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The Future of Humanitarian Action


The past week proved a timely exercise in mobilizing the global Red Cross Red Crescent Movement to respond swiftly when disaster strikes.

As Typhoon Haiyan bore down on the Philippines, over 1,000 delegates from 189 countries began arriving in Sydney for our week-long Statutory Meetings to decide the future global humanitarian action for the world's largest humanitarian organisation.

Now in its 150th year, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement has millions of volunteers working across the globe. These dedicated volunteers stake their lives on the protection of our red cross and red crescent emblems, which literally mean "don't shoot", so they can help the victims of conflict and armed violence.

Sadly there are times when our Geneva Convention based emblems are violated. Our meeting paid a moving tribute to the 31 Syrian Arab Red crescent workers who lost their lives in the current conflict. We resolved tocall upon all world leaders and all parties involved in the Syrian conflict to do their utmost to ensure the safety of aid workers in Syria and to respect international humanitarian law.

Our response to natural disasters also came into sharp focus last week.

With mixed feelings the Philippine Red Cross delegation landed in Sydney just as the extent of Typhoon Haiyan's devastation came to light. As with all our national societies their staff and volunteers are locally based and were on the ground before Haiyan's landfall, getting out early warning messages, evacuating more than 125,000 families to safer shelter and preparing for the grim task of conducting search and rescue. Once disaster struck they shifted to providing emergency first aid and relief supplies, such as food, water and shelter.

The Red Cross was uniquely placed to respond to Haiyan, with a strong presence in the country for many years. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has also worked for many years in the country's declared conflict zones. The enduring impact of armed violence on people living in conflict zones has been compounded by successive natural disasters, further stressing already vulnerable communities.

At least 10 Red Cross societies have sent disaster specialist teams to the Philippines, including health care teams from Japan and Norway and Canada, water and sanitation specialist teams from Spain and Norway, and a logistics team from British Red Cross. Australian Red Cross has now sent 12 aid workers and is running an appeal, along with 22 other National Societies.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) has mobilised our Movement's global disaster relief efforts from Sydney this past week, as an honest broker of our worldwide available resources.

The IFRC plays a similar role with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent to coordinate our international response to the Syria Crisis as it worsens. The ICRC has been one of the few international aid organisations operating in Syria since the start of the conflict almost three years ago.

In the Philippines, the disaster response was immediate.

Red Cross rapid assessment teams quickly reached the worst affected areas and reported back on the damage to help coordinate our humanitarian response. The IFRC has flown in emergency relief supplies, such as water containers, sleeping mats, hygiene kits and tarpaulins, as supplies on the ground were depleted after the recent earthquake in Bohol.

Both the IFRC and ICRC have stepped up their efforts in a coordinated response to the ongoing recovery effort over coming weeks and months.

Our Movement's leading thinkers and operational experts bonded together whilst in Sydney, assessing the real-time response to this disaster. The purpose of the week-long meetings was to strengthen our spirit of unity and foster international collaboration, with workshops designed to share knowledge gained in the field and improve how we work.

Typhoon Haiyan gave our 1,000 delegates a banner to rally to.

Our challenge looking ahead is to adapt to the changing face of humanitarian action. We must continue to harness new technologies, such as using crowd sourcing data to map disasters and using phone apps to re-connect people who become separated.

We need to constantly improve how we communicate with people in acute need, which varies greatly depending on the country and the nature of the humanitarian crisis.

We need to protect the integrity of our emblems to guarantee safer access for our volunteers in conflict zones. The eerie sight of a Red Cross ambulance riddled with bullet holes on display in Sydney this week was a somber reminder of this.

But perhaps our biggest challenge is how to engage more young humanitarians to our cause. Our movement flourished after the two World Wars. Our leadership is strong and experienced but we are aging in many developing countries.

As a planned strategy for the first time in our history this week we hosted a Global Youth Conference to give our youth a greater role in humanitarian decision-making, with a formal seat at the table during the Statutory Meetings. 200 front-line youth volunteers, many of whom work in places hard-hit by conflict and natural disaster, have shined and inspired us all with their ideas, ideals and commitment to the power of humanity.

Together they issued a declaration urging governments and humanitarian organizations to better protect and support young volunteers, to remove bureaucratic barriers that inhibit humanitarian youth engagement, and to give youth a voice in charting the course of humanitarian action. They have developed impressive strategies to engage youth to meet the world's toughest humanitarian challenges, including the post-2015 Millennium Development Goals.

I urge all humanitarian leaders to look to these outstanding young people to help us chart the future course of humanitarian action. They are often best placed to respond to new cultural, technological and humanitarian challenges, and they can best shape the attitudes of their generation. The world needs them.

Robert Tickner
CEO, Australian Red Cross
@RobertTickner