by Mr Tadateru Konoé, President of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies

The scale of humanitarian need around the world is expanding exponentially, emerging from environments that are so dangerous and highly complex that few organizations can act within them. This reflects a broader pattern: 80 per cent of humanitarian aid is being spent in countries where there is some sort of conflict.[1] Natural disasters such as severe tropical storms, droughts, floods and wildfires are increasing in frequency and severity; oftentimes occurring in situations of conflict or chronic violence. These and other large-scale emergencies such as outbreaks of deadly diseases require mass mobilization of local volunteers within risky environments.

Today, around the world, more than one million Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteers are providing humanitarian services in countries where there are situations of conflict. Local volunteers in these contexts bring considerable advantages, they understand the complexity of the situations and know how to manoeuvre and get things done. They can also operate on a scale that is unmatched. In Syria for example, more than 9 million people were helped by volunteers from the Syrian Arab Red Crescent in just three months (July, August and September) in 2014. In West Africa, 3.2 million people were reached in Ebola-affected countries by Red Cross volunteers.

The work of these volunteers however comes with considerable risk. Over the past two years, nearly 50 of our local aid workers, including volunteers, have died in the line of duty. In previous years (1994-2014), 20 per cent of Red Cross and Red Crescent aid workers were killed by conflict or violence-related injuries and 60 per cent or our fatalities were as a result of natural disasters. Statistics from recent years show that the trend has completely shifted, with80 per cent of our aid workers were killed by conflict related injuries and 10 per cent as a result of natural disasters. In addition to fatalities, many more have been injured or put under such extreme psychological stress that they require significant and advanced support for many years.

The stories that volunteers in these challenging situations tell offer an excellent example of local resilience and solidarity in the face of conflict and crisis, of mobilizing in the face of great risks and of taking up the reins within their own communities when most others cannot, or will not. Greater attention must be paid to the critical roles they play, and the short and long-term risks they face.

Some of these risks include facing stigma and the potential of attack from the communities they are operating within, lacking access to all of the equipment and training they need, managing challenges in community acceptance, accessing affected populations, psychological distress and inadequate insurance and other ‘safety-nets’.

While there has been considerable research and writings about conflict settings, major emergency responses and other complex environments, little attention has been given to the needs, experiences, lessons and practices of volunteering in these situations. The motivation, dignity and commitment of each individual volunteer despite the manifold challenges and risks they face, continue to profoundly impress and move me. Time and again they talk of helping their communities, of saving lives, of the fact that no one else is there to do it and how they must stand up for the vulnerable. They also strive to work according to the Fundamental principles of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, maintaining Impartiality and Neutrality, attempting to win or maintain the confidence of all sides of conflicts, so that they can service the needs of everyone affected by the conflict.

It is critical for humanitarian organizations to take precautions here. The commitment of humanitarian volunteers to the cause and to their communities coupled with their effectiveness and scale, can also make them vulnerable within highly dangerous settings where international aid workers cannot operate anyway. Care must be taken to ensure that the large cohorts of local volunteers are consulted and included in design and decision-making and not relegated solely to execution of tasks.

Humanitarian need is likely to continue to outstrip the global capacity (or will) to fund the required response. Investment in volunteering is therefore one of the most pragmatic ways, or sometimes only available option, for responding to this need. It can simultaneously contribute to strengthening local communities, building organizational capacities and increasing the capability for rapid and innovative humanitarian responses.

Greater efforts also need to be made to ensure that the role of volunteers is understood by all, making certain that they are allowed safer access to reach those in need. Just as there are local imperatives for ensuring people understand and respect the work of local volunteers, it is also significant internationally. Greater research and dissemination is needed to ensure that global actors understand and provide appropriate support for local volunteers, including engaging them in decision-making processes and providing protection and support that match the protection and support received by paid staff or international aid workers.

This is not just a practical programmatic imperative but a great moral and humanitarian obligation we owe to these brave local volunteers.

On the 5th of December, International Volunteer Day, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) will be releasing their Global Review on Volunteering, which is the largest study ever conducted with Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteers. Almost 600 volunteers and staff members were interviewed or surveyed in 158 countries. The report is available on the IFRC website ifrc.org/volunteers

[1] Valerie Amos (2015)