Elhadj As Sy International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies IFRC Secretary General
Date: Tuesday, 13 November, 2018
Event: 10th Asia Pacific Regional Conference Manila, Philippines
Location: Manila, Metro Manila, Philippines

Let me l start by thanking Chairman Gordon and all our friends from the Philippine Red Cross Society, and by welcoming all Red Cross and Red Crescent National Societies from an Asia Pacific region that stretches from the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea to the furthest outreaches of the Pacific Ocean.

This year, I would like to give an especially warm welcome to the Marshall Islands Red Cross Society (I was delighted to have the opportunity to visit you this year), and to a first-time observer, the Bhutan Red Cross Society.

It’s my privilege and honour to address you today.

I have been asked me to reflect on the theme of ‘The world we are giving to future generations’; and to look ahead at the four topics which are the focus of our workshops this morning.

If the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies properly addresses those four topics, we will indeed be going a very long way towards doing our part to ensuring that our children inherit a better world.

In these four workshops, we will be addressing, in different ways, how we can start translating our values, and the pursuit of our shared humanity, before we can start transferring it to others – including the next generation.

Our focus should always be on the people we serve. They live – and most of the time they just ‘survive’ in the most difficult situations. And those situations are simply not normal situations.

Because there is nothing normal in spending all your childhood in a place where you know no peace. There is nothing normal about leaving home because home is no longer safe. And there is nothing normal in standing in the rubble of a disaster in which the bodies of your parents are buried.

Yes, in the short-term we serve people with shelter, water, sanitation, hygiene, and health; but in the long-term they cry for peace; they strive for stability and normalcy; and every day they wake up trying to survive and to preserve what is most important to them: their human dignity. The path to accompany them on that journey is paved by the values that are so critical for our work: trust, respect, long-term engagement and partnership – partnership with so many, but especially partnership between this generation and the next one.

Indeed, trust and respect are required to build long term partnership, and partnership cannot be sustained on an ad hoc basis. It’s not in the middle of a crisis that you can build trust; it’s not in the middle of a crisis that you can build partnership. So, our task is to be there all the time – before the shocks, during the shocks, and after the shocks – to accompany people and to make the Red Cross and the Red Crescent the true partner of choice.

And this is how we can also bridge one generation and the next. That journey should give a better world to the next generation.

Two days ago, the world marked the centenary of the end of the First World War, which took 40 million lives. In the last weeks we have also been reflecting on the centenary of the Spanish Flu epidemic which took 50 million lives. And since then we have had a Second World War. We don’t have a third – but we do live with numbers and figures to which I will return later: they are figures which are the worst since the Second World War.

As I travel, I am often asked whether the world of today is a better or a worse place than the world of 1918 at the end of the First World War or 1919 with the Spanish Flu. There is no simple answer to that question, because we really do live in ‘the best of times, and in the worst of times’.

The world has taken such massive strides forward ….

In just the last 25 years, the number of extremely poor people in the world has been almost halved – with some of the greatest successes happening right here in this region – and so has the number of children not receiving any primary education: that number has also been halved. And there are many more measurable signs – particularly in areas like health and life expectancy – which show that the world is a much better place now than it was before.

But the world has taken such massive backward steps too …

Because progress has been uneven: it has not been shared between regions, between urban and rural communities, between those at different ends of the economic ladder, between men and women.

When we look at 2018 in terms of numbers, it’s quite sobering. We see:
• the highest ever numbers of people in humanitarian need – 134 million according to OCHA
• The highest number of people displaced from their homes, which now stands at nearly 70 million.
• the highest numbers of extreme weather events: at about 400 a year, it’s now 5 times more than what we experienced 50 years ago.

And how are ‘future generations’ experiencing the world, right now?

We are asking this question at a time when children make up more than half of all the people living in appalling conditions in the camps of Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh … and when more than five million children could lose their lives simply because of lack of food and starvation in Yemen.

As I mentioned at the Youth Forum on Sunday, I am not sure that we always see everything through the same lenses as youth, as the next generation. We don’t see it through the innocent eyes of those suffering children.

And here I’m going to quote our friend and colleague Bas Van Rossum, an IFRC Governing Board member and our Youth Commission Chair. He has spoken of the pressures on young people, and the alienation they feel in the often unforgiving world in which they live. For millions of youngsters, he said, the present is already bad enough – never mind the thought of whatever future lies ahead of them.

They risk also to inherit a world of increasing instability, of protracted and complex conflict, of polarisation and ideological struggle, of pressure on natural resources (perhaps future conflict will not be over minerals, but over one single commodity: water), of growing threats from pandemics and health emergencies, from urban violence, from an existential threat that is climate change, and from serious shortages of jobs where population growth outstrips economic growth.

Yes, that may be the world we get if we are passive subjects of history. That may be the world we get, if we are only smart to predict those problems, but not smart enough to prevent them from happening. The future is not tomorrow: the future is now. So the question is: what do we do today, so that we have the world we want tomorrow.

When you discuss the first workshop theme of ‘Sustainability, relevance, identity’ this morning, you might address the fact that we are as relevant as ever in a world of unprecedented humanitarian need.

Concretely, we as humanitarians are tasked to bequeath a better world to future generations – whether they are in obvious crisis situations, or just going about the business of trying to make their way in the world.

Let me go back to the IFRC’s ‘Everyone counts’ report, in which we gathered our experiences and tried to analyse them. It showed that we collectively reached 172 million people with health services in 2016: a great achievement. It showed that we had more than 800 recorded collaborations between 190 National Societies as givers and receivers of mutual solidarity: a great achievement.

It also made clear that our 100-year organization can take nothing for granted, since our lifeblood – our volunteers – have likely decreased in number.

In Asia Pacific, two-thirds of volunteers are young people, but overall numbers of volunteers are down from 7.8 million in 2014 to 5.6 million in 2016.

In yesterday’s workshop we discussed ways of raising that number by engaging and retaining a more demanding volunteer base. We must meet the challenge of retaining our relevance for young people.

Our success however cannot always be measured in the increasing numbers of people we reach. At the end of the day, we want to have less people who need our support. So greater coverage is not always a good indicator. Unless we push back the numbers of people in need, we’ll always be running behind, and humanitarian solutions will always be inadequate as far as political and other problems are concerned.

So when we ask ourselves about how many people we reach, maybe we should ask ourselves if we are using the right metrics. Should we use old parameters to define new phenomena? Are we capturing the new forms of volunteering? Are we listening enough to the next generation to take us to the next world, which will be theirs? Can we afford to keep ourselves, the Red Cross and the Red Crescent – in beautiful red straitjackets when the world is an open one, and a world which demands our contribution in the short and the long term? Can we always go back to our history, from where we draw our strength and inspiration? Should we move away from ‘back to the past’, to ‘back to the future’?

The newest edition of the IFRC’s flagship report, the World Disasters Report – with its title of Leaving No One Behind – was published just two weeks ago, and many of you are now sharing its findings in your own communities. It highlights a number of these issues.

It made global headlines in saying that – worldwide – humanitarians are, in fact, leaving millions of people behind.

We drew up five groups of people who are somehow out of range for humanitarian assistance:

… the ‘out of sight’: the people we fail to see;

… the ‘out of reach’: because we can’t get to them because of difficulties of physical access, or social and cultural barriers;

… the ‘out of the loop’: the people we unintentionally exclude, like older people (who can’t line up in 40 degrees in the shade to get a bag of humanitarian rice and then carry it home) and people with disabilities with can’t run away simply because we give them an early alert of hazard or shock that’s coming;

… the ‘out of scope’: the people who too often aren’t considered to be a problem, and we give them identities like ‘the migrant’, ‘those living in the margins’, those living in situations that each of us could find ourselves in if we had the misfortune to be born poor or find ourselves by chance in the wrong place at the wrong time….

… and finally the ‘out of money’: the people we don’t prioritise – the victims of the forgotten and neglected crises.

And the report offered six solutions, the first and foremost of which was to think and act local, by empowering and equipping and entrusting local communities and local humanitarian actors – like ourselves.

There should always be complementary humanitarian assistance. We don’t need to remind ourselves of the importance of international actors every time we talk about local actors. The two are not mutually exclusive, but there is clearly an imbalance to correct, where local actors are not getting the validation, and it is to be corrected through trust, respect, and the support they deserve, and so often they don’t get.

These two reports are critical to keeping our Federation relevant in the world we will give to future generations. The principles are clear: it’s not about counting people, but it’s about making them count, and everyone does indeed count. We are only doing our job properly if we are leaving no one behind. We must continue to inspire future generations, and we must continue to listen to them – hearing their messages and bracing ourselves to act on them.

We stay relevant, or become more relevant, by continuing to make ourselves and make the National Societies and their development a priority and a focus of our work.

Again, the features of this work will always come back to the values of trust, respect, engagement and partnership. Our continuous presence and accompaniment build that trust and respect, and that’s what makes the Red Cross and the Red Crescent National Societies partners of choice, right there where it matters most, next to people in need.


Colleagues, when you come to discuss the second workshop theme of ‘Climate change, disaster, displacement’, you will be addressing the three existential challenges which are more acute in this region than in any other of the world. This was the most disaster-prone region in the world last year, suffering 40% of the nearly 400 cyclones, floods, bushfires and earthquakes recorded worldwide.

Colleagues, if we are to be able to look the next generation in the eye and know that we have been good stewards of the planet which it will inherit, our Federation must be on the side of the good in addressing climate change.

This region is home to the largest ocean nations on earth, and it can lead our response to climate change, all the way from mitigation to adaptation and to resilience building. We are not powerless: shocks and hazards will always happen, but whether or not they become disasters will pretty much depend on our ability to prepare for them, to act early, to strengthen our capacity to withstand the shocks when they come, next time around, so that we don’t always find ourselves in the same situations of vulnerability.

I am privileged to sit and serve on the new Global Commission for Climate Adaptation alongside respected leaders like Ban Ki Moon, Bill Gates, and Kristalina Georgieva. I am doing so, inspired by our collective fears and anxieties in confronting shocks and hazards, but also by our collective hopes: our hopes that we can do something about it. And through that work I wish to contribute to make our world a better place for the next generation.

We must take advantage of our continuous presence to work along a continuum from early warnings to resilience building.

Early warnings can be as simple as the bicycle relays of thousands of Bangladesh Red Crescent volunteers blowing horns to warn of flood risk.

Early action can take a more sophisticated form, for instance through forecast-based financing. This type of financing has helped to prepare ahead of floods in countries, and extreme cold in places like Mongolia.

Meanwhile, in the face of displacement, we are there – again, across a continuum all the way from countries of origin, to countries of transit, to countries of arrival, helping vulnerable migrants. We are there as one of the only organizations in the world which is present right along the migration route. As our President often says, there is no such thing as an illegal human being. So again, working across the continuum is key.

Our Red Cross and Red Crescent voice has already been heard in the drafting of the Global Compact for Safe and Orderly Migration which we hope will be adopted in Marrakesh in a month’s time.


When you come to discuss the third workshop theme of ‘trust in institutions being at risk’, we should think of the primacy of that trust which lies in our seven fundamental principles of humanity (the mother of all of them), impartiality, neutrality, independence, voluntary service, unity, and universality of the Red Cross and Red Crescent.

So we need to continue to be vigilant to continue to deserve trust and respect.

All over the world, the standing of many international institutions has been diminished, in large part because of valid scrutiny. Because governance has left the boardroom: it’s out there on the street. Every observer is a governor. We will always be challenged and tested. Trust is our capital. We have nothing to produce, nothing to sell, except our values, and trust must be preserved. The legitimacy that we bring to our work is not necessarily derived from our mandate or history or brand. At the end of the day the real test will be the legitimacy of the agenda we carry and the relevance of that agenda in responding to people’s needs.

In that spirit, financial probity is key in our quest for integrity. It is simply unthinkable that any donated money to save and improve lives should be used for anything other than that purpose.

We must do all we can to pursue this and take strong action whenever we falter. In the Secretariat, we have rolled out integrity training for over 1,000 staff and instituted what we call a ‘triple line of defence’ to stop fraud and corruption. We are working with National Societies to ensure that these protections are made Federation-wide.

With regard to sexual abuse and harassment, an important topic of today, I’d just like to remind us that we have a profound duty of care not just to those whom we serve, but to those with whom we work. Let’s start at home so that we have the credibility to preach to others outside.

Today we will discuss our Federation-wide efforts to institute and roll out new policies – for the Prevention of Sexual Exploitation and Abuse.


The fourth and final workshop today is looking at how ‘Connectivity can transform our actions.

As you look more technically at the issue of connectivity today, no doubt you will discuss areas like the potential of ‘virtual volunteering’, whereby volunteers don’t need to be in the field all the time to offer their services. That may indeed mean that we start counting our volunteers differently, and then our numbers will look different.

You may also look at the extraordinary potential of blockchain technology to deliver services which are increasingly part of our operations, like cash transfers. We have successfully trialled the use of blockchain in a large cash programme in Kenya. The beauty (and, for some, the threat) of blockchain is that it records every transaction, for ever. Once you leave a digital footprint it is there for ever. So we need to develop a better understanding of how we manage the safety, security, and ethical considerations of the digital footprint we leave in our operations.

You will be looking at the value of shared platforms to help track – and plan – operations. The IFRC’s new GO platform seeks to help with this task, across this Federation.

You will be looking at the many mobile phone applications, like the downloadable service we have developed for migrants seeking vital practical information in countries of transit and arrival – and first aid – as we have seen here in this region in the Philippines.

The teacher in me cannot conclude without highlighting the value of education. We are compelled not only to pass on knowledge to the next generation, but also values such as trust, respect, self-esteem, tolerance, care, and support. These are the seeds we are planting for a culture of non-violence and peace, and which will help children who have known hardship not to replicate the things they have seen … the things which no child should ever witness. And that will definitely be a contribution to making the world a better place for the next generation.

The common thread – from generation to generation – is our shared humanity.

That shared humanity is everywhere in this room, and everywhere in this region and in every community. Many of the things I have shared with you this morning are things that I have learned from you through our many debates and exchanges of ideas … through our joint visits in the field where we have experienced the best and the worst … through the tears we have shed when we have experienced the sadness of seeing people losing their lives … or the same tears we shed when we visit the parents of a volunteer who lost their life.

And we have also learned together through many expressions of hope, like the contagious smiles we get from the face of a child. And we have learned together from the despair which can humble us, and from the overwhelming situations in which we find ourselves, and which make us doubt. And those doubts make us humble; and every day they make us question ourselves, and question our certainties about who and what we are. And those certainties should indeed be questioned, so that we open up to new ways of learning, and increase our humility as humanitarian actors.

That humility, I think, is central to how we shape ‘The world we are giving to future generations’. This Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement – just like this planet – doesn’t belong to any of us. We are only stewards. I often like to paraphrase the beautiful advertisement of a famous brand of a Swiss watch. We don’t own this Red Cross … we don’t own this planet … we merely have to look after it for the next generation.

Thank you.

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