Elhadj As Sy IFRC Secretary-General
Date: Tuesday, 26 June, 2018
Event: 37th Session of the Governing Board
Location: Geneva, Switzerland

Distinguished members of the Board,

Earlier this year I participated in the World Economic Forum and the theme was ‘Creating a shared future in a fractured world’.

The assumption is that indeed our world is fractured, and is calling for peace, unity, solidarity, care and support. It is calling for healing, trust, respect and the protection of human dignity.

That call is echoed at the international level among countries, at the regional level on our respective continents, at the country level among communities, and, not the least, in our midst, among people.

People: that’s where we always start and come back to. As the Charter of the United Nations put it, not ‘We, the nations’ but ‘We, the people’.

People, like the 10,000 people who united in white and red, united in friendship and solidarity, walking through Solferino and Castiglione, with faces enlightened by a flame, a flame of hope, a flame of humanity.

Exactly what we need in this fractured world to create a shared future, a better future, our own future.

I come to this Board, still inspired by the spirit of Solferino and a sense of pride and privilege to be part of you, the rainbow community of carers that was marching over the weekend.

In my remarks to you today, I’d like to reflect on this in terms of how we can be, are, and should be involved in healing this fractured world.

In attempting to do that, I will not refer directly to my written report for the period July to December 2017, which you have already received. I will occasionally draw from it, but I hope that it stands alone.

It houses a Summary Section I, a tabular Section II reporting progress on our four Strategies for Implementation and eight Areas of Focus that the Board agreed and approved, and a detailed financial performance report in Section III.

But today let’s ask ourselves some searching questions about our Federation and our role in healing the fractured world.

And in particular, today I would like to examine a bit deeper the topic of Disease, one of the three Ds that I often touch on: Disaster, Disease, Displacement. I will examine health as an element of every humanitarian emergency response; and health as an emergency in itself.


Last week UNHCR told us that there are now a record 68.2 million displaced people in the world – which means that 1 in 110 people in this world leave home because it is not a safe place to be.

The World Meteorological Organization now charts some 400 extreme weather events a year, five times more than the annual figure for 50 years ago. All the predictions tell us that we could soon see more than 140 million people displaced as a result of the slow onset impacts of climate change, water scarcity, crop failure, sea-level rise and storm surges.

That’s why my written report on the second half of 2017 duly described the worst floods in a century in Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka, and some of the worst hurricanes in living memory in Central America, the Caribbean and the United States of America. It charted famine in East Africa and the southern Arabian Peninsula, with serious disease and health challenges, including one million cases of cholera in Yemen and Somalia.

2018 has seen no let up, with major earthquakes or volcanic eruptions in El Salvador, Guatemala, Papua New Guinea, Peru, Vanuatu; severe floods in Argentina, Burundi, Colombia, Costa Rica, Kenya, Sri Lanka, Tanzania; tropical cyclones in Fiji, Madagascar, Mauritius, Philippines, Reunion, Tonga.

Many of these have not made the headlines. Some of them are really forgotten crises and don’t make global news.

Some of the most visible of the newly displaced are the 350,000 children who, with their parents, had to flee Myanmar and are now in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh where the host community, government and National Society are deploying heroic efforts to support them the best they can.

The smaller numbers of the displaced are no less tragic in their reality. Two weeks ago, I witnessed the arrival of 630 migrants in Spain. The sad odyssey of The Aquarius ended in Valencia on Sunday 17 June.

So much went right that day: with the Spanish Red Cross volunteers on the front line welcoming, when others were rejecting. Showing humanity, care and support. But so much also seemed so wrong that day: why should these largely young men be fleeing their own countries which are not at war? Where were the voices of the countries of origin? Where were the voices and initiatives of the National Societies in the countries of origin, before we even talk about the points of arrival? Who is telling them, in their countries of origin, just what migration actually means, so that they do not fall prey to the traffickers and smugglers who are making a criminal business out of their desperation? Some face real persecution at home and they qualify to be supported along the journey, but most do not and they are mis-led.

More needs to be done in the countries of origin and across the continuum.

The countries of destination are being challenged, and rightly so but unless we work all across the continuum, we will not do true service to our presence right across that continuum.

And yet so much seemed right – in the hope and determination of those who got off those three boats, and in the humanity and hospitality with which they were received. Again, thank you Spanish Red Cross. While we were concentrating on Valencia, there were hundreds also arriving in elsewhere. There were also thousands arriving in Lampedusa, Catania and many other places.

Addressing the fear and anxiety of host communities is something that we should not lose sight of. Some communities reject out of fear. Sometimes they close up because they are overwhelmed. Sometimes they are misled by populist politicians. They are also part of our own communities and we should pay attention to them. We should not exclude, stigmatise and judge them with strong words because they are not acting the way we do and they are not engaging at our level. When we do that, we alienate them and instead of them being with us, they turn against us. They are part of our communities and our Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, and we should accompany them when we are facing all those challenges.


First and foremost, our ‘reason for being’ in the IFRC is to strengthen the capacity of you, our Member National Societies to respond to the challenges faced by people in our respective communities.

Working alongside the Swiss government, we in the Federation are tasked to lead the worldwide quest for ‘localisation’, under the Grand Bargain. Last week we attended the second Grand Bargain Annual Meeting in New York, and there we saw mixed progress.

In part, the Bargain is about channelling new funding to local actors. But in larger part, the Bargain is simply about recognising, respecting and empowering local actors, because it is they who are best placed to serve their own communities.

I have reported on our continuing progress in achieving OCAC (Organizational Capacity Assessment and Certification) as part of the strengthening of local capacities of local actors. Over 100 National Societies are well advanced on this process.

A new and key element in building and strengthening of National Societies is the National Society Investment Alliance – a joint funding and joint operational exercise between the IFRC and the ICRC, which was agreed in Antalya last year. I am pleased to update you that the Alliance formally launches as from next month, with staff and initial funding at the ready, provided by the US and Swiss Governments.

Thus far we have in the order of 1.5 million Swiss francs, and when we have raised double that, we can start launching projects that will benefit the National Societies.

The health and strength of our individual National Societies is our collective concern: we are as strong as our weakest link. This is why today I would like to raise a concern which has troubled us for some time and which came up – again – in the Everyone Counts report.

The most disturbing finding of that report was that our volunteer numbers may have slipped from our previous estimation of 17 million a few years ago to something nearer 12 million now.

Some of you have shared your concerns with me about declining Red Cross Red Crescent volunteer numbers, which may be related to many issues that we need to reflect on and analyse further. How do we explain this?

In part because earlier figures were estimates and they are now more accurate: that is progress.

84 of our National Societies saw an increase in volunteer numbers in 2015-2016, and 100 saw numbers stagnate or drop. Why?

We sense that it might be related to leadership. It might be related to relevance of National Societies in their domestic setting. It might be related to some challenges as they relate to fraud and corruption. It might also be related to the number of local branches that may or may not exist. All of that may be giving us an indication of the issues that we need to look into to gain a better understanding of what we are really dealing with.

We need to assess our own definition of volunteering; the benchmark against which we qualify people who are serving with us, be it all the time or only during times of disaster; and the number of hours or days that make them qualify. If we get clarity on this, we can develop a common base that will help us better capture the numbers and understand what would be the driving forces for the increase in the number of our volunteers.

We also hope that these questions will be part of our discussions on the Strategy 2030 process.

It reminds us that it is also important to reinforce some of the initiatives we have taken so far, like the Volunteer Charter that we agreed upon in Antalya in November, defining both the rights and the responsibilities of our volunteers.

It’s our obligation to protect them, in the face of continuing abuses of International Humanitarian Law and the shrinking of the humanitarian space, which saw 37 staff and volunteers killed in the line of duty last year. Unfortunately, we realized that the number of insured volunteers is declining. Also declining is the number of National Societies subscribing to that insurance scheme at the amount of $1.50 per volunteer. These are all indications that we need to put into strong practice the commitments that we are making.

One of the most graphic statistics of last year was revealed by the same Everyone Counts report, which showed that there were over 800 recorded partnerships – financial and operational – between our National Societies in 2016, as givers and receivers of support. This is a powerful testimony to our global solidarity in compassion.

On disaster, in 2018, I would like to point to just one important development in disaster management.

It’s the launch of a Forecast Based Action window in the DREF. Forecast based financing and action is a great example of innovation, of true disaster preparedness, and of mobilising National Society and Government support. We have learnt particularly when it comes to shocks and hazards, those regions that are prone to natural disasters, year in and year out, and yet we go in with the same interventions, leaving communities and National Societies at the same level of vulnerability, and when we return to respond to the same disaster, we start from the same baseline where we started before.

Going in every time and finding a greater number of people in need may not be the best sign of success. We need to reflect and see what we can do to prevent the shocks from becoming disasters. On the other hand, when we intervene, we should not leave communities at the same level of vulnerability. This is what forecast based financing will contribute to.

I would like to thank the governments that have supported us from the beginning, especially Germany, and the 14 National Societies which are now using it: this is a very exciting start.


We continue to contribute in healing the fractured world through our engagement in the global humanitarian agenda.

The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons – signed in the UN in July last year – represents an advance of existential value.

Our ongoing contributions to the two UN Global Compacts on Migrants and Refugees is shaping that agenda. We are one of the key actors who will be holding very important side events when they are signed in New York. We are very pleased that our President will be there to represent us, alongside the two facilitators and a number of member states.

The Federation’s work on International Disaster Response Law has reached the national statute books of 40 countries. We were proud to mark IDRL’s 10th anniversary at the end of last year.


To achieve all this, the International Federation needs to be run in a way that empowers, that allows growth from the strongest of roots and the firmest of foundations, and indeed which heals where necessary.

Let me briefly mention the way we manage this Secretariat and its precious human and financial resources.

Section III of my report charts our financial progress over the last year.

2017 was another financially healthy year for the IFRC.

Voluntary contributions from donors increased by nearly 8% to 263 million Swiss francs, and our year-end Regular Resource working capital was 6 million Swiss francs above target, leaving sufficient room for the capital investment we hope to do. We also carried forward 189 million Swiss francs for programming in future years.

Our financial principles are as simple as they are strong: we never spend money we have not received. But we still face major challenges. Here are some.

First, our appeals and programmes are needs-based, but they are underfunded. Some are overfunded; more are underfunded. We see ‘geopolitical localization’ determining the contribution to crises, which leaves orphaned crises – and this is why we need flexible funding to cover the forgotten crises which don’t attract the same level of attention and solidarity.

Second, over 80% of our voluntary contributions remain tightly earmarked. The Grand Bargain set an objective of 30% un-earmarked funding for humanitarian organizations, and thus far we only manage 17%. This earmarked income creates other obstacles, like the production of over 2,200 additional reports to donors every year. The majority are written for our own members.

Andrew Rizk will tell you much more about our finances later this afternoon.

Just a reminder of something very simple – we have regular resources and other resources. The most important regular resources are our statutory contributions … but they are not paid. The other ones are the additional unearmarked voluntary contributions that we successfully raise – and the rest is 83 per cent of the budget in tightly earmarked funds which is coming from our appeals to our donors for our National Societies.

Closely linked to the issue of our financial performance is our fraud and corruption work, and our new ‘triple line of defence’ (at management, oversight and field level) coupled with extensive staff training, which has already rolled out amongst 1000 of our staff across the Federation.


Our human resources are ultimately as valuable as our financial resources. We seek to make this Secretariat not just a safe but also a satisfying place to work.

Gender equality is key to achieving that. I made it clear in the report how we have achieved gender parity among our Directors – there are now more women than men. We still have a long way to go to make sure that parity is achieved across all staff. The picture is mixed, and you have all the details, looking at the different grades and the regions across the Federation.

Meanwhile the wider humanitarian sector of which we are a part has been the subject of very public stories of sexual harassment and exploitation. These are unacceptable within our organizations, and haunt our conscience when the victims are the very people whom we are supposed to serve.

We are working closely with the Inter Agency Standing Committee and other agencies – especially regarding the screening of candidates, and verification procedures – and with the ICRC on a common approach with a joint working group.

I have kept you fully informed of our zero tolerance policy, of our commitment to review historical cases in this Secretariat, and of our staff Codes of Conduct and Safecall hotline for reporting abuse. We recently launched our new policy for the Prevention of Sexual Exploitation and Abuse, and its accompanying action plan.

The next step is for the Federation to work with its own National Societies so that together they develop their own Prevention of Sexual Exploitation and Abuse policies. We will discuss this most important of issues with you in a separate session tomorrow.

I would like to thank you to Kate Forbes from the Audit and Risk Committee and our President for their leadership and support on this.

Safeguarding our staff takes many forms. For instance, we have worked very hard to ensure that 100% of our field premises have achieved the Minimum Security Requirements we request.

And in all this, we need to be held accountable. That’s why the written report details our new Key Performance Indicators on internal management issues, and how we are faring on meeting them.

They cover important issues of process (such as time taken to launch Emergency Appeals or DREFs), financial issues (such as levels of expenditure – and risk – against available budget, levels of reimbursement of unused funds), management support issues (recruitment, contract, report and audit recommendation processing times). All of these are being very closely monitored and refined, and we would like to share them with you on a regular basis.


One of my tasks to which I alluded today is to look closer at D for ‘Disease’, and wider health. If we contribute to solving this, we will bring so much of the healing of the world to which we aspire.

The health of nations is hopelessly unequal. In some parts of the world we face an escalating crisis of obesity; in others, famine, and children who are underweight or stunted. 20,000 children die every day from preventable and treatable diseases as simple as diarrhoea, malaria and measles, and 800 women die from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth. It’s totally unacceptable. And every day, a billion people don’t have access to safe water; and 2.6 billion lack access to basic sanitation.

If we’re looking for a crisis, we’re in the middle of one.

Yes, there is good news on health on a global level, and very real improvements in global health indicators. But from our humanitarian point of view, the picture is less positive.

If we took a map of our humanitarian crises and another one of our health crises, the pictures would more or less be the same.

So you see 1 million cases of cholera in Yemen.
You see yellow fever in DRC and Angola – the one single outbreak in DRC almost exhausted the whole world’s supply of the vaccine.
You see Ebola – as we saw it in West Africa and as we’re now responding to it in the DRC.

And we also have health as an emergency itself. Last year, as my written report explains, we saw a continuation in the frequency and spread of emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases, epidemics and pandemics.

So in 2017 we battled cholera, we even battled plague in Madagascar, and we have fought SARS, H1N1, Zika, Nile fever, Lassa fever, Dengue, chikungunya, Marburg … Neglected diseases for neglected people. So we have to address this where it happens, starts and ends, at the community level.

That’s where we must meet them, and one way to do that is through Universal Health Coverage, or UHC – one of the moral imperatives of our times.

The IFRC has a big role to play here, because we are present everywhere and WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom called on us very publicly, at the World Health Assembly a month ago.

As he recognized, our millions of volunteers, many are community health workers. They are from the communities they serve. They reach the last mile – the most vulnerable people, the hardest to reach. They turn the last mile into the first mile.

These diseases may seem very far from us in exotic places, but none of us are safe until all of us are safe in this globalized world in which diseases travel at such speed.

Achieving universal healthcare and pandemic preparedness are ultimately shared and global enterprises. A big element of pandemic preparedness has to be reporting to each other and being held accountable – from Governments and Ministries of Health, to the WHO, to communities. That’s why we are pleased to be co-chair of a new Global Preparedness Monitoring Board, along with Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland of Norway.

The Everyone Counts report reveals very powerful facts: we reached more than 171 million people worldwide with health services in 2016, and 10 million people with related water and sanitation services. That is 171 million instances of healing in a fractured world.

This is all part of what only the Red Cross and Red Crescent can do – being there as part of its communities, before, during and after the shocks. That long term presence is so critical, because in the middle of a crisis you often can’t build the partnerships which are needed to build trust and resilience.


A lot have we achieved together; but more, better, faster we can do!

The scale and magnitude of human suffering and humanitarian needs force us to be humble, and call for more care and support.

None of our achievements would have been possible without your help and support, and I would like to thank you, and through you, all our members for their invaluable help and support.

But we need your help and support more than ever before.
Help us pay the statutory contributions (over 100 members still have not yet paid – so at least we have the credibility to approach others for funding).
Help us with ideas and guidance.
Help us in expertise to put our shared leadership vision into practice.
Help us create a safe, respectful and enabling environment for partnerships and collaborations.
Help us by challenging us and criticizing us constructively, and making this Board the legitimate forum to find solutions to the problems we face.

And I commit to deliver, to meet and where possible, exceed your expectations. I also stand to be held accountable, and hopefully rewarded for what we achieve, but if not, sanctioned.

Thank you very much.