In November, at a major global humanitarian meeting in Antalya, Turkey, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies will elect its new President for a four-year term. This person will take the reins of the world’s largest and oldest humanitarian network at a time of unparalleled humanitarian need and complexity.
The new President will immediately be confronted by an array of global priorities – the impact of climate change on already disaster-prone communities, protracted crises around the world that have decimated social and economic infrastructure, the massive movements of people fleeing conflict and violence, and the need to grow the Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteer base.
This latter issue will be chief among the new President’s concerns. He or she will quickly need to focus on the growing dangers faced by volunteers everywhere, and the changing nature of volunteering around the world.
Ethiopian Red Cross Society(ERCS) has seen the importance of mobilizing volunteers in emergencies, since its inception eighty-two years ago. In 1935 during the war of aggression of the Italy’s fascist forces, ERCS mobilized 300 volunteers. The aggressors indiscriminately bombarded Red Cross sites along with innocent civilian villages and also killed local and foreign Red Cross volunteers. Today our volunteers, estimated at 47,000, are providing a 24-hour first aid ambulance services throughout Ethiopia with 435 ambulances – providing service to half a million beneficiaries in 2016/17 budget year; they are instrumental in distributing emergency drought relief for over one million vulnerable in two years; they promote emergency health awareness during disease outbreak reaching millions; community based health and first aid(CBHFA) trainings are also given to community volunteers to reach thousands of households during emergencies and community resilience activities. Moreover, my National Society is working towards a new strategy of bringing the ideals of volunteerism back to communities with a view to revitalizing the traditional self-help culture of neighbourhoods, based on Red Cross principles.
However, it is a remiss if I leave unmentioned that there are challenges of retaining and recognizing our volunteers. Especially based on the emerging needs of the cutting ages. Gone are the days when we keep volunteers in a traditional way: fewer people are coming forward as volunteers and for shorter periods of time.
Countries around the world should take notice, because volunteers, including those from the Red Cross and Red Crescent represent an irreplaceable lifeline in times of conflict, natural disasters and disease outbreaks. Without them, countless communities would be left alone and without aid. The vast majority of humanitarian first responders are local volunteers, who often act as the major or even exclusive humanitarian players within crisis settings.
These local heroes have excellent credentials to do this work. They speak the local language, understand the local culture and are committed to helping their community. Often, they take on jobs that literally no one else will do, such as burying the dead during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa – at considerable peril to themselves – and dodging gunfire as they bring food, water and medicine to families at the height of armed conflicts in Yemen, Syria, the Central African Republic and elsewhere.
These selfless and courageous individuals are a precious resource that the global community has failed to appreciate fully – and one that is under threat. One reason for this shift is the potentially dangerous nature of volunteer work. Humanitarian workers are increasingly being targeted by violence.
Clearly, a more systematic approach is needed: one that involves a global effort to foster understanding about why humanitarian volunteers – who commit to maintaining neutrality – should be protected by everyone.
The threat of violence is not the only reason for declining commitment to traditional national volunteerism. The very nature of volunteerism is changing. In the past, people would choose an organization like the Red Cross and remain with that organization for years or even decades. ERCS is no exception – from the sixties throughout the nineties our volunteers have been the drivers of emergency response.
But this pattern of stability and loyalty to an organization has changed over the past decade. Increasingly, young people align themselves with causes rather than organizations. What’s more, new technologies and social media make it easier for them to choose their opportunities, or create opportunities themselves. The trend now is towards shorter bursts of volunteering through e-volunteering, online campaigning, skilled volunteering, swarm volunteering and self-organized volunteering.
This new generation of volunteers want greater flexibility and a greater diversity of engagement opportunities. Volunteer-based organizations like the ERCS need to do more to fulfil these aspirations while ensuring that the volunteer spirit is not diluted or spread too thin. This is a challenge for many charitable or social organizations who provide essential services for the community through volunteer effort but are finding it harder and harder to maintain that support.
In 2016, ERCS governing board has endorsed its Volunteer Policy and Management Guideline. Volunteers management and development is identified as one of the strategic themes of ERCS. The Policy basically aims at providing clear framework for involving volunteers in activities, services and the leadership of the Society. The Policy and the Guideline also focus on the expansion of community volunteerism and developing a strong volunteer team within each community which shall deliver simple and sustainable community services.
Next month, I will travel to Turkey for the IFRC General Assembly – the bi-annual meeting of 190 National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies linked together to form the world’s largest humanitarian network. Together, we will elect our new President. He or she will tackle these issues head-on – because our new President will know that our network’s shared vision of a world where no one is left behind, will never be realized without the courage, commitment and dedication of everyday Red Cross and Red Crescent heroes – our VOLUNTEERS.
Frehiwot Worku, Secretary General, Ethiopian Red Cross Society.