From the Glass Archive – we look at the work of the Red Cross


Ray of hope – Humanitarian crises, fundraising during a recession and overcoming corruption? All in a day’s work for the Red Cross

THE Red Cross is one of the most recognised humanitarian organisations on the planet. More humanitarian movement than charity, the Red Cross has been responding to people in crisis since 1863, when it was founded in Geneva, Switzerland, by businessman Henry Dunant. Since then, the organisation has won three Nobel prizes and grown considerably into the institution we recognise today: an international, volunteer-led humanitarian megalith with more than 97 million volunteers, members and staff around the world.

The Red Cross aims to help people, ‘whoever and wherever they are’, enabling ‘vulnerable people at home and overseas to prepare for and respond to emergencies in their own communities’. Glass spoke to the director of the British Red Cross Sir Nicholas Young to find out more about what lies behind such an outstanding humanitarian effort.

Photograph by Mike TsangBritish Red Cross director Sir Nicholas Young. Photograph by Mike Tsang

With humanitarian emergencies occurring all over the world, how does the British Red Cross prioritise needs and respond to crises?
It’s a very, very complex task. Firstly, we have a Red Cross everywhere in the world, 186 national Red Cross Societies, so wherever anything happens, there is a Red Cross or a Red Cross Society to respond. We first look to these local branches to give us a real sense of what needs to be done and how serious the situation is. Prioritisation is based according to need and that’s both scale of disaster and capacity of the country to deal with it. It’s a question of balancing the need and the capacity to respond with media interest and willingness of the public to give too.

We depend on generous donations from the public to do our work and if there are no media cameras there telling the story and no public interest then this becomes much harder. You see, for instance, we raised a lot of money for Japan and New Zealand but it was much harder raising money for Libya, because cameras weren’t there and because it is a complex political situation.

Photograph courtesy of IFRCA training session for villages on disaster preparedness in Natutu village on
Fiji’s main island. Photograph courtesy of IFRC

What makes the Red Cross different?
First of all, impartiality and neutrality. Given our role in conflict situations it is absolutely essential for us to be seen as completely impartial, completely neutral. That means that we can help both sides and we can have access to both sides. If you are going to get access to political prisoners, for example, the government of the country needs to know that you are neutral and impartial, and that you are not going to be making a political point out of it, you are not going to be manning the barricades, you are going to be dealing with it absolutely straight down the line, from an impartial humanitarian perspective.

So that is absolutely crucial. Secondly, we are universal, as I said: there’s a Red Cross in every country, in every village, in every town, which is fantastic! And I suppose thirdly – we are auxiliary to Government. We are independent of governments, but we have a role supporting governments, where governments are unable to cope with the humanitarian consequences or whatever it is happening in their own country.

Which campaigns are you currently working on?
Well here in the UK, we are working on a big First Aid campaign particularly for young people, that’s really important. We are also working very hard on building up a care in the home strategy: we see that the National Health Service sometimes struggles to meet needs, we have an ageing population here in the UK, resources are scarce and we see a real role for the Red Cross in building up our own capacity to respond to this situation. We also want to make volunteering in the British Red Cross the best experience that money can’t buy. And that’s what we are trying to do currently. We’ve got 35,000 volunteers, but we’d like lots more people to come in to help our fantastic work.

Photograph by Oliver MatthysThe girls school of Shelkhanabad, Pakistan, six months after the floods. Photograph by Oliver Matthys

Do you ever feel that the public suffers from “empathy exhaustion” in the face of so many campaigns, charities and causes all asking for money? Do we become desensitised to the issues involved in these campaigns?
It never ceases to amaze me – people’s generosity. Whenever there’s a disaster, people are just immediately on the website, they’re on the phone, asking what they can do to help. That is fantastic! I have to say that I haven’t seen any signs of donor fatigue. Even through the recession, people continue to give, continue to give to the Red Cross. There are people that choose to give money regularly – monthly through their pay packets.

We have about 480,000 of these people giving money each month to the Red Cross and actually, during the recession, the number of people who cancelled their subscription went down … and that is, I think, just a measure of people who felt that, “OK, times are hard for me, but I bet there are a lot of people in this world for whom they are even harder.” Increasingly you see people out there on the streets, asking for money; you see people knocking on doors asking for money; all those letters that drop through your letter box that you don’t like, many of you.

But hey, if you don’t ask – you don’t get. It’s the first rule of fundraising. You first have to ask – you aren’t asking for lots, you are asking for pennies or a pound, and they all add up. We also have to get better at telling our story, not just the story of the big disasters. There are small things that people do in their community to help each other and the Red Cross is all over the UK, our volunteers do a fantastic job, and that story needs to be much better told. I also think that demonstrating transparency and accountability is very important. Being able to show – this is how we spend your money, we spend wisely and well.

photograph by Eric Quintero/IFRCSearch and rescue operation underway in Port-au-Prince following the Haiti earthquake.
Photograph by Eric Quintero/IFRC

How can the public be sure that when they donate to certain charities that their money is making an active difference?
The answer isn’t very difficult, because you can go to any charity, you can certainly go to the Red Cross and ask for an account to see how the money is spent and they will give you that in a very transparent form. Anyone is welcome to see our accounts: we produce the simplified version that’s quite easy. It’s much harder to compare one charity with another because we are all doing different work, in different ways, using different methods and costs, and inevitably we all account for the way we spend the money in different ways.

So in this sense it can be very hard for the public to really be sure. But I think, you know, the Red Cross has been around a long time, we’re hugely experienced, we’re in every country in the world, and I hope that our reputation speaks for itself – credibility and effectiveness is what it’s all about.

Photograph by Olav A Saltbones/Norwegian Red CrossA girl standing in front of a destroyed house following the Pakistan floods.
Photograph by Olav A Saltbones/Norwegian Red Cross

How does the Red Cross tackle political corruption when it comes to delivering aid?
This is a huge strength of the Red Cross. The Red Cross movement comes from 150 years of working very hard and making sure that we have the capacity and that we are completely independent and neutral. There is a structure in each country, a Red Cross structure or Crescent structure in each country.

We all obey the same principles, we all work very hard to make sure that we are able to operate within operational governance where possible but also independently of governments so that we can ensure that when people give money to the Red Cross it absolutely goes to those in need. It is absolutely key to ensure that. It is more difficult to ensure it in some countries than others inevitably, and that is part of our challenge, just to do everything we can to assure that people in need get the help they require.

What are your hopes for the near future?
Well, we want to raise more money so that we can help more people and we want to recruit more volunteers. Sometimes it feels with everything going on at the moment around the world, with all of the recent humanitarian crises, sometimes I sit at my desk and I feel like the world is coming to an end. But amazingly the help always comes in, the public supports what we do and that is incredibly reassuring. The public out there supporting us, and the beneficiaries who need us, well if that doesn’t get you out of bed in the morning, nothing will.

by Nicola Kavanagh

From the Glass Archive Issue Eight – Faith

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