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The Ethiopian Red Cross Society (ERCS) was established in 1935 to provide free healthcare to those most in need. It has numerous offices across the country, operates facilities for blood donation and cares for victims of HIV/AIDS. Capital’s Aderajew Asfaw spoke to Frehiwot Worku, Secretary General of ERCS, about the institution’s work in the country.

Capital: Tell me about the history of the Red Cross Society in Ethiopia.
Frehiwot Worku:
ERCS has 78 years of history of providing humanitarian service in Ethiopia and has been serving the community through its various charitable activities. The society is mainly known for its free ambulance services to the community, facilitation of voluntary blood donation, mobilization and recruitment. We have branches across the 9 regional states, 2 administrations (Addis Ababa and Dire Dawa), 33 zones and 60 plus woredas. So, ERCS is really a grass-roots institution. ERCS’ activities can be categorized as Emergency and Non-Emergency responses. In case of emergency situations, it does emergency-response activities like delivery of ambulance services, first aid, emergency shelter and provision of non-food items including blankets and other necessary items. In situations where emergency conditions don’t exist, the institution applies itself in developing communities; in preparing them to take care of their destiny, protecting themselves and in timely emergency response. In health matters, we work on HIV/AIDS peer-to-peer training and aiding and training persons with HIV/AIDS generate their own income to support themselves. We also provide home care for vulnerable people that are excluded from the community and the aged, orphans and so on. For instance, if we take the orphans, ERCS supplies them with educational materials. But generally, our sphere of focus is the areas where communities are vulnerable. Development of water and sanitation for rural areas and safety issues are also a major priority of the institution. Regarding the environment, we work with communities in planting trees, producing energy-conserving stoves, training communities to teach each other and learn from one another. ERCS is basically involved in all this and helping the government in achieving its goals.
Capital: What is the structure of ERCS?
As I indicated earlier, it is a community-based humanitarian institution and not a government organization. It supports the government’s efforts in various areas. Therefore, it basically works to address the needs of communities in areas where there is a gap. ERCS mobilizes the youth in communities to volunteer and become members, to receive trainings and then teach and put things into action and also support each other.
Capital: Among its achievements in Ethiopia, which one is the ERCS most proud of?
The Ethiopian Red Cross Society has been most successful in emergency-response mobilization; it has always been there first no matter what. During the big famine of the 1980s, ERCS contributed a lot to alleviate the sufferings of people severely affected by the occurrence. There are NGOs who invariably return to their respective countries for safety when serious emergency situations occur within a country. But one of the unique aspects of ERCS or any national Red Cross society is that it won’t leave a country to fend for itself. They are always there to protect and help in resolving problems by coming up with solutions thereof.
Capital: The Blood Bank, which was formerly handled by ERCS, is now being managed by the Ministry of Health (MoH). What are the underlying reasons behind this?
Conducting blood transfusions require being extra careful; hence the need for health professionals.  We used to hire such professionals to conduct such work. But to manage such massive undertakings, I believe it needs to be under the right leadership, which is the MoH. MoH has established networks across the country which can reach a large section of the population. Therefore, the decision to transfer the responsibilities and management of such undertakings to the MoH is a good decision. But collection and storage of donated blood is not the only aspect. One major part is to teach people the importance of donating blood and getting enough of them to actually do it; one can call it voluntary blood recruitment. There aren’t enough people in Ethiopia who donate blood voluntarily to save lives, because they are not aware of the importance until something happens in their family that would require blood transfusion; it is only then that they realize the significance of donating blood and the importance of the Blood Bank. Such voluntary blood recruitment is still done by ERCS; therefore, it still plays a vital role in collecting blood by collaborating with the Ministry.
Capital: Does the fact that the Blood Bank is now managed by the Ministry mean that the society becomes more dependent on the government?
In reality, even when we used to do the whole process ourselves, the blood we collected was given to the Ministry for distribution and use by hospitals. So in that respect, there is actually nothing new except for the fact that MoH does the collection now on its own and manages it like it used to. We still participate in the mobilization.
Capital: Who decides who gets access to blood at the blood bank?
The doctors at the respective hospitals make the decision to use blood from the Blood Bank and it is transferred to any hospital that requires it. But, because of shortage in amount and type of blood, people are required to donate their blood as replacement for use by a family member who needs the particular type of blood for transfusion from the Blood Bank; i.e. an exchange of blood takes place. Apart from that, blood from the bank is supplied to hospitals which need it and there is neither a selection process nor prioritization as such, except for saving people’s lives.
Capital: It is against the law to buy or sell blood, but according to some it apparently still happens. What should be done to tackle this?
I personally am not aware of such controversy. I have only been here for two years. But I think that the lack of blood donation is caused by lack of mobilization. We didn’t do enough mobilization for people to realize how important it is. Some people think that they would die or become sick if they donate blood, which is totally untrue. So, we have to teach communities and help them at least realize that it is actually beneficial to donate blood. Doctors say it is actually good for a healthy person to give blood because it will be replaced by new blood cells when you do that. But people don’t yet understand that. So we have to do a lot to mobilize People. In some regions and rural areas in general, there are cultural issues, like it is taboo to donate blood. You have to overcome such major issues to help save lives.
Capital: What would you say is the biggest challenges at ERCS?
The biggest challenge, I believe, is changing people’s mind. We have accomplished major restructuring and have replaced staff; but we still have to make people think out of the box, in a modern and different way so that the ERCS would become one of the best humanitarian service delivering agency. We have a big network, but we need to develop, modernize and equip it. To do this, we have to mobilize resources. Some of our resources are our supporters for the mobilization process. We have also started mobilizing within the country by increasing membership, using the lottery scheme to raise funds, among other things but, as I said earlier, educating people to change their way of thinking would be the major challenge. We are continuously working on it, and hopefully, we will get there.
Capital: What was the impact of your recent fund-raising campaign?
It has been very effective and encouraging. So much so, we are thinking about doing it once a year on the World Humanitarian Day, which lies on May 8. We collected somewhere in the region of 40 million birr.
Capital: What does blood donation mean to you, personally, and how many lives are you able to save every year as a result of blood donations?
To me, basically blood donation is about saving lives. The more blood people donate the more lives they save. Although it might vary and depends on specific data, I believe women are the ones usually affected due to accidents and during child birth where they might need blood transfusions. These are major causes in which people lose a lot of blood, but at present I don’t have actual data on hand to definitively say we save the lives of this many people every year.
Capital: Who is eligible to donate blood and are there any benefits, financially or otherwise, apart from what you mentioned earlier about the reproduction and replacement of new blood cells?
Any person who is 18 years of age and above, and is healthy, can donate blood. Before you donate, health professionals check and make sure of these facts. There are some exceptions: pregnant women are not allowed to donate blood, for example. If you volunteer and are a registered donor, any time a member of your family requires blood it is available to them for free. Also, people who consistently donate blood for a certain period of time receive certificates of recognition. Since everything is voluntary, there are no benefits as such except saving people’s lives.