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Health Issues in our Region

Address by Robert Tickner, CEO, Australian Red Cross to the Diversity in Health 2005 Conference

Melbourne, 19 October 2005

Dear friends and colleagues,

Firstly allow me to thank you, on behalf of Australian Red Cross and the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, for giving me the opportunity to share with you our experiences and deep involvement in the health issues in our region.

But before I go to the heart of things, I would like to start by making some important commitments on behalf of Australian Red Cross of direct relevance to this gathering.

Australian Red Cross has recently adopted its key strategic document, Strategy 2010. This document sets out our agenda and our directions for the next five years, and I am very pleased to announce that one of the three key Goals relates directly to diversity, and commits us to ensure organisation that is unified but importantly that it is also inclusive and reflective of our country's diversity.

I am personally committed to building Australian Red Cross links and involvement with a much wider spectrum of our Australian community than has often thus far been the case in the 90 years of our existence.

I hope we will also have an opportunity to exchange views and ideas both today and in the years ahead on these issues and that we can build the links of solidarity and cooperation with many of the organisations and people represented at this conference. That commitment, I should stress, also applies to the Indigenous people of this land who we will seek to better serve and involve in our work over the years ahead.

Turning now to the subject of my presentation may I say at the outset that I am delighted that a conference with a predominately Australian focus has included consideration of the health and well-being of people in our region. I am also delighted that mental health has been given such a priority focus at this conference and Australian Red Cross shares the view that we need to elevate this issue in importance both within Australia and internationally.

It would be my hope that all participants will walk away from this conference with an increased awareness of the challenges our regional neighbours face, addressing critical issues in health confronting them on a daily basis and a determination to do something about it.

In my presentation, I will raise some key health issues in the Asia Pacific region through the eyes of Red Cross and Red Crescent, as one of the organisations that has a strong and wide grassroots presence around the world, and one that has been working on health related issues in Asia Pacific communities for many decades.

Before I get into the substance of the topic, can I take a moment to give you a quick snapshot of the organisation I represent:

Australian Red Cross is part of a unique humanitarian movement which has its own distinct way of operating and a set of Fundamental Red Cross and Red Crescent Principles which underpin all our work.

We wear these principles as a badge of honour and they are essential for the performance of our work. Let me simply set them out for you. They are:-

  • ¬†Humanity
  • Impartiality
  • Neutrality
  • Independence
  • Voluntary Service
  • Unity
  • Universality


Of these principles I would like to stress the importance of our commitment to Impartiality and Neutrality. The first, 'Impartiality', means that we make no distinction in our work based on nationality, race, religious beliefs, class or political opinions and the second, 'Neutrality', means that in order to enjoy the confidence of all the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement may not take sides in hostilities or engage in any time in controversies of a political, racial, religious or ideological nature.

Understanding our commitment to these principles is fundamental to understanding why the Movement enjoys such respect and standing around the world and is thus able to be so effective.

Just to give you some examples I should highlight the capacity of the Red Cross Movement through the ICRC to gain access to prisoners related to a conflict situation when no other organisation can. When Nelson Mandela was on Robin Island it was the ICRC which was able to have contact with him. The similar case happened when Xanana Gusmao was in a Jakarta jail.

Before the Tsunami it was the ICRC which was carrying out its humanitarian mission in Aceh and in northern Sri Lanka, often when no other agencies were allowed access.

In addition to our considerable international programs we deliver over 60 community services in every corner of Australia. Internationally we respond to emergencies and crises and we carry out development programs in areas such as primary health care and water and sanitation, to name but a few.

At any given time, we have between 50 and 100 Australian Red Cross aid workers in the field internationally, often working in situations of danger, helping deliver vital humanitarian assistance and long-term programs.

Now, let's get back to business.

So, what do we see as the key health issues for this region? And what are we, as Red Cross and Red Crescent, doing to try and improve those conditions?

Today's 'global village' allows us to know, hear and witness the changes of the health and consequences of natural disasters in any part of the world from our living room couch, but all of us need to do much more to encourage all governments to respond to the tragedies which we see on our screens.

I hope we all agree that a right to good health is a basic human right. However just in our region, in Asia-Pacific, every day 12,000 children die from largely preventable diseases. It is clear that the needs are great, and the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement is working with our local partners to try and meet those needs as much as we can.

How are we doing this? Well, for starters our global umbrella organisation, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, signed a cooperation agreement with the World Health Organisation. The aim of this agreement is to work together and in a complementary way to address vulnerability to diseases as a major cause of poverty, just as poverty itself is a major contributor to vulnerability to disease. As the statement issued on that occasion said: 'Threats to public health compromise the productivity and productive potential of individuals, communities and entire nations.

The International Federation and WHO will work together towards achieving the over-arching Millennium Development Goals. Both organizations also share the important objective to reduce the avoidable loss of life, burden of disease and disability in crises.'

Now, this is not a 'new' initiative, as we in the Red Cross and Red Crescent work with WHO on many initiatives - such as HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria as well as Hygiene Promotion, Water & Sanitation, First Aid, Blood Safety, Road Safety plus our other work in emergency, recovery, and disaster prevention situations.

But what we are really trying to do is link our health related activities with health education and ensure reduction in poverty levels.

All of the MDGs have a direct relationship to Health. They are also broadly covered by the wish of the Heads of Government who signed the Millennium Declaration in New York in September 2000 to set forth a program aimed at the alleviation of poverty. The Heads of Government also recognised that it is not possible simply to alleviate poverty without building substance into the work of governments and others on sustainable development.

Sustainable development includes, of course, issues vitally related to the environment, including safe drinking water and sanitation. These two points are built into the targets and indicators supporting Millennium Development Goal 7, on Environmental Sustainability. They are also very relevant to MDG 1 on poverty reduction.

Can I emphasise to you that many of the solutions to addressing key health issues in the region are simply not rocket science but basic common sense. Fred Hollows once emphasised to me the importance of 'health hardware' in Aboriginal communities i.e. the water and sanitation and housing conditions and it is equally true of overseas aid projects in my view.

As night follows day, if people live with poor or no sanitation, poor water supply and overcrowded housing the fact is that it will significantly contribute to serious diseases and shortened life span for the people, including children who endure it.

These are challenges which can be met by human kind and the nations of the world if the political will is there. They are solvable problems and they can be fixed.

I have seen the problems many times and indeed only last week in Sri Lanka saw a camp of Muslim residents whose lives had been decimated by the Tsunami in southern Sri Lanka. There the temporary housing had been build by another agency (not an Australian one) but without an adequate system for dealing with waste water, thus creating a serious health hazard. Australian Red Cross is on the job there addressing this issue to avoid a serious outbreak of disease in the future.

The Red Cross' view is that none of the MDGs can be seen in isolation. Environmental sustainability must be seen as part of a wider agenda which includes the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger (MDG 1), as well as the need for the populations of the world to be equipped to understand the importance of protecting themselves and their environment. Straightforward issues like that is the outcome of the successful achievement of MDG 2, on Universal Primary Education.

The achievement of Millennium Development Goals will depend on strong and effective links to the communities which live in the poverty, despair and environmental degradation which the Goals challenge and seek to address.

In the rest of my presentation I would like to place some emphasis on the priority we think should be attached to the fight against the spread of HIV/AIDS and indeed Australian Red Cross is regarded as a leading agency in the fight against HIV/AIDS in the Asia-Pacific region.

Indeed, Australian Red Cross has had over 10 years experience in implementing HIV/AIDS programs, initially in the Mekong sub-region but then expanding throughout Asia/Pacific. These programs have been delivered in partnership with the local Red Cross or Red Crescent in each country and in collaboration with other agencies and networks, especially emerging communities of People Living With HIV/AIDS. In recent years, ARC has promoted a shift in HIV interventions from general awareness to those targeted to those most vulnerable to HIV. ARC has also worked with local partners to complement prevention with care/support and anti discrimination interventions.

We are also working with the Australian Government to try and ensure appropriate measures and funding is available for HIV/AIDS programs. We endorse the inclusion of HIV/AIDS as a key sector in the development of the White Paper on overseas aid policy which the government is currently preparing.

Our HIV/AIDS programs have been going on for many years, and we developed them in many countries, including in those that may not be perceived as receptive to those kinds of programs, for instance Laos and China. A number of our HIV/AIDS initiatives have been labelled 'best practice' by UNAIDS. Other countries that we either worked or are still working in are Cambodia, Vietnam, Mongolia, Myanmar.

One of key elements of our programs is ensuring that marginalised communities are also involved, and that we ensure a three-pronged approach to tackling HIV - education, treatment and prevention.

However, we are also active in HIV/AIDS-related activities in the Pacific - in East Timor, Solomons and PNG, for a simple reason.

Today it is common knowledge that the continent worst-affected by the scourge of HIV/AIDS is Africa. What is less known is that the next time-bomb is Asia-Pacific - and especially our close neighbour, Papua New Guinea.

Recent media reports, as tiny and obscure as they were, reported the fact that infection rates were increasing and equal to many southern African countries.
Therefore it is critically important that we concentrate a lot of effort on helping those communities to tackle the spread of HIV, and invest heavily in educating younger generations about the way in which the virus is transferred and how they can help prevent the disease from spreading.

The emphasis of those programs is to put the power into the hands of the people and communities themselves to help them overcome the problems and find solutions.

Before I conclude I would like to highlight the important link between our humanitarian work and that of other agencies in building the capacity of communities to respond to natural disasters and our effective Red Cross response to those disasters with wider development issues.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies has for many years promoted and acted on the belief that humanitarian activities are not and should not be divorced from those of development but that they are integrated links in a continuum of support to vulnerable populations.

In recognition of this, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement has shifted its focus from relief activities to a balance of relief and development work. We have invested human and material resources into solid local capacity-building, ensuring that what starts as a relief operation plants the seeds of sustainable development.

The Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement sees government and donor acceptance and financial support of this continuum as essential to achieving its own goals and contributing to those of the Millennium Declaration.

The Movement appeals annually for long-term development funding and through Emergency Appeals for humanitarian disasters. This covers a spectrum of challenges well articulated within the MDGs: HIV/AIDS, malaria, disaster preparedness and risk mitigation, and both sudden and slow-onset disasters, such as the Indian Ocean Earthquake and Tsunami and the food insecurity, drought and population movements in Africa.

We continue to urge governments to support and partner with their national Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in both the humanitarian and development fields, to reinforce risk mitigation and disaster preparedness as means of ensuring better resistance to disaster and disease.

This will directly contribute to recovery and empower communities to engage in development with dignity. We firmly believe that a critical component to sustainable development is the involvement of civil society in the design and implementation of programs aimed at fulfilling their needs and desires.

Year after year, disaster after disaster, we have insisted that proper financing should apply to all disaster preparedness measures.

The Indian Ocean Earthquake and Tsunami is only the most recent, if most dramatic reminder, that we could have avoided the tragic human toll and suffering by investing more in disaster preparedness and advanced protective measures.

By sparing millions of dollars in disaster preparedness, we are now spending billions to mitigate damages that could otherwise have been prevented as we have seen so starkly in our region and in other parts of the world in recent times.

Thank you again for the opportunity to participate in your conference.