Dr Jemilah Mahmood: Insights from the International Federation of Red Cross

My name is Dr Jamila Mahmoud, I am the Undersecretary General for Partnerships at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. My organisation, which I simplifie to IFRC is a membership organisation. It is the oldest and largest humanitarian network in the world, we are 100 years old this year. We are a membership organisation of 192 National Societies of Red Cross from every corner of the world.

Our work is based on fundamental principles, which are humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence. With our volunteers, we believe in the spirit of volunteering, unity and universality. We have about 14 million volunteers around the world, about half of them are young people.

WHAT WORK DO YOU DO IN AFRICA? WHAT ARE CHALLENGES YOU FACE?

Many of these young people in Africa because Africa is a young continent. So, unfortunately, that is not just is a bit of a paradox Africa has wonderful populations young people, but Africa also faces some the greatest challenges, such as the challenges of climate change impact has on drought, flooding and cyclones. It also has pockets of conflict, and also many areas that are still undeveloped and facing poverty. I see it as a land of opportunity. You have all these challenges and you have all these wonderful young people in the continent. I think young people can make a huge difference. And I think, particularly in Africa women are very strong and can really contribute to Africa’s development.

So in the Federation, our whole work also involves being able to prepare our national societies to face the challenges that they face, and also to be able to respond in a way that is effective. The other area that we are really worried about in Africa is pandemics because we have recurrent episodes of Ebola. It is a constant need for us to ensure that our volunteers and our staff are able to do things.

I want to focus a bit on volunteers. I think the future of Africa is ensuring that we have a strong volunteer force, because they are so critical. I’ve seen them in action when I was in Mozambique last week. It was hit by two cyclones. There were many volunteers: lots of young people, women and men who are just out there because they felt they had to contribute to society. Their work ranges from doing things like teaching children how to wash their hands so that they don’t get cholera, to delivering of assistance psychosocial support and helping people with their houses.

I also think that education, among other things, will change Africa. Africa is going through a very exciting time, not uniformly across the continent, but certainly in some parts. In East Africa, for example, telecommunications and digital economies on the rise. I think this is going to be something we have to harness for Africa.

As a federation we look into how we can build resilience, rather than keep responding to disasters. To build resilience first of all you need to build leadership. You need to build communities that are strong, you need to build national societies that are strong, and also look at how they can sustainably maintain their organisations and work through good fundraising mechanism. It requires leadership, development and organisational management skills that are important.

We are aided by the strength of our brand. Anywhere in the world you go you see a Red Cross. It signifies trust, it signifies hope, it signifies that there is a place, anyone, any stranger can go to and be assured that someone will care for them. That someone who cares for them could also a person in the same situation as them. Many of the volunteers we have are people who are affected by crisis themselves, but they come out of that crisis and they want to contribute.

WHAT BENEFITS ARE THERE TO VOLUNTEERING FOR YOUR ORGANISATION?

Most of our volunteers don’t get paid other than in small stipends, a sort of pocket money to cover their meals. I can’t tell you for sure, it really depends from case to case, from disaster to disaster, but on a day to day basis, most of them are not.

HOW ARE YOU COMMUNICATING WITH THE AFRICAN CONTINENT?

Well, we communicate in many ways. The way our organisation works is that we also decentralise. We have regional offices and we have country offices and cluster officers. Each office builds local networks. I think the rise of social media and mobile telecommunications has really helped us. For example, we have a Facebook page for volunteers and one that tells people what we’re doing. Of course we use the conventional emails and print. But more and more now we’re using Twitter, Tick tock and Instagram, but not forgetting conventional things like radio and TV.

Kenya Red Cross is a very good example of a very strong national society that is also sustainable with fantastic leadership – the new secretary general is a woman. They even have a TV channel called switch TV, where they engage young people on positive values. They also have a hotel, a hotel management school and culinary school, providing opportunities for young people.

HOW DO YOU COMMUNICATE WITH REFUGEES?

With refugees and displaced people community,  community engagement is part of our accountability. We don’t just communicate to them, we listen to them. I think that people always forget communication is a two way street. Therefore sitting down with communities and helping them guide us on what kind of programming we need, and asking for feedback from them and then adjusting our programmes according to their feedback is vital.

Image via medium.com

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