4 December 2015


Opening Remarks

General Assembly of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies


Ladies and gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure to welcome you to this opening session of our General Assembly. Two years ago, I stood for re-election under the slogan “Uniting the Power of Humanity”. I believed then that our greatest strength came from our shared identity, an identity rooted in our Principles, a belief that together we are stronger.

I still believe this. Our power as a Federation, grows exponentially when we work together, when we build on our commonalities and commit to overcoming our differences.

Today, I would like to spend a few moments looking at how we are shaped by our collective responsibility and collective action, and the obligations that flow from this, including to strengthen the capacity of our fellow Societies. I will then look at some of the challenges we are facing, including the very real challenge of recruiting and retaining our volunteers in order to build resilient National Societies.

As we will hear many times over the coming days, the humanitarian environment has changed dramatically even since we last met. Climate change has triggered natural disasters and created new weather patterns that are unpredictable and severe, threatening communities in every region of the world. Conflicts, political instability, economic crises, and widening inequalities have exposed millions to intolerable risks, forcing more people to flee their homes than at any point since the end of the Second World War. The causes and consequences of humanitarian crises are interlinked, and, in the absence of meaningful political solutions and a unified response from the international community, many of them will only worsen.

These changes also present opportunities. We are uniquely placed to respond to these challenges. No other actor has our reach, our community-level capacity backed by our international resources and solidarity. We must seize these opportunities if we are to remain relevant. Change is not something new. What is new is the pace with which things are changing. If we are to maintain our position as the world’s most recognized and trusted humanitarian actor, then we must ensure that we can adapt to this new environment.

In September, Governments adopted a new development agenda, with 17 Sustainable Development Goals at its centre. These goals better reflect the complex challenges that vulnerable communities face, and capture an ambition that has not previously been seen. I am happy to see that these goals reflect our priorities, including the critical role of national actors, the link between humanitarian crises and development, and the need to invest in strengthening resilience.

The emphasis on resilience, and on disaster risk reduction as a key mechanism for strengthening it, builds on the outcome of the UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction that was held in Sendai this past March. Many of us attended that conference. I was privileged to speak on behalf of the 48 National Societies in attendance, and the rest of you around the world, calling for the formation of a “One Billion Coalition for Resilience.” The fact that our priorities have been so faithfully captured in both the Sendai outcome and the SDGs, speaks to our influence, and to the leadership role that we can play, that we are expected to play.

And these expectations are great.

In Sendai, I spoke to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. We discussed the role of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, and he highlighted the continued importance of our Fundamental Principles of Humanity, Impartiality, Neutrality, and Independence that now serve as the broad foundation of humanitarian action. He urged me to defend these principles, and to demonstrate their continued relevance, at a time when some are questioning their role in a modern and asymmetrical world. This is, of course, an important year for our principles. I will return to this in a few moments.

Secretary General Ban Ki-moon praised the work of all of you, singling out our National Societies from the Middle East and North Africa who are on the frontline of some of today’s defining humanitarian crises. He emphasized the importance of supporting local humanitarian actors. Supporting its members to become stronger is at the heart of the Federation’s mission. Doing so not only improves the capacity of the Movement as a whole, but allows us to live up to the heady expectations of the international community and, more importantly, to the expectations of the people we serve.

We are stronger when we work together.

When a major disaster strikes, there is usually a limit to how much a single National Society can respond. It is during these times that other members of our Federation also mobilize. This is the strength of our network, something that our partners and governments often only recognize once they have seen the speed, the scale and the quality of our coordinated responses. That realization often leads to improved support for the host Society. It is an important part of the IFRC’s humanitarian diplomacy—an important part of my job—to seize this moment, to open a dialogue with governments about the importance of the National Society’s auxiliary role.

Following the earthquake in April, the Nepal Red Cross played a major role in the humanitarian response, with the backing of its Movement partners, including the ICRC. Prime Minister Koirala personally conveyed his thanks to us at the International Conference on Nepal’s Reconstruction. The Nepal Red Cross was able to play this role because of its nationwide network of trained volunteers, and the credibility that came with this capacity. This capacity and credibility was strengthened by the response of our Movement.

The power of our shared humanity also came to the fore during the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. Thirteen African Societies leapt into action, and in the three countries with the largest number of cases, approximately 4,000 trained volunteers were joined by more than 450 personnel sent by sister Societies. They played a critical role in ending the outbreak. Only local volunteers, steeped in local traditions and trusted by the community, can engage with people on the risks associated with traditional burial customs, safeguarding the dignity of the dead while mitigating these risks. These community-level interventions were enhanced by the generosity and comradery of African National Societies, who shared their experiences to similar outbreaks.

We are stronger also when we work as a Movement. During the Council of Delegates we will reflect and vote on a series of processes designed to improve our collaboration with the ICRC, including the initiative to strengthen Movement Coordination and Cooperation, and to adopt a Movement logo. These processes have been underpinned by a very practical and meaningful engagement between the two international components of our Movement.

We are deeply interconnected, and we are better when we embrace this.

However, in a time when information can travel from one side of the world to another in hours, our shared identity also means that our missteps can affect our entire Movement. Unfortunately, there are some Societies who are struggling with such issues. First and foremost, each Society is responsible for solving its own problems. But the impact that our individual issues can have on the wider membership must instill a sense of urgency. Other Societies in the region and beyond who know what is happening, have a responsibility to offer support, or to encourage others to take action. The affected National Society should do so with the knowledge that they can draw on the expertise of their entire Federation.

The IFRC also has a role to play. Working in tandem with the ICRC, our Secretariat periodically investigates whether each Society’s statutes are in line with our Fundamental Principles, and are suitable to the needs of our time. During a meeting of the Governing Board last year, the IFRC adopted guidelines to increase accountability to every stakeholder in National Societies and the IFRC itself. This is an important step. However, we must not flinch at the hard truth that there is much work that remains to be done.

The integrity of a National Society is directly linked to its capacity to deliver services and support to vulnerable communities. Only a strong Society, supported by a robust volunteer network and with a culture of youth engagement, a strong funding base, and high-quality leadership, can deliver on its mandate. Each Society is responsible for its own development. Above all else, each Society needs to find a way to become self-sufficient by mobilizing resources within its domestic environment on a sustainable basis. Seventy-two National Societies have completed the self-assessment phase of the OCAC process. These assessments have confirmed what we already knew: some Societies are struggling to meet basic operational requirements. They have fragile funding bases and a tendency, as a result, to accede authority to their donors. When supporting a National Society, our goal must ultimately be their autonomy and sustainability. This may challenge some of us to look critically at how we develop our international programmes, asking whether we are always working in true partnership.

Ladies and gentlemen, dear friends;

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the adoption of our Fundamental Principles. In October, the anniversary was commemorated in Vienna, where the principles were originally proclaimed. As I mentioned earlier, we are called to renew our commitment to these principles that bind all of us into a single movement. We are called to make these principles something real, more than just talking points. Once again, this speaks to our individual and common credibility. We share four of our Principles with UN humanitarian agencies and the wider humanitarian community, but our principles run deeper. It takes skill to maintain our independence while acting as an auxiliary of the state. But this is what we must do to prove our efficacy to the government and, more importantly, to the people. We must always remember the principle of unity and strive even harder to carry on our humanitarian work throughout our entire territory. This is a requirement for a new National Society. It must be a requirement for all of us. People will not support a Society that is slow to recognize domestic humanitarian needs.

We ascribe to the principle of Voluntary Service. A motivated, dedicated, and well-qualified volunteer force is every National Society’s greatest asset. However, a recent global review on volunteer action has revealed many challenges that we must tackle head on. Where we have consistent data on volunteering numbers, a 10 per cent decline in the number of volunteers was observed between 2009 and 2013. This was for 43 countries. If this trend holds for a larger pool of countries, in 10 years, the world will have just three-quarters of the number of volunteers we have today, and in 20 years, half. A decline of this scale will have a large and negative impact on our position as a humanitarian organization, and deal an even larger blow to those communities that rely on our support.

Our challenge goes beyond numbers. We cannot confidently say that we are adapting the way we engage volunteers in a world that is changing rapidly. It is increasingly difficult to motivate and retain volunteers. The community is diversifying and challenges are becoming more complex. We cannot see volunteers simply as manpower, as labor for providing humanitarian services, they are the communities we work with and as such we must invest in their personal and professional development. We need to see them as individuals who choose to join us, and who have many other choices besides. We should recognize that their interests and motivations for volunteering are changing.

Changing demographics and humanitarian contexts challenge us to offer opportunities for a more diverse volunteer base. If we are to remain relevant for volunteers, we need to offer a range of avenues that volunteers can contribute to, depending on their interests and competencies.

Gone are the days when volunteers sign up for life. People are now much more cause driven, and they want to see that their investment has an impact. Our volunteer management systems need to be faster, more responsive and more effective.

We need to do a better job of nurturing the commitment of our volunteers. To that end, I believe that it is essential for us, the leaders of National Societies and the IFRC, to extend our concept of accountability to our volunteers, and establish a Movement-wide volunteer charter that clarifies their responsibilities and rights, including the right to a safe working environment, the right to protection, and the right to information about the risks they face. It must include the right to insurance.

The bitter lessons we learned during and following the Rwandan genocide led to the creation of the Code of Conduct. Among other things, that code states that aid organizations are accountable to those they seek to assist. This idea is now widely accepted. Volunteers serve to bridge the gap between ourselves and our beneficiaries. By articulating our accountability to them, we would, I believe give a major boost to volunteerism not only within the Movement but also in civil society as a whole.

Over 150 years ago, Henri Dunant was inspired to humanitarian action by the horrors he witnessed in Solferino. His passion drew volunteers, persuaded leaders, and led eventually to the creation of the Movement we see today. We were created by an action, and our continued credibility relies on our ability to respond to the needs of vulnerable communities.

Jean Pictet, the author of “Red Cross Principles,” put it eloquently when he wrote:

“If the Red Cross were to lose the human touch, its direct contact with suffering, if it were to lose its voluntary character and become tied up with red tape, it would be like a flower which has been plucked and soon withers and dies.” —Jean Pictet

This is where we come from. The way is not clear for humanity. But it is my belief that when the power of humanity that lives in each of us is united, we can begin to light the way.

Thank you.