Siddharth Chatterjee has been the Chief Diplomat at the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) since June 2011.
In this interview, Mr. Chatterjee talks about his organization’s current work in the Sahel, saying they are providing life-saving interventions as well as building long-term resilience, though more is needed from donors.
“We have time to prevent another serious crisis; we must not sit back and let it happen all over again,” he says. “It is a humanitarian imperative to act now to prevent the needless suffering of millions. It is not yet too late. Donors must be encouraged to respond early, avoiding a worse humanitarian situation requiring even greater financial commitment.”
“Sorry there is no space for ‘donor fatigue’ at this stage,” he says.
Mr. Chatterjee also discusses the humanitarian crisis in Syria and the IFRC’s relationship with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent Society, where “increased focus will be on developing tailor-made training opportunities for SARC staff and volunteers.”
On the role of partnerships, Mr. Chatterjee says, “Humanitarian diplomacy is persuading decision makers and opinion leaders, such as yourselves, to act at all times in the interests of vulnerable people, and with full respect of the fundamental humanitarian principles. It is only through the establishment of humanitarian diplomacy as an integral part of the day-to-day work of National Societies and the International Federation, with the necessary capacities in place, that the humanitarian objectives referred to above can be effectively realized.”
Mr. Chatterjee attended the Rio+20 summit, saying, “Our message at Rio +20 was: we must listen to and invest in people’s abilities to bring about long-lasting development in their communities. We cannot count on governments alone to solve the world’s problems and meet the needs of the most vulnerable.”
On the conference itself, he says, “I do agree, overall the outcomes are disappointing, but the road ahead has not ended.”
Jérémie Labbé is a Senior Policy Analyst at the International Peace Institute.
Listen to interview (or download mp3):
Jérémie Labbé (JL): Siddharth, thanks for being with us on the Global Observatory today.
I suggest we start our discussion with a situation that is on everybody’s mind today, namely Syria. The International Federation’s mission is to deliver relief to victims of natural disasters, as opposed to your sister organization—the ICRC—that has mandate to act in conflict situations. Yet, from what I understand, the Federation is quite active in Syria. Could you explain the reasons of your presence and your activities there?
Siddharth Chatterjee (SC): Thank you for that question Jérémie, and thank you for having me on this program.
IFRC’s best-known role is to respond to natural disasters by providing emergency relief. IFRC also works with communities before, during and after disasters with and through its National Societies and therefore builds capacity and resilience, fosters the spirit and action related to human development through its role in resilience and disaster risk reduction. It also has an important role in building capacities of its National Societies.
Therefore, in the Syria context, IFRC’s role is to work with ICRC and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent Society (SARC). It helps to build capacities of SARC and its branches, assists in supporting it with resources, financial and human, and covers gaps as requested by and discussed with SARC. The SARC is doing incredible work given the prevailing circumstances and we are very proud of them and humbled by their achievements. Our Secretary-General, Mr. Bekele Geleta strongly believes that it is the IFRC’s responsibility to ensure that our 187 member National Societies get the best possible support at all times regardless of the circumstances. Our presence in Syria therefore is to do just that and work with the ICRC and also assist the SARC to facilitate coordination with other humanitarian actors as needed.
IFRC so far, Jérémie, has assisted SARC with support for emergency health, services, health posts and clinics, psychosocial support, family relief items, hygiene kits and food. Furthermore, it is also assisting with institutional support, support for movement coordination and volunteer management and development. To meet the increasing humanitarian needs and growing pressure on SARC, virtually the only humanitarian organization that has access throughout Syria. IFRC is about to launch a revised emergency appeal estimated to be around CHF 12 million to significantly increase the level of current assistance and provide additional support in developing SARC’s capacity, to enable affected branches to provide assistance urgently needed, according to emerging needs, moving into rebuilding livelihoods and food security, shelter and recovery programs, if requested and required by SARC. So SARC is the leading entity on this. IFRC will support SARC’s crucial and sensitive role in inter-agency coordination, in close cooperation with ICRC.
Therefore, for Syria, increased focus will be on developing tailor-made training opportunities for SARC staff and volunteers and technical expertise to provide on-the-job training and strengthening of systems and procedures, and reporting.
JL: Talking about the SARC, its integrity has been questioned by some critics, accusing the organization of siding with the government, due to its peculiar status of “auxiliary” to the government. Yet, it seems that the real picture is more complex than that, and that the SARC is actually doing a remarkable job on the ground. Could you tell us more about this ambiguity? What kind of independence from the government does the SARC really have?
SC: Jérémie, each and every one of the 187 National Societies exists as a result of legislation of its respective national government. Therefore they also have an auxiliary responsibility to assist their respective governments in times of a crisis. However the Red Cross Red Crescent is first and foremost led by its fundamental principles; especially the principles of humanity, independence, neutrality and impartiality. This is what gives SARC access to every part of Syria and they move around the entire country unescorted by any force. Our emblem is what enables us access to vulnerable people and to speak on their behalf, everywhere in the world. Tragically, SARC has lost four valued workers, including its Secretary-General, but they continue to go about their work of providing relief and assistance to all people. I would state unequivocally on behalf of the IFRC that SARC with its highly committed team of staff and volunteers, including many young men and women, are doing remarkable work given the very difficult circumstances. That ambiguity you speak of is unnecessary and maybe misplaced. Our leadership in the IFRC and our National Societies all over the world stand resolutely with SARC in doing everything possible to help it do its work. That is why a National Society exists. To serve its most vulnerable people.
JL: Moving to the Sahel now: in January 2012, aid agencies were warning that up to 10 million people would be affected by a severe food crisis announced by the spring. Last week, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs launched an appeal of $1.6 billion USD to help nearly 19 million people, and the peak of the crisis still seems to be ahead of us. This figure is almost double what was announced six months ago, while aid agencies, including yours, have been carrying out programs and emergency relief in the meantime. Without downplaying the very real needs of people there, how do you explain this huge difference of numbers, and aren’t you afraid that this might contribute to some sort of “donor fatigue”?
SC: The IFRC and its member Red Cross and Red Crescent National Societies have been consistent in their message of building resilience and disaster-risk reduction. The food insecurity problem has been worsening over the last few months and increasing numbers of people are affected by the drought and lack of access to food. The localized conflicts are further compounding the misery due to people being displaced. So the increased figures reflect that reality on the ground. We must learn from the lessons of the recent crisis in the Horn of Africa. Late and inadequate responses to emergency appeals have had a devastating effect on communities and led to a full blown famine.
Unfortunately, in the case of the Sahel we have again seen a slow response to appeals for funding. Our appeals are currently poorly funded. Of the CHF, 20 million that we have appealed for less than 20% is funded and we have had to reach into DREF, our Disaster Response Emergency Fund, in order to assist.
I would add that our National Societies in Mali, Gambia, Senegal, Chad, Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Niger, together with our partner National Societies from many of the donor countries, are doing incredible work at the community level to assist the most vulnerable. The Red Cross Red Crescent response aims to save lives and protect livelihood. It is a “twin-track” approach that provides emergency, life-saving interventions and also focuses on long-term resilience building solutions. This means providing emergency food for the most vulnerable but also addressing the chronic dimension of this crisis.
Along with the African Union and other international agencies we agreed on a common resilience-related priorities that aim at: Helping communities secure income through a small business or farming and developing marshlands and wadis [valleys] where they exist; women and youth to be placed at the center of any community empowerment and resilience program; water management is another essential foundation for any sustainable food security strategy.
These efforts should build community resilience and minimize the impact of future droughts. We have time to prevent another serious crisis; we must not sit back and let it happen all over again. It is a humanitarian imperative to act now to prevent the needless suffering of millions. It is not yet too late. Donors must be encouraged to respond early, avoiding a worse humanitarian situation requiring even greater financial commitment.
Sorry there is no space for “donor fatigue” at this stage.
JL: Right. The message is well understood.
You just returned from the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development held in Rio de Janeiro last week, better known by its nickname “Rio +20.” What was the IFRC agenda at this conference?
SC: I think many may not know that the IFRC is also an important development actor. Our agenda was based around our very clear vision that we need to invest more in prevention and in building resilience in communities, as I was talking about. We want other actors, governments, and donors to know that we are well placed to deliver this sustainable development approach at the community level because we really represent the boots on the ground.
Our message at Rio +20 was: we must listen to and invest in people’s abilities to bring about long-lasting development in their communities. We cannot count on governments alone to solve the world’s problems and meet the needs of the most vulnerable.
We have emphasized this at Rio, the importance of investing in resilience and risk reduction and doing this at the community level, keeping women and youth at the center of all program initiatives. The “we” in this case refers to all partners needed for strengthening resilience and development, namely civil society organizations, Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the UN, the private sector, local communities, and governments. Our innovative partnership with the global business community and the World Economic Forum—through the Friends of Rio call to action—is an example of converting a lot of this rhetoric into action. We urge governments to provide an enabling environment for this and the many other sustainable development initiatives.
Sustainable development will never be shaped by a document that comes out of Rio+20 but will be determined on how well we mobilize the power of humanity for action. The message and the needs are clear – vulnerable and marginalized populations need our support. The IFRC works at the community level and that is where we seek to make a difference.
The IFRC is committed to allocating up to 10% of its emergency appeals for disaster risk reduction. We are now calling on others–many of whom have been talking about sustainability at Rio+20–to also commit more funding towards long-term efforts to build resilience.
The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies has one unequivocal message after our time in Rio: governments, donors, the corporate sector, and the humanitarian sector must invest more in strengthening the resilience of people and their communities most at risk in crises and disasters.
JL: I hope this message was heard at Rio+20, but what is your feeling about the outcome of this conference, which was qualified by a number of organizations such as Greenpeace as “a failure of epic proportions,” or by CARE International as “nothing more than a political charade.” What’s your feeling about this outcome?
SC: You know, Jérémie, John Milton once said, “Long is the way, and hard, out of darkness leads to light,” and I suppose that process is on.
The Rio+20 conference on sustainable development has not delivered on the radical international environmental mandates following the Rio summit of 1992.
I suppose much has changed since 1992. Firstly, the rise of the BRIC countries, so many new economies have come into play. Secondly, there is increasing amounts of urbanization has taken place since then. The global financial crisis is not helping at all. Finally, just too many summits, as this follows the High Level Forum in Busan, South Korea, to the COP summit which took place in Durban. It’s just one summit to the next. I suppose there is a sense of, shall I call it “summit fatigue” which is taking place.
I think a somewhat positive outcome is that there is an increasing role of civil societies, private sector, women and youth to really grab the reigns as it is clear and we as the IFRC have already stated that we cannot just count on governments alone to solve the world’s problem. We see it at a micro perspective and we have seen over the years many grass root initiatives emerge at the community level. This is what I think will finally count.
We may see many more productive actions really beginning to happen at the national and sub-national level, perhaps down to the village level. We are starting to see some of that. For example, New Delhi has done a tremendous job, through a public interest litigation that took place at the Supreme Court of India to get all commercial vehicles operating inside New Delhi to use only compressed natural gas. Though the pollution levels in Delhi are awful, it would have been far worse had it not been for this type of localized affirmative action.
Brazil has done a great job of halting deforestation; it’s down 78 percent since 2004. One of the largest multilateral development banks, for example, has already announced at the Rio+20 summit that they will commit about $200 billion USD to finance sustainable transport systems. If more of these types of relatively small-scale national and private sector initiatives emerge following this conference that would be very good.
The summit does propose setting up sustainable development goals (SDGs) – rather like the Millennium Development Goals, only perhaps with a greener perspective – but again, there is no detail and no timetable around it. I hope this can happen and the SDGs is to keep women and youth at the centre of its program objectives. I also trust that the new generation of goals will address, in developed and developing countries alike, common concerns in terms of civil society participation, mindset changes, and accountability.
I do agree, overall the outcomes are disappointing, but the road ahead has not ended.
JL: So if I hear you well, as far as the IFRC is concerned, you seem to be quite satisfied that some of your objectives were achieved, even if it didn’t result in a strong commitment from governments.
SC: Yes, we see it positively. While the overall outcome is disappointing, we do see it positively.
JL: Your own position within the IFRC is “Head of Strategic Partnerships.” Partnership seems to be the new buzz-word in the humanitarian sector. A recent report of the UN Secretary-General identifies the need to build better partnerships as one of two major humanitarian challenges in 2012, and this issue will be on the menu of the next humanitarian segment of the ECOSOC in July. How do you understand the term “partnership” within the IFRC, and what role do you play as chief diplomat to advance this agenda?
SC: Our Secretary-General Bekele Geleta of the IFRC firmly believes that our role in the humanitarian values and diplomacy division which I am a part of in the IFRC, is to develop partnerships to assist and improve the lives of the most vulnerable. My role as the chief diplomat is to ensure that we identify, develop, cultivate and secure the right partnerships through humanitarian diplomacy.
Partnerships are the cornerstone to achieve significant support to assist the most vulnerable and to expand our reach in terms of humanitarian and development objectives. Humanitarian diplomacy is persuading decision makers and opinion leaders, such as yourselves, to act at all times in the interests of vulnerable people, and with full respect of the fundamental humanitarian principles. It is only through the establishment of humanitarian diplomacy as an integral part of the day to day work of National Societies and the International Federation, with the necessary capacities in place, that the humanitarian objectives referred to above can be effectively realized.
The decision therefore to engage in humanitarian diplomacy, forge partnerships, is not a choice, but a responsibility. It is a responsibility that flows from the privileged access enjoyed by National Societies as auxiliaries to the public authorities in the humanitarian field. It flows also from the independence of the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement, and from the breadth of its humanitarian activities across the globe, its community base of tens of millions of volunteers and the observer status at the United Nations General Assembly enjoyed by the International Federation along with the ICRC.
The IFRC together with its network of 187 National Societies is a humanitarian and development network which combines a rich history of humanitarian work and a strong spirit of volunteerism and collectively contributes close to $25 billion USD annually towards humanitarian and development work.
In terms of our National Societies’ contribution to country development, globally, we estimate that the Red Cross Red Crescent’s 13 million active volunteers add over $6 billion USD to the global GDP through their freely given labours and skills.
My own role is to work within and outside the organization to ensure that we have the right partnerships in place in order to focus on the following:
Firstly, addressing the humanitarian consequences of the increasing number and severity of disasters. Secondly, bringing attention to inequitable access to health. Finally, promoting a culture of non-violence and peace.
JL: Siddarth, thank you once again for your availability and for being with us on the Global Observatory today. Goodbye, Sid.
SC: My pleasure. Thank you very much, Jérémie.