Global crunch will cut into humanitarian aid: Red Cross chief (Interview)

February 27th, 2009 - 12:30 pm ICT by IANS  

New Delhi, Feb 27 (IANS) The Red Cross is set to face a fund crunch for its myriad humanitarian work due to the global economic downturn and is looking to emerging economies like India for more support, says its head Bekele Geleta.

“The global economic downturn will affect humanitarian work. At this stage, it’s difficult to tell how much the credit crunch will impact on humanitarian aid,” Geleta, the secretary general of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), told IANS in an interview here.

“It could be a difficult year. There could be a serious shortage of funds,” said Geleta, a former Ethiopian political prisoner who now heads the world’s largest and most respected relief network that helps the poor, the hungry and the wounded across continents.

“For 2009, funds have been committed for various Red Cross activities, but we don’t know how much of it will come,” he said.

“We have made appeals for cholera in Zimbabwe, drought in Africa and Red Cross in Africa. The response of donors has not been sufficient,” Geleta said. “I don’t expect drastic cuts. But I don’t rule out a shortfall.”

The IFRC has made appeals for 265 million Swiss francs ($223 million) to assist 150 million people affected by natural calamities, food shortages, and health and humanitarian emergencies in 2009.

Geleta is, however, confident that the Red Cross will be able to tide over the fund crunch by cutting down on administrative costs and a more stringent regime for running its relief operations.

“We expect more support from India when the country’s capacities are growing. The Indian economy has a big potential to grow,” said Geleta.

Geleta is fascinated by the dramatic economic transformation of India and enormous diversity in all aspects of life in the country as he recalls fondly Indian teachers who taught him at a high school in Ethiopia.

“India is on the way to becoming a global power. I have no doubt it will get there,” he asserted confidently.

India is one of the focus countries of the Red Cross in a spectrum of areas ranging from combating HIV/AIDS to disaster relief.

“A large number of vulnerable people exist in India. Around 350 million people in India do not have food security. Nearly 40 percent of the world’s hungry exists in India,” he pointed out.

South Asia figures prominently in the Red Cross’ plan as it has a host of problems ranging from a humanitarian crisis in Sri Lanka and chronic violence in Pakistan’s tribal areas to the perils of climate change and natural disasters.

“There is a serious problem in Sri Lanka. We are trying to help out civilians caught in the conflict,” Geleta said.

The 64-year-old Geleta’s tryst with the Red Cross started in 1984 at the height of the Ethiopian famine.

“One thing that carries me through is belief in oneself. My mother always prayed - God give my children the wisdom to do something,” he recalls. “From that I developed the values of perseverance and hard work and a deep down conviction that I have to be a good person and do good for others,” he said.

Geleta has lived a life marked by a dramatic fluctuation of fortunes. He started off as an Ethiopian executive, became a political prisoner for five years, found a job with the Red Cross in Ethiopia and served as ambassador to Japan before losing everything amid political turmoil and restarting his life all over again, first as a refugee in Canada at the age of 49 and then moving on to head the Canadian Red Cross’s international operations. In the summer of 2008, he became the second non-European to head the Geneva-based humanitarian organisation.

(Manish Chand can be contacted at

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