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Our Humanitarian Work

Speech to College of Surgeons 2006
by Robert Tickner, CEO Australian Red Cross

Tuesday 27 June 2006


Ladies and gentlemen, colleagues and friends,

Thank you for this opportunity to talk to you today and to give you an overview of the important humanitarian work that we do. After all we have many things in common. You deal every day with people at their most vulnerable -- we at Australian Red Cross exist to serve the most vulnerable people in society by mobilising the power of humanity.

Together we can form a powerful partnership which can help change the world for the better.

And we are very often serving the same vulnerable people. Only a couple of weeks ago, Australian Red Cross sent a surgical team to help in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake in Java. One of that team was a volunteer surgeon from Sydney, Valerie Malka and another was Tim Keenan who is with us today. Together they did a sensational job in fairly basic conditions to help hundreds of people seriously injured in the quake.

And we need more like them.

Volunteers are the lifeblood of the Red Cross movement. We can count on more than 97 million around the world, making us both the largest volunteer organisation and the biggest humanitarian organisation on the planet.

In Australia, more than 30,000 volunteers give their time to keep over 60 services going in Australia and over 220 projects internationally.

Most of those international projects are in the Asia Pacific region where we provide support in partnership with the Red Cross or Red Crescent Societies in eleven other countries.

Our strategic plan includes a focus on the Asia Pacific region which contains approximately 62 percent of the world's population (3.9 billion) and accounts for 60% of world wide natural disasters annually. Our region contains the highest remaining concentration of people effected by poverty in the world (over 900 million people compared to 315 million in Africa) and it is the poor who are most vulnerable during natural disasters or conflict.

Many factors combine to make Asia Pacific the most disaster prone region on earth -- rapidly increasing population, environmental degradation and global climate change exacerbate the impact in a zone already vulnerable to both rapid onset disasters such as earthquakes and floods, and slow on-set events such as droughts and epidemics. Discounting Tsunami statistics the region sustained over 50% of global disaster fatalities from 1995 to 2004. When we include Tsunami fatalities, the figure stands at 78%.

While mega disasters like the Tsunami capture the headlines, a very considerable number of localised national disasters occur on a daily basis and are responded to within the resources of the local community which includes the Red Cross Movement and its local branches and volunteers (eg. ARC response to cyclone Larry).

Our 2004 World Disasters Report foreshadows global climate changes that will result in more extreme weather incidents with the number of people affected substantially greater than in the past.


The situation for our close neighbours in the Pacific varies, because they have a low land mass high sea mass region with smaller populations and less interest from the global community in responding to their needs. Those needs are nevertheless great, as the area is frequently subject to disasters which have a high impact on those communities eg. Pacific Island peoples being forced to abandon their lands due to extreme weather events or rising sea levels.

The logistical and access challenges in responding in the region are clearly enormous.

As you are aware, Australian Red Cross is part of the International Red Cross & Red Crescent Movement.

That Movement is made up of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (Federation) and National Societies in 185 countries including Australia.

At Australian Red Cross we respond to requests for support from other national societies, ICRC, the Federation and the Australian Government.

Under the terms of the Geneva Conventions, the ICRC undertakes the role of neutral intermediary in times of armed conflict, providing protection and assistance to victims, visiting detainees, providing medical care to the sick and wounded, and tracing and reuniting separated families.

The Federation supports the development of humanitarian activities by National Societies, including emergency relief from natural disasters, the development of new social welfare initiatives, caring for refugees or simply providing comfort for the vulnerable of any society. The aim is a global network of strong national societies embedded in and working for their communities.

In order to contribute to support these activities, Australian Red Cross recruits, trains and maintains a register of suitable 'delegates'.

Until now we have recruited delegates for longer term positions of 6 to 12 months, however, this will vary according to the emergency and location. For example, in response to the recent earthquake in Java, the ARC sent two Australian Surgeons -- Trauma & Orthopaedic -- and five nurses for two weeks , Dr Cameron Thrum the Perth based Chairman of Humanitarian Services Sub-Committee of the Australian Orthopaedic Association also assisted us by sourcing 40 kgs of rods and screws for the Red Cross team. Dr Thrum and his family spent a weekend driving around Perth collecting the materials from hospitals which were able to donate goods. The supplies then travelled to Yogyajarta as accompanied baggage with one of our staff -- which meant that our team was the first to operate outside of the field hospital, enabling Tim & Valerie to clear over half of the backlog of 400 surgical cases within a very short time.

Currently we have only a small number of surgeons on our database but we are committed to significantly expanding that capacity.

Surgical placements are also facilitated through requests from ICRC and I can tell you they are looking for qualified surgeons with postgraduate experience up to the level of senior registrar with the ability to independently carry out procedures such as laparotomy, vascular sutures, skin grafts and amputations as well as experience in treating open fractures and infected wounds.

ICRC has supported two hospitals and a physiotherapy unit in Somalia, Pakistan, Chad and the delivery of medical supplies world wide.

The Future

The Australian Red Cross Strategic Implementation Plan which sets out our key priorities to 2007 provides for:

  • a significant expansion of our Emergency management capabilities for the benefit of those most vulnerable to emergencies due to poverty, marginalisation or living in hazard prone areas.
  • We are also committed to the development of an Emergency Response Unit. These are specialist units of pre trained staff and pre packed standard equipment that are available to respond to an International crisis within 72 hours. They are fully self sufficient for one month and able to be deployed for up to 4 months. They can specialise in logistics, relief, IT and communications, water provision or the storage and distribution of water.
  • Other teams look after mass sanitation for up to 40,000 beneficiaries at a time, basic health for up to 30,000 beneficiaries or they can operate as a Referral Hospital providing surgical & medical care for tens of thousands of beneficiaries including surgery, limited trauma cases, Internal medicine, Obstetrics & gynaecology, Paediatrics and Outpatient Department Support Services such as X-ray, laboratory and pharmacy.
  • To improve our ability to respond quickly and appropriately, we are also redeveloping our Basic Training Program to include a focus on youth and looking to make the program available on a fee basis for professionals and organisations interested in overseas work in the sector. At the moment we run the courses four times a year, but are looking to increase the frequency and develop program materials for a wider audience.


We are also committed to:

  • strengthening our core competency in public health including HIV/Aids, water & sanitation, community first aid and disaster response
  • increasing our funding from private donors, corporate and Government sectors to assist in building our emergency response capacity.


Future opportunities with ARC

So how can Red Cross and the College of Surgeons work together in the future?

  • As I've mentioned, we are keen to establish an Emergency Response Unit with a capacity in health. Potential delegates would need to be available for deployment within 72 hours, so we'd need pre existing agreements with organisations to release staff for training, to fund course fees and to make staff available at short notice.
  • We can look at In-kind or pro-bono support for the provision of medical supplies as well as ware housing or stock piling an adequate stock of supplies for medical staff to take for use during the first few days of an emergency.


These are just some of the options I can think of -- there are undoubtedly many more. As I said at the beginning of my remarks, our mission at Australian Red Cross is to alleviate suffering through mobilising the power of humanity.

Together we can make a significant contribution to improving the lot of the vulnerable. I look forward to working with you all to achieve that goal.

Thank you.