learned and what he sees as the future of Red Cross Red Crescent humanitarian action.
RCRC: How has your life experience affected the way you see humanitarian assistance?
Geleta: Helping people to survive with the basic necessities is one thing. But what is really important in life is to respect the dignity of the human being. A humanitarian who doesn’t combine this in his or her work is insufficient, or incomplete, in my view. The individuals we are trying to help should be given the feeling that they are responsible for their own lives. We will support them, but the decision is theirs, including whether to accept the assistance or not.
Do humanitarians sometimes not show this respect?
It is not the intention. The overwhelming will is to do good, to support people. But it’s only effective if it’s about engaging the people you are trying to help. Don’t just go and deliver; respect people and listen to them. See what they want and how they see what you are trying to offer. Now, more organizations are beginning to have this approach but for a long time, it was ‘march, deliver and save’. It was the charity mentality.
How do you see the IFRC culture of assistance in this regard?
It is changing due to various influences and due to different experiences we’ve had. I believe we are working within a system that is changing towards an approach that’s about the participation of the people affected and therefore accountability to the beneficiary.
During your tenure as secretary general, you often said that we need to think of what we do as a form of development, not just as emergency response. Can you explain your thinking on this?
The Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement has participated in development right from day one. Just imagine first-aid training for one person in a family. It helps to sustain the productive capacity of the family.
Let’s take preventive health. This is a contribution to development. Or take disaster risk reduction, or capacity building of National Societies. These are all important contributions to development. Helping people to become meaningful participants in the social and economic life of the country is also a huge contribution to development. That is what the Red Cross and Red Crescent does. Where we have failed is to profile this in such a way as to access development funding. We’ve been working on all this using humanitarian funding. If we had started accessing development funding sooner, we would have been able to expand our efforts much further.
What do you say to those who are concerned that if we get too engaged with long-term development funding and projects, then we may not be seen as neutral in some areas where big development funds and agencies are not perceived as neutral?
We are not moving towards big road building projects or building up industries. And we will continue to do the kind of work we do in any case. The only thing we have added is to accept this reality and say clearly that we are going to be part of it.
There is a technological revolution going on around the world. What are your thoughts about the opportunities this offers?
What’s going on now is a civilizational transition. The way people think and the way they connect are going to be dramatically different in the near future. People’s expectations are changing and there is demand for change in many aspects of our society.
For example, in terms of humanitarian assistance, technology now allows members of the diaspora (of countries affected by disaster) to transfer money to their relatives or friends at home simply by pressing a button. This reduces the need for the humanitarian middleman.
That’s why we need to think of bigger and better ways of linking up our membership with what we are doing in the field. On the giving side, we should be able to devise better ways of using technology to trace donations between donors and the National Society branches where people are distributing assistance and helping people in the field.
I believe the intermediary role will still be very important. But it’s about being a humanitarian intermediary in a technology savvy way. The benefit is a lot of cost savings for the whole global health system and a lot of efficiency in humanitarian assistance. But there has to be a change in the way we think and the way we do things.
What changes are necessary?
It won’t be like it used to be where our job was mainly to deliver things. No. It’s more about helping households become active participants in the growth-making decisions about their lives, even in small ways.
It is going to be a role that contributes to self-sufficiency, that helps the vulnerable become more independent. It will no longer be about charity.
What experiences have helped shape this view?
I remember meeting a young man in Africa a few years ago and he asked me, “Why are contributing to our agony?” I said, “What do you mean?“ He said, “You buy things, bring them here, distribute them and when you go, we are left with nothing. Aren’t you an African? Don’t you feel anything? If you are an African, work in the right way or leave us alone.” It was extremely painful and it has made a big difference in terms of shaping the way I think about humanitarian assistance.
Former IFRC Secretary General Bekele Geleta speaking at the inaugural African Leadership Forum, in Johannesburg, South Africa, November 2010.
Photo: ©Devon Krige/IFRC
“Don’t just go
and listen to them
… Now, more
beginning to have
this approach but
for a long time,
it was ‘march,
deliver and save’.
It was the charity