Elhadj As Sy Secretary General
Date: mercredi, 2 mai, 2018
Event: 10th Europe Regional Conference
Location: Almaty, Kazakhstan

Secretary General’s address at the 10th European Regional Conference
Transcript of speech as delivered

Dear President Argymbayev, our host and President of the Kazakh Red Crescent Society; our dear President, Vice Presidents and members of the Governing board of the IFRC; members of the Standing Commission; friends and colleagues from ICRC and dear members of the Federation.

Friends and colleagues,

One of the words that has often been used this morning is the word “journey”. The journey we travel physically, but also the journey we travel in the exercise of this privileged opportunity we have to serve our fellow human beings. They are people in need who are not any worse than us, and we are not any better than them.  But we are here today, privileged to serve them.

It is a journey by which we seek to reach the hardest to reach, the most vulnerable. To be there when it is the most difficult; to be there where the needs are greatest. Today, it is dubbed “the last mile to walk”, but if it is indeed the place where the needs are greatest and where the most vulnerable people are, it shouldn’t be the last mile, but the first mile to walk. Their last mile is indeed our first mile.

The journey of course is one that is fraught with danger. The path is paved with so many difficulties and challenges that remind us once again how much our work is needed. It can present challenges for which we pay the ultimate price, like we did so many times in Syria, in Afghanistan, in Yemen, in the Central African Republic, and also right here in Europe, where people die to care.

It is also a journey of commitment. Any principled humanitarian action is also paved by commitment. Commitment that, in the face of the magnitude and depth of human suffering, pushes us to be humble and to question ourselves about the certainties we may have about what works and what doesn’t; to be humble about whether we impact people’s lives or not; to be humble, once again, in that no matter what we do, it is just a contribution to something that is much greater than any of us; to be humble to recognize that if the whole burden was shifted on our shoulders alone, there is no way that we could cope.

So while we recognize who we are, what we do and the importance of our contribution, we must, at the same time, be humble to recognize the scope and the limits of what we do, and to know what are those areas where we need to reach out to others, so that our global activities can have the impact that we would like to see.

That journey would not be a principled humanitarian one if it was not inclusive. Indeed, there is no “them” and “us”. There is no “them migrants” and “us”, no “them refugees” and “us”, no “them poor people” and “us”, no “them youth” and “us”, no “them women” and “us”, but “we”. A strong, collective “we” that is underpinned by the one, and only one, humanity that we share.

It is a journey to recover what is sometimes most important to the people that we are accompanying, which is their human dignity. That may be the last scrap of cloth that people wrap themselves with in the nudity of the humiliation, poverty and multiple deprivations they are facing on the move. As some alluded this morning, the journey would only make sense at the end of the day if it is a journey that takes us from despair and leads us to hope.

Along that journey we have big goals, because of who are, and our belief in humanity. That belief in humanity may sound very naïve and unrealistic to many. Our belief in solidarity, that people sometimes see as naivety. Our belief in the expression of hospitality and kindness that many react to, sometimes with irony.

Those rebukes sometimes make the humanitarian field quite lonely. But at the same time they constitute our purpose in times when we doubt – those moments happen sometimes. Together with our fundamental principles, they will remind us about the real values that make us who we are.

Those values are indeed compatible with European values, history, tradition, culture and civilization. That is the reason why the world often looks up to you when those challenges are being faced. Not necessarily because Europe owes it to the world, but because the world believes and feels that those values are about European civilization. So it feels good to be among you, among each other. It makes us feel less lonely.

At the same time, it reminds us that the world out there is not the same as the one we described in our midst. That is a world which is still marred by what we call the three Ds of Disease, Disaster and Displacement, affecting millions of people. Every time we try to describe the reality of that phenomenon, we quote the numbers. 66 million people on the move, something we haven’t seen since the Second World War. 123 million migrants. 80 million people that were in need of humanitarian assistance in 2017 alone.

Numbers, statistics and figures that don’t convey the reality of a situation until one feels it directly, until a friend or a family member is affected, or until a colleague dies in the line of duty. Numbers and figures will never tell the stories of a deprived child in a protracted crisis; of a child that grows up knowing nothing but war; of a once-proud mother and father who, overnight, find themselves with a different identity – we don’t call them by their names anymore, we don’t even call them with their nationalities anymore… we dub them “the refugee”, “the migrant”, “the beneficiary”. None of those names are anyone’s identity, they are just situations that any of us could find ourselves in, if we had the misfortune of being born or raised in those environments because of so many factors that none of us have control over.

That leads, of course, to massive needs that call for a massive response. Again, the measure is numbers and figures: 22 billion dollars needed to respond in 2018. Only 52% of the target met in 2017. The numbers go on and on. What is different is that once we put a face on those figures, once we tell their stories, when we are confronted with this, our values and principles are being tested in the face of those deprivations.

Our values have been tested for over 150 years; almost 100 years for our Federation; it’s a long journey we have travelled so far. What a coincidence that when we will be celebrating the 190th birthday of our founder, we count 190 National Societies across the world.

This is why we have to change, like many have said, and we all have to be open and ready for the change. We always have to remember where we are from. When we do that, we should never forget that there are those things that we need to preserve, and those things that maybe we should not change – our naivety to believe in humanity, let’s not change this. Our idealism to believe in tireless solidarity, let’s not change that. Our commitment to serve, the expression of which, over time, has differed depending on the environments and new challenges we are confronted with. Let’s maybe change the applications, but let’s remain deeply rooted in those fundamentals which make us who we are. They have been tested for 150 years and have passed the test. I dare to believe that they will pass the test for the next 150 years.

Sometimes we localize some of the challenges that we face in certain geographical confines. Many a time we talk about Syria, Yemen, Somalia, and the list goes on. Those fragilities and vulnerabilities are globalizing in the same way that the world is globalizing today. There is no country in the world today where we do not see pockets of vulnerability, poverty and deprivation, even though they may present themselves in different forms. What is even more compelling to all of us is that the same globalization of fragilities is leading to the building of communities that can no longer be defined within one geographic setting. We have seen a beautiful video today of what makes a Danish woman commit herself and give her time, heart and commitment to accompany a young Eritrean coming from thousands of miles away.

What is remarkable is that every time I travel somewhere in Europe in winter and I see a kid with a Red Cross and a Red Crescent logo and I stop and ask, “Why are you doing this?”, I get a whole lecture about the situation in South Sudan. That same globalization of solidarity will sometimes also lead to a globalization of fragilities and in turn of communities without borders, that makes a young man who  may be called Johannes or Layoun or Bertrand – raised in a suburb of Lyon or London – board a plane and go and fight, or board a plane and then wrap himself with a belt, exploding himself because of a cause that is no longer compatible with what he or she is being confronted with, with the geographic settings that he is growing up with.

Our challenge and our opportunity is to turn the tide, to make sure that the globalisation is one of solidarity, one of kindness, care and support, and not one of destruction that equals self-destruction.

That’s the reason why in every region we have, including Europe, when we talk about global solidarity and acting far away, we shouldn’t forget those who are closer to home.

We talk about demographic pressures – it’s not only about an increased number of people on the globe – it’s about the change in the pyramid, with an ageing population too.  The people who contributed to what we are today, and who deserve to get back at least as much, and whom we’re now seeing as more and more lonely.

At one end of the world we are questioning how to preserve some of the gains that have been made from a social and economic point of view …

At the other end we see a projection of a doubling of populations in some regions like Sub-Saharan Africa, with the largest number of young people by the year 2025.

When we talk about disease we can think about the outbreaks of epidemics, like you saw in the Ebola crisis, the recent plague in Madagascar, and diphtheria in Bangladesh and Cox’s Bazar, outbreaks of measles, and the combination of climate change and unplanned urbanisation. What we call urbanisation may even be urban ruralisation, because it’s the rural area that’s coming to the city, rather than the urban setting that is coming to the rural.

We have to change our perspective, from the way we’re doing business that is pretty much based on far away geographic settings. It is right here in the peri-urban settings where WASH will no longer be the same, where social inclusion will no longer be the same, where accompanying people in need will be very different, as far as it can be already.

Those needs are not only the ones that we refer to. Right here in this region, we may see in some of the countries the fastest growing HIV epidemic among injecting drug users on earth.  Not in Sub-Saharan Africa, but right here in this region, in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. If you look at the number of new cases – what we call the incidence of this epidemic that is happening, driven by a co-epidemic that is tuberculosis and then driven also at the same with an epidemic of drug use which is criminalised, driving so many underground, leading to many of the kinds of vulnerable situations that we’re seeing.

Well, volunteering is extremely important.  The creation of an enabling environment to respond to those needs, the exercising of the auxiliary role everywhere in this world, including here: these are extremely important.

And there are so many lessons: many good lessons that can be taught here and that can be shared in this very region; and there are also so many gaps.  We see the best next to the less appropriate.  It’s a gap which is leading to the inequities that are most of the time worse than a state of poverty or a state of deprivation on its own.

It may be easier to be poor in Africa than poor in Europe, and in Africa it may be easier to access some of the networks of solidarity in some of the poorest areas.

But the fact of the matter today is that the biggest numbers of people are no longer living in the poorest countries of the world.  The highest numbers of poor people are in the middle-income countries of the world, and I think that paradox, that cohabitation, leads to the kind on inequities that call on each of us, no matter what the setting, to translate into many different forms of humanitarian action those values which we hold.

I see that, when I look at the coordination, the positioning, the meaningfulness of our organisation. It’s one of the themes that will be discussed here, and I am sure there will be a lot of wisdom shared based on the experiences so far, and the case that has been made on the journey that we need to travel.

I know that cooperation and coordination will be spoken about, because again humility forces us to realise that this is bigger than any of us. So coordination will be about recognising where our limits are, and at the same time recognising where those sources are where we complement our weakness, and to make sure that at the end of the day we are bigger than the sum of our parts.

And this is a challenge and opportunity for all of us.  Because we are a membership organisation – we are the same ones that design the programmes; we’re the same ones that deliver the programmes; we’re the same ones that raise resources; we’re the same ones that govern all our structures.  So it’s ‘us in us’ at the end of the day.

It will depend on us, and what will make a difference is leadership. We will look up to your leadership in that regard.  From the granular and more technical views, we’re embarked on a journey that we continue to travel together. ‘SMCC’ [Strengthening Movement Cooperation and Coordination] has been mentioned a number of times today. Frankly, I look forward to the day when progress on SMCC will not be celebrated, when our ambition will be much less, when what we achieve will be  so good that we will not recognise those little gains.

You want to talk about migration, and rightly so.  Let’s not look at it as a problem to solve, let’s look at it as a situation to manage.  Migration will be with us and will continue to be with us.  Europe will not be, and will never be, in my opinion, the continent which will be the most impacted by migration.  While we are speaking here there are 6.5 million people inside Syria, moving inside the country, from one place to another, with the hope that home will be a safe place to return to.

There is another circle on top of this, which is over a million people in Lebanon. Over one third of its whole population is composed of migrants.  We could mention Jordan, we could mention Turkey.  But we can also mention Kenya which has been hosting refugees from Somalia for the last 30 years.  The largest refugee camps on earth are in Kenya.  We can talk about a million people from South Sudan.

And we can talk about Bangladesh, one third of which is under water, while they are hosting 700,000 new people from Myanmar, in addition to the 300,000 people who were there before.  That makes it almost a million.

We have great examples here of the work of the National Societies in Europe – the humanity is what we are putting at the middle of it. In your work, you make no difference between the people of the country and the people in the country.  Because we are all united by the very humanity that we share.

We know very well that this is not always the most popular message and positioning at times when societies are fractured, when populism is growing and when political gains can be made from the wrong thing.

But these are the tests: the tests for our value, the tests of our fundamental principles.  And it’s always moving to see that despite all those challenges, and no matter how early we intervene as organisations, we have not yet witnessed any single village, any single city where we arrive and don’t find normal ordinary people getting out there and sharing a loaf of bread or a glass of water with the newly arrived people.

Here in Almaty we will discuss the 2017 Global Migration Strategy and within it the European Framework for Migration.  And we will explore the work we’re doing on the two UN Global Compacts to be finalised in December.  Our role will continue to be the same: putting people at the centre; human beings at the centre, regardless of their status.  We protect people before we protect borders, as someone put it this morning.

In drawing to a close let me remind us that the principled humanitarian journey is also one of leadership.  Leaders in this room, in your respective National Societies, in the Federation and in the different forms of organisation in all of our Movement, you represent everything for a young humanitarian. You represent everything that the young volunteers would like to be.  You represent a dream for so many, and that is why under your instruction, we go and sometimes die to help.

So lead us.  Lead us in a way that shows humility, that shows constancy, that shows accountability. The trust placed in us is the biggest treasure we have. Governance today is outside the board room and in the street, or just in the hands of people behind a keyboard of a computer.  We are all governed by everybody. And for our young people, we just ask you humbly: inspire us to keep the Solferino flame burning.

In fact, inspire us to make sure that the leadership of tomorrow starts already today.  I was in Bishkek together with you and felt the energy and compassion, the idealism, the naivety that people see sometimes in negative terms but that we see as positive.  For all of us, what many will qualify as soft in fact makes it very cool to be a humanitarian.

Well, from your Secretariat, there is the commitment to be always there at your side, to accompany you all along that journey.  To be accountable for the promises we make … and for all the resources entrusted in us. To serve all those who are less fortunate than we are, facing multiple deprivation.

Thank you very much.

Speech data

National Societies


Complex emergency, Fundamental Principles, Human related


Almaty, Kazakhstan, journey, lead