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The Australian Red Cross response to international disasters and the accountability framework which guides our work

Speech by Robert Tickner to the national conference of the Institute of Internal Auditors

27 March 2007

Thank you for inviting me to speak to some of the major issues facing Australian Red Cross in its response to international disasters.

Overview of ARC

Let me start by giving you some background about Australian Red Cross, our work and the circumstances confronting us and other humanitarian organisations.

We are part of an international network of Red Cross and Red Crescent societies which began early in the 2nd half of the 19th century, originally to take care of the sick and the wounded on the battlefield, regardless of the side they fought in.

Today, there are 186 societies. That's very close to universal representation--the UN itself has 192 member states.

The National Societies have established a federation whose secretariat is based in Geneva and Australia is currently represented on its Governing Board. With the International Committee of the Red Cross--the ICRC--which has a specific mission to protect the lives and dignity of victims of war and violence, we comprise the largest humanitarian network in the world.

Globally, national Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the International Federation and the ICRC are the most significant non-governmental actors in the health and social welfare sector, during conflicts, disasters and at other times.

Australian Red Cross was established as a branch of the British Red Cross at the outbreak of the First World War with the primary aim of supporting sick and wounded soldiers.

In the decades since then, Australian Red Cross has pioneered and delivered a range of health and social welfare services both domestically and internationally.

Domestically we provide over 70 community services ranging from the well known blood service; to providing breakfast to kids who come to school without having had a meal; to offering support for people with a mental illness; to giving material and psychological help to victims of bushfires, floods and other disasters.

Just a year ago we mobilised over 80 staff and 430 volunteers from around Australia to assist people affected by Cyclone Larry. Our people assisted friends and relatives to locate loved ones; we made 3,000 individual visits to homes across 30 towns to check on the well-being of residents and distributed food parcels and helped those affected with referrals to other agencies able to assist them with immediate and longer term needs.

I noted the role of volunteers quite deliberately. Voluntary service is one of the Fundamental Principles on which Australian Red Cross and the global Red Cross Red Crescent Movement is based. Australian Red Cross services are delivered by over 30,000 volunteers. Worldwide the Movement has in the order of 97 million volunteers.

Australia and quite a few other national societies have a long history of providing humanitarian services internationally as well as at home.

Australian Red Cross has an average of 90 Australian professionals working in more than 20 countries around the world at any one time.

The projects are very diverse in character, as the following examples indicate.

We are supporting the local health sector of Tibet in areas such as blood services and training for emergency maternal and neo-natal care.

We assist people in Sudan who have fled civil war by providing basic health services and feeding centres for severely malnourished children.

In the Solomon Islands, we have been involved with a community-based program to raise awareness of basic hygiene and sanitation and to train people in first aid.

We are assisting the Red Cross society of Timor Leste - East Timor - to develop its capacity to undertake health, water, sanitation and other programs.

We work with national societies on HIV and AIDs projects in a number of countries including China, Laos, Mongolia, Myanmar and Papua New Guinea.

This very brief survey illustrates the fact that our international humanitarian work is much broader in scope than responding to earthquakes, floods and other disasters, which are the focus of my remarks today.

I now turn to this subject.


Let me begin with some basic information about disasters - what the world has experienced recently and the challenges that may confront us.

In doing so I will draw mainly on the work of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, which since 1993 has produced an annual World Disasters Report, documenting and analysing events and issues.

According to the most recent edition of World Disasters Report, in the decade to 2005 there were 3416 natural disasters reported. They caused 835,000 deaths and over 2 and half billion people were otherwise affected--for instance, by injury or the destruction of their homes.

By natural disasters I mean events such as droughts, hurricanes and floods; earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. This data excludes other major causes of human suffering such as conflicts and epidemics and technologically related events such as industrial accidents.

Further caveats are essential. The World Disasters Report data refers to reported events that meet certain criteria, such as ten or more people reported killed and a state of emergency declared. Many events occur that may be unreported internationally or be excluded because they fall outside these criteria, but are nonetheless disastrous to their affected communities.

The most common type of natural disaster was floods--there were over 1300 of those. While they were far less common events, earthquakes and tsunamis and droughts and famines killed many more people.

Last year did not see natural disasters on the scale of the Tsunami 2004 and the Pakistan earthquake of 2005. But the number of events that provoked disasters was larger and more people were affected.

The number of people who live in areas vulnerable to disasters is increasing each year and the sheer majority of that increase is in areas of the world with the smallest share of resources and the biggest burden of exposure to disasters.

The impact of disasters is greatest on people who are poor.

And within affected communities, women suffer disproportionately. In a number of Sri Lankan villages hit by the Tsunami, over 50% more women than men died. Research has attributed this to a number of factors -- male-to-male warning systems that excludes women; women not getting men's permission to evacuate; women assuming responsibility for evacuating children and the elderly.

Generally in many of the countries we work in, women live in greater poverty than men, own fewer assets, have less formal education and work in less lucrative jobs, increasing their vulnerability.

Gender discrimination including violence also makes women very vulnerable in other respects as well. The proportion of HIV-positive women has increased significantly in recent years, a phenomenon which is particularly apparent in countries where the virus is spread mainly through heterosexual intercourse, such as Papua New Guinea. Physical and sexual violence by strangers are major factors, but women are also at risk within marriage because they may find it difficult to get their spouses to use condoms or to refuse sex to unfaithful partners.

The implications for aid organisations undertaking programs to curb the spread of HIV are clear: we cannot avoid tackling issues of gender violence and gender inequality.

I am sure you will not be surprised to hear that increases in the frequency and intensity of natural disasters have been linked to climate change. In 2004, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Federation responded to 63 floods worldwide. That number jumped to 137 in 2006. This alarming trend was most visible in Africa, where the number of floods rose from 5 in 2004 to 32 in 2006, while at the same time millions of people continued to suffer from drought-related food insecurity.

Australian Red Cross and Japanese Red Cross recently combined our human and equipment resources to deploy a field hospital to a remote area in Kenya to assist men, women and children affected by floods. These communities had no other access to medical assistance and our team was treating approximately 200 people per day.

Many of the countries worst affected are in Asia and the Pacific, the area in which Australian Red Cross focuses its work.

These regions are subject to a large number of natural disasters - more than half of the 3400 disaster incidents reported in the decade to 2005 were in Asia and the Pacific. And even excluding the exceptionally devastating Tsunami, more than half of people killed by natural disasters were in Asia and the Pacific. If you include the Tsunami, the proportion of global fatalities that occurred in Asia and the Pacific was over 3 quarters.

Over 60 percent of the world's population lives here and 700 million people live on less than a dollar a day, more than twice the number of people living in extreme poverty than in Africa.

Low lying coastal nations have been identified as particularly at risk if sea levels keep rising.

The concern is not fanciful. The island nation of Tuvalu is experiencing lowland flooding and saltwater intrusion that has adversely affected supplies of drinking water and food production, and coastal erosion is eating away the nine islands that make up the nation. Tuvalu is the first nation to be actively seeking to evacuate its population because of rising sea levels.

In the case of Tuvalu we are speaking of 11,000 people. Imagine the impact on a country like Bangladesh, home to millions, which would have half its main rice producing area inundated by a 1 metre rise in the sea level.


So far I have focused on natural disasters. The human suffering caused by war and other types of conflict is also immense - death and injury; rape; displacement; deprivation of food, water and shelter.

The number of wars between nations has been decreasing but internal conflicts continue to be common and may persist for years.

In our region, Sri Lanka, Timor-Leste and the Solomon Islands immediately come to mind as recent instances.

In the Darfur region of Sudan, where Australian Red Cross jointly conducts relief operations with the ICRC and the British Red Cross, over 2 million people have been forced from their homes since 2003. That's a population about the same size as that of Western Australia, carrying what they can from their households and walking vast distances to seek safety in extraordinarily inhospitable environments. Many now live in rudimentary shelter in camps, vulnerable to violent attacks, the cutting of supplies and help and disease.

The reasons for the conflict in Darfur are complex and contentious but one element noted is competition over scarce water and land resources for the competing needs of agriculturalists and nomadic herdsmen.

Responding to disaster

Our response to international disasters takes a number of forms.

In public terms, the best known is emergency relief after disasters have struck--shipping in material items like tents and food, and professionals like doctors and engineers.

But much of our less publicised activity involves measures to prevent disasters occurring and to mitigate the impact of disasters. In this as in other international work, our approach is to undertake projects in partnership with the Red Cross and Red Crescent national societies as far as possible. We have such partnerships with the national societies in 11 countries in the region.

In Mongolia, for example, we have jointly established with Mongolian Red Cross seven regional disaster preparedness centres in the most disaster-prone provinces across the country. This means that isolated populations have been trained and are better prepared for the Dzud or 'White Death' winters which instead of occurring once every 50 years now occur every few years. It is hard for Australians to imagine poverty in very cold countries--temperatures of minus 40 or 50 degrees centigrade are incomprehensible to us. But when it happens, children cannot go to school, families and whole communities are forced to shelter in the traditional 'gers' --homes for half the Mongolian population, these nomadic tents are made from layers of white felt and canvas covering a wooden frame--with the heat from a coal or wood stove placed in the middle. Whole communities lose their herds--which are the primary source or income and food, when the ground becomes too frozen for stocks to graze or for water to be extracted.

In the Pacific region, a key focus of our work is to resource and strengthen the national societies so that they are better able to recruit, train and retain the volunteers who are essential to assisting individuals, communities and families in need. The reality is that a number of the Pacific nations have weak or poorly performing state institutions, so effective disaster preparedness and response demands a far more substantial role by civil society than in countries like Australia.


I've spoken about a number of the key challenges in the actual delivery of assistance to people affected by disasters--the sheer number and scale of emergencies in societies which lack resources to cope effectively; conflict and gender violence; the looming impact of climate change.

I turn now to a subject I think many of you will be both familiar with and interested in: accountability. For us, it can be defined relatively simply as 'delivery to disaster affected communities in a timely, appropriate and relevant manner.'

But for a variety of reasons implementation can be complex. For a start, there is a wide and diverse range of stakeholders to whom we have to be accountable--disaster affected people, governments of disaster affected countries, the international community,and to public and private donors who provide the resources that enable us to do our work.

I will focus on two important instruments we use to ensure accountability--one is the Code of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and NGOs in Disaster Relief and the other is the Code of Conduct developed by the Australian Council for International development.

I will give particular attention to how Australian Red Cross has approached the issues of accountability and transparency in relation to the 2004 Boxing Day earthquake & tsunami, one of the largest operations ever undertaken not only by Australia but by the entire Red Cross and Red Crescent movement. Australian Red Cross alone received over 80 million dollars from the public, and including corporate and government donations we received five and a half times the amount donated for the second largest international appeal, following the Bali bombings.

I will also speak about some of the lessons learned by us and other aid agencies from the Tsunami effort--I can tell you that it has changed the way in which we deliver our core operations and will shape the way emergency and long-term disaster relief is administered into the future.

Red Cross Code of Conduct

The Red Cross Code of Conduct was developed and agreed upon by eight of the world's largest disaster response agencies in 1994. It is used by the International Federation to monitor its standards of relief delivery and to encourage other agencies to set similar standards. The Red Cross Code is a voluntary one and most of the world's large international aid organisations--405 as at February 2007--have signed up to it.

These are among the principal commitments which apply to us under the code:

  • we must ensure that the humanitarian imperative comes first, in all our activities
  • we must ensure that aid is given regardless of the race, creed or nationality of the recipients and without adverse distinction of any kind. Aid priorities are calculated on the basis of need alone
  • Aid cannot be used to further a particular political or religious standpoint
  • We respect culture and custom in all the communities we work in
  • We involve programme beneficiaries in the management of relief aid
  • We strive to reduce future vulnerabilities to disaster as well as meeting basic needs
  • We hold ourselves accountable to both those we seek to assist and those from whom we accept resources.


Implementing the code is challenging and requires constant vigilance.

Let me illustrate with reference to one of the commitments I mentioned, that of prioritising aid on the basis of need. This is in accord with one of the Fundamental Principles of Red Cross and Red Crescent movement, impartiality, which states that we should be guided solely by the needs of individuals and give priority to the most urgent cases of distress.

In practice however, aid is distributed very inequitably if you compare the amount expended with the situations that people confront. Tsunami aid amounted to more than 12 hundred US dollars per beneficiary while the amount available to assist people in the Darfur region of Sudan was less than half that.

Such disparities in aid was the theme of the current issue of World Disasters Report, which focuses on what are described as 'neglected' crises.

The reality is that there is not a huge pool of aid money which can be allocated on the basis of need. Certainly public donations tend to be given for people affected by specific events, and this is to a significant extent determined by media coverage. This is what the World Disasters Report has to say about that:

'Common sense would dictate that the larger the disaster, the greater the media attention and the more generous the response. That was certainly the case with the tsunami. But it is not, unfortunately, a universal rule. Research across a range of disasters reveals that there is no clear link between death tolls and media interest. Rather, Western self-interest gives journalists a strong steer.'

This is strikingly illustrated by media coverage of Hurricanes Katrina and Stan, which hit the USA and Central America in 2005. Both led to the deaths of around 1500 people, but Katrina generated 40 times more articles in newspapers across Europe, the US and Australia than Stan. The disparity in the financial response to each disaster was greater still.

The response to the Tsunami disaster shows what the world can do--we need the same solidarity with the victims of underreported or neglected disasters. There have been a number of initiatives to improve the equity of humanitarian responses. For example, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies has since 1985 operated a fund which allocates money to minor or neglected emergencies that would otherwise go unfunded. The fund also enables the Federation to finance disaster preparedness and awareness-raising in the case of what are described as slow-onset disasters, such as acute food shortages caused by delayed rains and crop failures. The European Commission and the UN also have funds that can be allocated for so-called forgotten emergencies.

There are important measures but there is much more that can and should be done.

The ACFID code of conduct

The second major accountability instrument that we use is a code of conduct developed by the Australian Council for International Development--ACFID as it is commonly referred to.

Checking whether a charitable organisation in Australia is reputable has always been a complicated task. The legislation and standards across Australia that relate to charities vary widely. Making financial comparisons between aid organisations has been impossible as there is no accounting standard specifically for financial reporting within the sector. However, Australian Red Cross has always reported in line with Australian accounting standards and more recently with the Australian-International Financial Reporting Standards.

Australian overseas aid agencies addressed this issue by adopting a voluntary code in 1997 and this seems to be working well. Not long ago Australia was visited by Nick Stockton, the Executive Director of the Humanitarian Accountability Project, an organisation which has developed a simplified version of the ISO 9000 certification process for aid organisations, and he noted that we are one of most advanced countries in regard to accreditation processes.

The ACFID Code of Conduct sets out standards in the fields of organisational integrity, governance, communication with the public, finances and personnel and management practice.

We use the Code internally to assess and improve our operations, systems and guiding principles.

The Code includes a detailed set of compliance indicators. Compliance with the standards is tested predominantly through monitoring of annual and financial reporting requirements and the investigation of complaints.

There is an ACFID Code of Conduct Committee which monitors adherence to the Code and investigates complaints which may be brought by members of the public. The Committee comprises six members elected from non-governmental development organisations, an independent chairperson and a representative of Australian donors nominated by the Australian Consumers' Association. The Code sets out a process through which complaints are investigated and findings determined. Where a breach of the Code is found, the Committee takes action to address the problem. If no satisfactory solution is reached the Committee may withdraw recognition of the organisation as a signatory to the Code and publish the findings of an investigation.

The Code promotes a minimum standard. But following the 2004 Tsunami, Australian Red Cross elected to exceed its requirements and take special measures to increase our accountability as I will mention in a moment.

We publish and promote what we call an appeal intent each time we ask for funds from the Australian public. This gives clear guidance to the type of projects that can be undertaken as part of our work, where we will work and which communities can benefit from donated funds.

Giving effect to an appeal intent isn't always as clear cut as you might imagine. For example, Tsunami hit communities in the Jaffna area of Sri Lanka had also suffered the effects of 25 years of conflict. The Tsunami Appeal Intent aided us in establishing which projects could be funded through the appeal and which could not.

Australian Red Cross takes a very conservative approach to the determination of whether expenditure could be allocated from the Tsunami funds. An 'overarching test' was applied to ensure that appeal funds were directed to expenses directly related to and resulting from the Tsunami Response. The question that is asked is 'If not for the tsunami, would the cost have been incurred?' If it would have been incurred as part of on-going operations, then it cannot be funded out of our tsunami appeal funds. This means that we don't apply overhead charges for existing operational expenditure to the Appeal.

All interest earned from the Tsunami appeal funds goes back into the appeal.

The Australian Red Cross Board established a special committee of the Board, The Asian Quake & Tsunami Steering Committee on 3rd January 2005 which drew membership from the organisation and external specialists, particularly in the fields of audit and risk management and communications. The Board approved a series of delegations to the Committee, the CEO and senior management that defined roles and responsibilities, facilitated operations and ensured that timely and managed responses could be made in the face of a fast paced and evolving disaster response.

We established an internal multi disciplinary management group, the Tsunami Taskforce, to provide management guidance & oversight to the conduct of its appeal and the humanitarian response.

We have collaborated with other international aid organisations and the Australian government in providing regular reports to the community that are presented in a consistent manner, readily understandable by non-specialists.

Additionally, Australian Red Cross commissioned an independent review of the Tsunami Appeal looking at both the fundraising side which ran from 27th December 2004 to 31st March 2005, and the fund allocation and expenditure side of the Appeal. What we called the 'Probity Review' was to ensure that we maintained the highest standards of accountability and transparency around our stewardship of this pool of donor funds.

The Review vindicated the methodology that we adopted in accepting and managing the influx of donations and in identifying, assessing and approving the allocation of those funds to tsunami response projects.

Communications has been a key focus in the delivery of these projects. The implementation of more than 40 separate, difficult and complex projects across three countries each with a very different operating environment and context and over an extended time frame (our program is not scheduled to be completed until 2010) places an additional responsibility on us to communicate.

We have focussed on both our donors here in Australia and the beneficiaries of our work in the field and have used multiple channels to get our message out. These include the relatively low cost medium of the web and e-newsletters, to public forums for donors and a significant focus on community engagement directly with beneficiaries of our work in the field. We also liaise regularly with governments.

As I am sure you are well aware, Australian Red Cross was one of many agencies which responded to the Tsunami emergency. Over 40 Red Cross and Red Crescent National Societies as well as numerous UN and other organisations were also operational in affected areas.

Last year independent consultants delivered a major evaluation of the response of aid agencies to the communities affected by the Tsunami sector. Terrific work was documented, but we were also provided with some very confronting recommendations about how to do things better.

One is that the international humanitarian community needs a fundamental reorientation from supplying aid to supporting and facilitating communities' own relief and recovery priorities. What this means is recognising the resilience and capacity of local communities in responding to disasters and acknowledging local communities as first responders for the majority of search and rescue and for the early provision of food, water and shelter. This is certainly very much in accord with the Red Cross and Red Crescent philosophy.

Another recommendation which we are working to take on board is that all actors should strive to increase their disaster response capacities and to improve the linkages and coherence between themselves and other actors in the international disaster response system, including those from the affected countries themselves. For Australian Red Cross this means, among other things, establishing a predictable response capacity by ensuring that that we have a stronger pool of skilled, trained, Australian professionals ready to respond when called upon.

We are establishing a fund source for use prior to an emergency in risk reduction activities, during an emergency so we can respond on Day 1 rather than waiting to generate funds, and for use after an emergency so that that the community is more resilient and better able to prevent, prepare for, mitigate and respond - within the capacity of their own resources, into the future.


I've come to the end of my remarks and it would be wrong to do so with the message of how complex and demanding the business of humanitarianism is.

It is, but it is also immensely rewarding--and of course I don't mean that in the material sense.

It is inspiring to see the response of people to the plight of other men, women and children in their neighbourhoods, in their nations and abroad.

Whether it is giving the gift of blood or money, of their time to speak with an isolated elderly person or their skill to help people devastated by flood or fire.

I am proud of the hundreds of homes we have built in Tsunami affected Indonesia, the water supply projects in Sri Lanka and waste management systems on 74 islands in the Maldives. And I am proud that we are achieving our goal of not only seeking to restore what was physically lost but 'Building back Better'.

Of course one may be tempted to despair at the ongoing suffering inflicted by nature and by man.

For those moments, I urge you to bring to mind the words of Robert Kennedy:

'Let no one be discouraged by the belief that there is nothing one man or one woman can do against the enormous array of the world's ills--against misery and ignorance, injustice and violence...few will have the greatness to bend history itself; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation...'

I passionately believe in this ideal and goal and hope that you do too.