Elhadj As Sy Secretary General
Date: jeudi, 17 janvier, 2019
Event: Alpine Conference (Theme: 'International Private Client Services: A coin with two sides')
Location: Interlaken, Switzerland

The Secretary-General began by screening a short film – see below – on the work of the Canadian Red Cross within the IFRC Field Hospital in the refugee camps of Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh – and specifically the testimony of one nurse: her call to donors, and her story about one miraculous birth.

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for this kind invitation.

I understand that last year your keynote speaker from CERN explained the small matter of the Higgs Bosun particle ...

.... and that two years ago your speaker from the University of Lausanne took you metaphorically and almost literally into outer space ....

And now I have dragged you into the mud of a refugee camp 7,500 kilometres away ...

I speak as we all embark on a new year: always with the hope that you saw and heard in the film ... and always in the knowledge that all of us – in our different ways – live in very difficult times.

So far – in the nearly-three weeks of this new year 2019 – we have seen ...

... severe winter storms in Europe
... earthquakes in Iran and (again ...) in Indonesia
... landslides and floods in the Philippines
... the wreckage of storm Pabuk in Thailand
... the games of political pass-the-parcel as migrants seek to disembark in Mediterranean ports
... the violence and political furore over migrants trying to cross from Mexico into the US
... the numbers of Ebola victims topping 600 in the Democratic Republic of Congo ....

And these are only the headlines. Much as we in the Red Cross Red Crescent may dread reading our morning news bulletins, even we can sometimes feel that they blur into one.

The STEP and the RCRC

This is our humanitarian world, and it may at first glance appear to be a very different world from this world of Interlaken and your STEP conference today and tomorrow.

But of course we are not from different worlds. All of our concerns are essentially the same.

I read that STEP members specialise in 'family inheritance and succession planning', and you might say that so too, after a fashion, do humanitarians ...

The STEP and the Red Cross overlap specifically in the person of your own Chairman, Andrew McCallum.

Humanitarianism is a business like any other. It is people like Andrew – who sits on the Audit and Risk Commission of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies – who ensure that it's a well-run business, which never spends money it doesn't have, and which spends it scrupulously on the people that need it.

And I think and hope that Andrew will testify that we do that rigorously, efficiently, impactfully.

What else links STEP and the IFRC?

You build resilience into financial wealth; we humanitarians build resilience into humanity at large, above all by making it resilient to the shocks and hazards – natural and man-made – which we know will surely come.

You work quite literally in the 'trust' industry; and we do so too, metaphorically.

If ever 'trust' is broken by humanitarians who operate under the one overarching principle of the one humanity which we all share, then it is very seriously broken ...

Last year you will have followed that the humanitarian industry at large faced breaches of trust over the issue of sexual exploitation, which is as horrific when we do it to ourselves as when we do it to those whom we are serving.

Our Red Cross and Red Crescent trust derives from being from the communities we represent.

We number some 12 million volunteers worldwide who give of their time and energy and compassion to serve their own communities. And sometimes (17 times in 2018, 37 times in 2017 ...) they give of their own lives.

Our volunteers speak their peoples' languages; they know their customs; they are there amongst them long before a crisis, and long after it. They are often the only people who have access to the most vulnerable people and the hardest to reach, in places which are often without schools, without hospitals, without government.

Your STEP conference this year looks at 'A coin with two sides'. On one side of the coin, you have to observe regulations; on the other side, you have to serve clients.

We humanitarians have the same two tasks. For us, the two-faced god Janus shows one face of unprecedented humanitarian need; and the other face of unprecedented funding shortfalls – and this, I should say, despite record levels of giving.

In a few minutes, I would like to say more about the changing dynamics of the aid world, and the need for new partnerships – including with people like you.

And afterwards, perhaps in the few minutes we have for questions and answers, I may be able to glance at some of the more specific of your agenda topics of the next two days.

For instance, how do we humanitarians approach your conference topics of 'data use and blockchain'; how do we reach 'the oldest and the youngest' in our societies; and how do we view the concept of 'mobility' when it applies to the millions of people worldwide who are on the move, having been forcibly displaced from their homes.

But first, I simply want to tell you what we do ... before I address the question of how you might be part of it.

The Red Cross Red Crescent worldwide

'What we do' is not only done in the poorest and most vulnerable parts of the world.

This is the STEP conference for the Switzerland and Liechtenstein region, and the Red Cross is of course alive and well right here in these two countries.

You may well know that it was established by a Swiss banker, Henri Dunant, after he had witnessed the 40,000 bodies slain on the battlefield of Solferino in June 1859. Switzerland is one of the biggest, most regular and – so importantly – most flexible of all our donors.

Geneva is also home to our sister organisation the International Committee of the Red Cross. Crudely, the difference between the IFRC and the ICRC is that the ICRC operates in conflict situations and the IFRC in general doesn't; and the ICRC operates directly, while the IFRC in general operates through its National Societies.

And let's not forget Liechtenstein – a tiny principality with its own Red Cross Society since 1945, and a core of dedicated staff.

So Switzerland and Liechtenstein are our nearest neighbours in a global network of 190 Red Cross and Red Crescent National Societies

And further afield, we of course encompass countries like Iran, China, and Japan – where volunteers number over one million in each.

So we are truly global, and truly local.

The state of the world

Dear friends, we live in a fractured world. This time last year, I spoke to the World Economic Forum on the subject of trying to heal that fractured world.

So it's a good time to ask whether we live in a better world now than we did 100 years ago, when the League of Red Cross Societies was founded in 1919.

In just the last 25 years, we have seen tidal changes in receding global poverty, and in improvements in almost every health and education indicator. The progress is massive.

We have not experienced a global conflict since 1945 ... and yet UNHCR tells us that there are now more displaced people than at any stage since then, with almost 70 million people worldwide driven from home: two-thirds of them in their own countries, and one-third of them outside.

Meanwhile the World Meteorological Organisation tells us that there are now 400 extreme weather events every year, five times as many 50 years ago.

We live in a world in which the man-made conflicts are not the same as they were in Solferino.

Our battlefields now are less tangible and less specific, but no less real and no less devastating. They play out in new conflicts over ideology, over natural resources, over trade, over viruses both physical and technological. All too often they unfold in the heart of communities all over the world: in schools and hospitals, even in places of worship.

And the man-made conflicts of old that still plague us are more complex and protracted: they have raged for eight years now in Syria, for 22 in the DRC, for 32 in Somalia ...

In a world that has never been more connected, perhaps we have never been less connected. It is increasingly a world of walls and barriers.

These are some of the reasons why we live in a world of unprecedented humanitarian need. The UN's global humanitarian appeal for 2019 is for just short of $22 billion, targeting 94 million of the world's 132 million people who are deemed to be in need of humanitarian assistance. This is five times more money than it was a decade ago, for more than three times as many people. Humanitarian assistance costs are predicted to rise to $50 billion a year in just 10 years from now.

The Red Cross Red Crescent and its three Ds

So in the face of something approaching "apocalypse now" and "apocalypse to come", let me briefly say where our Red Cross and Red Crescent humanitarian energies are channelled, before I explore how the whole humanitarian industry is being turned on its head with new dynamics, new targets, and new ways of working and funding. "New ways" ... which can include you.

For ease of recall, we deal primarily with three diabolical Ds: Disaster, Disease and Displacement.

First, Disaster.

Disaster strikes everywhere, and the best response to it is preparedness:
... from raising the physical height of latrines in flood-prone Bangladesh
... to adapting farmers' crops to suit weather patterns in East Africa
... to releasing funds in advance of disasters worldwide, based on meteorological forecasting.

Research has shown us that a dollar spent in disaster preparedness saves us up to 15 dollars in disaster response.

You will know that last year, disaster struck Indonesia three times, from August to December, at a cost of 3,000 lives, and some three-quarters of a million displaced.

The IFRC is working closely with the brave and magnificent volunteers of the Indonesian Red Cross, and is currently raising almost CHF 40 million for immediate and long-term response.

Second, Disease.
Disease strikes anywhere, and crosses borders with impunity. It compounds and it's compounded by conflict.

Old diseases persist, like yellow fever and cholera. Old diseases return, like diphtheria. New diseases emerge, like Zika.

Last year disease struck conflict-ridden DRC twice, with two Ebola outbreaks of which the second – ongoing – is the largest ever in that country, with fears that it could easily spread.

Again, the IFRC is working closely with the DRC Red Cross, and is currently raising almost CHF 9 million to support immediate and long-term response.

A key part of our work there is the safe and dignified burials of those who have died of the virus. In West Africa four years ago, it has been independently estimated that we saved up to 10,000 lives by carrying out these highly dangerous and highly sensitive burials. That is almost as large a number as the 11,000 who did actually die of in that Ebola outbreak in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

And third, Displacement.

Displacement is another truly global phenomenon in which the scale of migration into Europe pales alongside the millions of migrants currently being given temporary home in places like Turkey, Lebanon, Sudan, Uganda, Iran, Pakistan, Colombia.

The Red Cross Red Crescent is unique in its presence along the global migration trails, from countries of origin ... to countries of transit ... to countries of destination.

Our National Societies have run migrant information campaigns in West Africa and safe houses for female migrants in Niger...
... they have run refugee reception centres in Italy, Greece and Spain ...
... and they have given vocational training and psychosocial support to migrants arriving in Germany and Scandinavia.

And collectively we lobby on the world stage for the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, agreed in Marrakesh in December, that ensures that all migrants, anywhere, are treated with dignity and given access to essential services.

New aid dynamics and the need for partnership

The fact that the three Ds are never static is one reason why we in the IFRC can never stay still, either.

But there are other reasons. We need to respond to the fact that the aid industry is undergoing a significant transformation driven by new money, new technology, and new business models.

Before, the industry was embodied by very few largely governmental and intergovernmental players, like USAID and UKAID, and the various UN agencies. Now, there are more players out there, not least philanthropists and social entrepreneurs.

One thing is clear. The scale of our humanitarian challenges is far, far bigger than any of us. No one can solve them alone. But together, we can.

That is why organisations like the IFRC are working ever more closely with private sector organisations who not only have an increasing sense of their role in society, but also the means to enact that role.

They do it through intellectual support, practical support, financial support or simply emotional support. I could give you many examples.

And as we explore new sources of financing, we are well advanced with players in the financial services industry, for instance on micro-insurance to protect smallholder farmers' livelihoods, the use of humanitarian impact and catastrophe bonds, and the mobilization of Islamic social financing.

We receive support from philanthropic and family foundations, too. And simply from individuals: I wrote recently to the family of a very kind lady in New York who left us 2.5 million dollars in her will.

Dear friends, if you can join us in this great enterprise, please do. I very much liked what Patrice Gordon of the Canadian Red Cross said towards the end of the video piece: 'At home, we're not really hearing this. We want to you to see – we want you to open your eyes and look, and to help us – wherever you can, and however you can'.

'Wherever you can, and however you can.'

I often say that we in the IFRC are privileged to be part of the global community of carers. Our task is to accompany people in their need. We are no better or worse than the people we serve – just luckier. We know that what matters most to them is what matters most to us – their dignity.

All of us know – in Switzerland, in Liechtenstein, and the world over – that Disaster, Disease, Displacement and no doubt more Ds are on all our doorsteps.

We exhibit the power of humanity because humanity is the one very simple and very powerful thing that we all share.

Thank you all so much for giving me this opportunity to be with you today. I wish you a very successful conference.

Speech data

National Societies




Speech, disaster, disease, displacement