Elhadj As Sy International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) Secretary General
Date: Wednesday, 1 May, 2019
Event: Address to the 39th session of the IFRC Governing Board
Location: Geneva, Switzerland

Thank you very much Mr President and distinguished Members of the Board, and again we offer a very warm welcome to you all, here in our new building.

I often start my remarks by reminding myself that principled humanitarian action is a journey. It is a journey of commitment and perseverance. It is a journey of courage and leadership. It is a journey which at times also encounters many uncertainties and many doubts. But most importantly it is a journey of service.

And I feel deeply honoured to be standing in front of you today in this new Henry Dunant Auditorium, realizing again what a privilege it is to serve.

To serve Humanity. To serve our fellow human beings who often overnight find themselves in situations of multiple deprivation, which reduce them to being beneficiaries of help and beneficiaries of assistance.

And the son of Sahel that I am knows only too well that he is not any better than any of those people, those fellow human beings. And again, I dare to affirm that it is indeed a real privilege to serve and not to be served.

The journey is often travelled on bumpy roads, we know, and those roads do test us. They test all those values. Our courage is tested, not to be too daring. Our leadership is tested by power and authority, which often risk being abused. Our uncertainties and doubts force us to be humble, but we must remain humble without being weak.

I stand here today in this year of our Centenary, respectfully and with some emotion, holding up this remarkable document, which is the summary of the proceedings of the Cannes Medical Conference held in April 1919. The text is very clear, and concise. There is not one single typo, at times when there were no computers, no auto-correct, no internet. And, most importantly, the content is quite humbling.

As I read it, I saw the different calls to duty made 100 years ago, which remain just as relevant as today.

The call to “extend greatly the activities of the Red Cross in times of peace, for the prevention of disease and the betterment of the health and general welfare of all people in all countries”.

The call for “the establishment, in connection with an Association or League of National Red Cross Societies, of a Bureau of Health”, again putting Health at the centre of every humanitarian response, but also reminding us that Health is a humanitarian issue of its own if you do not handle it properly.

The call that “the central organization will operate mainly through national Red Cross societies, where they exist”. And where they don’t, it said, we must make every effort to establish them.

The call for “Preventive Medicine, Child Welfare, to fight Tuberculosis, to fight Malaria, to fight Venereal Diseases”. If ever we believe that the idea of a Global Fund to fight AIDS, TB and Malaria was created just a few years ago, we make a big mistake. The idea was born 100 years ago.

The call to make sure that statistics and data are available and used, at times when there was no digital device and no digitalisation.

And finally the call to put education at the centre of what we are doing.

It is quite humbling to hold this document in my hands, and to look at the photos of the very dignified people who were our pioneers. We are walking and serving in the footsteps of great leaders and visionaries.


So from 1919 to 2019, and preparations for our upcoming Statutory Meetings in December this year are well underway.

And in 2019 I think back to when I stood before the Board four years ago back in 2015, in the run up to the last Statutory Meetings that year. As I have reflected on the issues that the Board was dealing with back then, I have realized just how many things have changed even in that short time. And there will of course be many, many more changes over the 100 years. And yet, the issues that we are dealing with remain the same. The principles and values that guide us remain the same, inspiring us now as they did then.

In my address today, I would therefore like to reflect on the journey that we have travelled together over these last few years.

I will provide an update on the financial situation of IFRC. I had previously asked my colleagues to make this presentation according to international financial rules and standards, and that created some misunderstandings among Board members. Today, I will personally make a simple presentation and further explain the financial architecture I designed to manage our resources.

I will also discuss our current operations, complementing my written report which I shared with you. And to close, I will take a very brief look into the future, to the Statutory Meetings of December 2019 and to Strategy 2030 which we discussed yesterday. I hope simply to point out the trends and the axes around which our preparations – as well as our activities – will be articulated.


Back in 2015, I posed a number of critical questions, and I want to mention four of them, because these four align with our Strategies for Implementation in our Plan and Budget. They have become important touchstones as I have sought to guide the work of the Secretariat.

First, as the world’s largest humanitarian organization, are we able to advocate effectively to influence national and global debate, in order not just to be an important actor in the humanitarian ecosystem but also to contribute to shaping it?

Second, as a global emergency network, are we able to respond quickly, anywhere, at any time, and most importantly effectively, by saving lives and alleviating human suffering?

Third, as a Secretariat and a sisterhood of National Societies, do we efficiently support each other, so that each of our members can become self-sufficient and sustainable, able to meet the needs of the most vulnerable in their respective communities?

And fourth and finally, how financially viable are we? Because without finances to accompany those commitments we will not reach the goals that we have set for ourselves.

There are many other questions that I could have chosen, but these seemed the most pertinent, and over the years they have stood the test of time.


So if I may I will reflect on some of them and ask what more is needed as we move to the Statutory Meetings.

Let me look first at Advocacy.

There are immense opportunities for our Federation to advocate on behalf of the most vulnerable, and to influence policy making. In the months before the last Statutory Meetings in 2015, it was apparent that we had not fully harnessed this potential. We struggled to speak as one on some key issues in 2015, and the concept of shared leadership, and optimising impact, was just a fledgling idea.

But over the last few years, we have made some progress.
We built a clear set of global advocacy priorities.
We established issue-specific networks, including, among others, the IFRC Migration Taskforce and the new IFRC Reference Group on Global Health.
We improved communication across our network through online tools.
We increased engagement around key issues through “shared leadership” with interested National Societies.
We pushed very hard, and used our status as an International Organization to obtain speaking roles for National Society representatives.
Wherever possible, we worked as a Movement, with joint messaging and approaches to global processes.

And we are seeing the results. I’d like to mention some of them: like the work we did on disaster risk reduction, climate change and preparedness for extreme weather events, work on migration as well as on preparedness and response to health crises.

Our influence also extends to the fundamental issues about how we – and other actors – approach our work, notably on areas like the localization of humanitarian action, transparency and accountability, and pro-activeness and investing in resilience.

So I will briefly highlight some of the successes – as well as challenges – in each of these areas.

First, we’re a recognised and respected leader in disaster risk reduction, climate change and preparedness for extreme weather events.

Our collective work on this, along with the good work of the IFRC’s Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre, has resulted in seats in the most important forums around the world. That includes the Global Commission on Adaptation, in which the IFRC is leading the action track on preparedness for extreme weather events and disasters. While I was personally invited to take on the role as a Commissioner, I did so in my capacity as IFRC Secretary General, on behalf of you all, and our National Societies.

This engagement, as well as our continued work and advocacy, will help position the IFRC and our membership as we approach the highly anticipated UN Climate Summit.

Second, in the field of migration and access to essential services, we have seen leadership at all levels: at the level of the President and Board; at the level of National Societies; and at the level of volunteers who pave the way of the migration trail, trying to help people not only to get a loaf of bread or water, but to recover the most important thing they have lost on the way, which is their dignity.

The President often says that no human being is illegal. And we should all be committed to protect humanity before we protect borders or fences.

Our published reports – and I mention two: The New Walled Order and Alone and Unsafe – have carried our key messages about the need to be led by the humanitarian consequences of migration, and the need to protect the most vulnerable.

This is not only advocacy; it is real action, following real influence. This can be illustrated by the number of programmes that are being designed and implemented in countries of origin, transit and arrival. We are indeed the only network that can work across the migration continuum – because it is a continuum of humanity.

Third, in the field of health, we have gained a momentum. Respectful and effective community health work has been the core of our engagement.

That led us, in 2016, to be invited to become a member of the UN Secretary General’s High Level Taskforce on Health Crises, and to be able to speak in that forum about community engagement, at a time when it was not the main priority.

In 2017, the IFRC joined the Global Task Force on Cholera Control, contributing through its One WASH programme advocacy and expertise to support an expansion of community-based approaches to early detection and response. These involvements are critical: they don’t only account for our own strategies, but also for the way we influence others’ strategies in trying to eradicate some of the devastating outbreaks that we’re facing.

And then in 2018, together with former Prime Minister of Norway Gro Bruntland, I was asked to co-chair the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board, an independent monitoring and accountability mechanism for global health crisis preparedness. We accepted this role due to the importance of our network at the forefront of outbreak readiness – preparing communities and building trust before disasters strike, and placing communities at the centre of what we do.

Outbreaks start in communities, and if they end they will end in those communities. There is no way that in the middle of such crises the trust and partnership can be built. Being there before a crisis, during a crisis, and after a crisis … that’s what we’re about.

Fourth I turn to pro-activity and resilience.

Strengthening resilience – alongside saving lives and changing minds – has been the motto of our Strategy 2020.

The predictive funding window of the Disaster Relief Emergency Fund (known as Forecast-Based Action) allows this type of proactive work. It was launched in May 2018, and is the only such specialised fund available in the humanitarian sector at present.

Forecast-based action allows funds to be released ahead of an impending disaster – providing critical time for urgent protective actions, stockpiling, and mobilising communities likely to be affected. It saves time, and as a result it saves lives. It prevents shocks and hazards from becoming disasters.

Fifth, I turn to localization, where local partners and local volunteers are an integral part of our whole make-up. They always have been, but the World Humanitarian Summit in Turkey in 2016 changed global perceptions of them. IFRC, with the Turkish Red Crescent, was able to support a large membership delegation at that Summit.

Today, with the Swiss Government, the IFRC leads the workstream on ‘Localisation’ in the Grand Bargain, ensuring that investment in local actors remains on the front burner of international humanitarian dialogues.

Among the results of this work, several donors have now changed their internal rules to allow for more direct funding of local actors such as National Societies. Some UN agencies (including WFP and UNICEF) have approached us to work together to support strengthening the long-term institutional capacity of National Societies. And OCHA, the UN Humanitarian office, has begun supporting more local actors – including National Societies – to access UN country-based pooled funds. This is ground-breaking, and it’s an opportunity for longer-term sustained funding for National Societies, beyond just being partners for implementing programmes for those UN organisations.

Because you can’t sit on the global stage and say ‘invest more in us’ and then not provide the assurance that money can flow in the right direction. We have therefore strengthened our base at all levels, including our financial and management systems, including our fraud and corruption prevention mechanisms.

This is very important, and the communities we serve don’t deserve anything less.

As my report says, and our Director of Audit and Internal Investigations will outline later this week, we have seen a rise in complaints – largely I think because of increased confidence in our reporting systems.

The sad thing is that I may go down in history as the SG who uncovered more fraud cases in 5 years than in the previous 100 years. And in that time we have made more insurance claims than in all our history.

We took a financial and reputational risk when in 2017 I announced publicly that we had suffered a fraud in our Ebola operations in West Africa. But our transparency, our desire to hold ourselves accountable, and our investment in strong controls, is beginning to pay off. We are now seen as a global thought leader in this field – and trust is returning.

Two weeks ago, we organized our third Annual Conference on the Prevention of Fraud and Corruption in International Not-for-Profit Organizations. The 150 seats available were claimed almost instantly. Nearly 50 different non-profit organizations were present – learning from our experience and sharing theirs, so that together we can face our common challenges.

This conference has become an annual flagship event – and I would like to thank Anthony Garnett and his colleagues for making us leaders in this extremely important yet difficult area of work. Each case is an extremely painful experience for all of us.

I am pleased to see that there will be a working session on risk and integrity during this Board meeting, where the scope of the Board’s oversight on collective risks will be explored.

I am also pleased that similar discussions will take place during the meeting this afternoon with ICRC. Our journey around this issue is not yet complete. We have a long way to go to preserve the gains we made and to continue to remain vigilant.

So we have been impressive in advocacy.


The second of the big questions I asked myself was about the quality of our Emergency Response. On this, you have many more details in my report.

But today I just want to mention that we have strengthened our global tools.

We have expanded our pools of trained personnel who are ready to deploy, through more efficient surge mechanisms.

We have launched the new GO Platform, which currently has 3,000 active users, and over 50 National Societies submitting emergency response information. GO has significantly improved the way we house, share and use information.

We have increased our use of cash programming – a significant and welcome shift in our approach to restoring dignity, and placing beneficiaries at the centre of decision making. Here I salute the co-leadership of the British Red Cross.

In 2017 our Movement distributed cash in excess of USD 800 million reaching nearly 6 million people. This momentum has continued in 2018, and we are on track to reach 1 billion CHF by 2020.

This positions us as a leader across the sector in the use of cash.

My third question was about the way we support our National Societies, and how they support each other.

A key thing is that we have recognised the criticality of National Societies having a sound legal base from which to operate. So not only have we supported National Societies in having their institutional status reinforced, but we also negotiated over 80 agreements in 80 countries which grant the IFRC the status of an international organization. And it’s not just about privileges for the Secretariat: rather, it is to provide the platform for all our membership to enjoy the immunities as well as the privileges to function in an independent, mutual and impartial way in places that are often very difficult. And of course, it’s in the most difficult places where we are needed most.

On National Society Development, I would just like to mention the way in which National Societies’ legal base is being reinforced. And the National Society Development Framework and the National Society Development Compact – both to be presented at the General Assembly – will be important additions to the structures we need.

The recently created National Society Investment Alliance now has a starting capital of CHF 1.5 million, thanks to contributions from the American, Canadian, and Swiss governments. And several UN agencies are interested in contributing directly to capacity building through this mechanism.

Meanwhile between 2016 and 2018 the Capacity Building Fund provided more than 2 million Swiss Francs to projects in twenty-five National Societies.

Meanwhile we have witnessed transparency and accountability gradually increasing, thanks to the work we are doing on risk management and strengthening integrity.

But there is still a long way to go to make fully sure that all our member National Societies are fully functional and able to meet the needs of the most vulnerable in their communities. We are not there yet.

IFRC has invested considerable regular resources into institutional strengthening – particularly through technical capacity building. But our resources are limited.

Some of the Partner National Societies are telling me that between them they have access to nearly CHF 200 million a year in flexible funding, that can be used to support institutional strengthening. Well, many sister National Societies are crying for their support, and we must make best use of it.

[The Secretary General here used a series of detailed slides to set out the strong financial position of the IFRC.]


I will now turn very quickly to the current operations.

I often mention the three Ds which are always around us. Disease, Disaster and Displacement will be present everywhere we go: they will remain in the forefront of our minds as we continue to respond to crises.

You have seen in my written report that we are now dealing simultaneously with four major – and likely very long term – complex responses. And lest we ever forget them: they are in Indonesia, in Bangladesh, in the DRC, and in Mozambique.

In Indonesia, the combined responses to three disasters represented our largest appeal in 2018 – 38.9 million CHF – for which 75% funding has now been secured. This is a country that did not want any other actors to come in, yet recognized the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement, through the IFRC, to provide come in and provide support.

In Bangladesh … the plight of Rakhine refugees has deepened. The Bangladesh Red Crescent Society (BRCS) spearheaded the response, being present in over half of the 34 camps in Cox’s Bazar. There has been strong solidarity across our membership. 25 Red Cross and Red Crescent National Societies have supported the BRCS, and 12 are still doing so because of the protracted nature of the crisis. I would like to salute the BRCS as well as all the National Societies who are working there.

In the DRC …. we have seen the country’s longest ever Ebola outbreak, which is still not contained. It is happening in an environment which is extremely dangerous; where health workers are being targeted, and treatment centres are being torched. And yet our volunteers are there all the time. While others are pulling out, we are always there. For us, it is not a question of when to go, but simply how to stay. It is about putting in place the additional safeguards to protect ourselves in order to do the work.

We should never forget the leadership and courage of the volunteers of the Croix Rouge Congolaise. We often hear about the work of MSF and WHO, or even our own surge capacity from Geneva, but whenever anyone arrives, no matter how far away, they find our volunteers. And when they leave, the volunteers are still there. They are the ones that are the real champions of our and the world’s humanitarian response.

And the same is true in Mozambique. Everyone complained about the weakness of the National Society. Today they are waking up and really exercising their leadership and leading their own response; understanding that it is their communities and their disaster, so it must also be their response.

And beyond those four crises, we continue to see protracted humanitarian crises in Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan. I am glad that in the Vice President’s report, we also heard more about the situation in Iran. The Iranian Red Crescent has asked for our assistance with an emergency appeal to support communities, and we are committed to accompany that.

We must also not forget how last year our National Societies were at the forefront in supporting the 200,000 people displaced after the Niger and Benue rivers flooded in seven states in Nigeria, and after Hurricane Florence and Typhoon Mangkhut wrought simultaneous and devastating damage blowing off the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. I would like to thank the National Society of Nigeria, and all the other National Societies for their work. We continue to pledge our support to accompany them.


Colleagues, I end as I promised, by looking very briefly into the future.

I’m proud of the work that we have been doing on Strategy 2030, and the Board yesterday said that we are on the right path. We took note of many recommendations and comments and we will continue to implement, to consult, and to deliver a very solid Strategy by the end of this year.

And as I announced in a Closed Session yesterday, I intend to step down as the IFRC Secretary General after the Statutory Meetings in December 2019. My goal is to provide plenty of time to find my successor, and to ensure that she or he is ready to lead this vibrant and dynamic institution from the moment I step down, and to take it to new heights.

But we are months away from that moment, and now is not the time to slow down and focus only on our success. Every single day, I’m committed not to spare any effort, not to spare any energy, until the last minute that I walk out of this office. Together, we continue to serve, and to support our National Societies in serving the most vulnerable.

And again, it’s humbling to reflect on 100 years of our Federation. Sometimes I need to pinch myself: am I – and are we – the one who has been given this great privilege to serve, and to walk in the footsteps of those who produced this remarkable document after the Cannes Conference in Cannes in 1919? I hold it in my hands with emotion and pride, and realise again what a great privilege it is to serve. Thank you very much.

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