Building resilience among the people | Daily News
Sri Lanka Red Cross :

Building resilience among the people

Jagan Chapagain
Jagan Chapagain

International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC), Under Secretary General Jagan Chapagain who visited Sri Lanka last week for the opening of the new Sri Lanka Red Cross building at Dharmapala Mawatha, Colombo, spoke to the Daily News of the challenges and opportunities for the Red Cross in Sri Lanka and how building resilience was key when dealing with a world increasingly prone to natural disasters.

Excerpts follow:

Q: Why has the Red Cross decided to construct this building? Is it is a sign that you are expanding your presence here?

A: The old structure was not optimal; it needed to be renovated anyway. It was also very important that the office premises meet the new standards of the country and be a modern office space. The second aspect was utilising the location of the premises to the maximum: this is prime Colombo area and all these years it was not being utilised to its maximum potential. With this project, we want to capitalise on that. With this new building, a part can be rented out to generate a regular income for the Sri Lanka Red Cross. The Red Cross is based on voluntary donations; it is very important that it generates a regular income. At this stage, this is not a direct link to our presence here. Our presence goes up and down depending on the need of the country. At this stage, we don’t believe there needs to be an expansion of our presence in the country. The country is making progress. If there is a need, we can expand, and having this facility will help.

Q: You have said that the success of organisations such as yours is measured by reducing the number of people that need help. Have you been successful here?

A. It is very easy to measure the number of people affected and how we help, because it after a disaster. But it is very difficult to measure what has not happened yet, that is, when people are not affected by a disaster. And to be honest, we have not figured out how to measure that. For example, Bangladesh is often affected by cyclones, and in the late ’80s, a cyclone killed almost 72,000 people. So after that the Red Cross and the Bangladeshi government invested heavily in a cyclone preparedness programme in the coastal areas, building coastal shelters, educating people, and building dykes. A similar cyclone occurred in the same area in 2008 and the death toll reduced from 72,000 to around 17,000. So there is a statistic here. Last year, another similar cyclone occurred and the number of people dead was 14. We also provided people with cash before the cyclone (US$ 50), so they could use that and move out of the area for a few days and then return.

Resilience saves lives. That is where the focus should be in Sri Lanka. In all the work we did after the tsunami, in the building of houses in the North and East, the mindset was to reduce the impact of the disaster.

The Sri Lanka Red Cross is launching its new strategic plan and that is the emphasis: building resilience, preparedness and educating people.

The number of studies we have done show that one dollar invested in preparing and building resilience can save up to US$ 32 in disaster response. So by investing before, you save lives and you save money.

Q: The Sri Lanka Red Cross has mostly been seen in war responses. In the next strategic plan, would you be dealing more with natural disasters? Disaster risk reduction?

A. Yes. First, there will be resilience building, and second, we want to invest much more in promoting principles and values which promote people coming together and working together. We have a programme for youth as agents of behavioural change. That is about changing the behaviour among young people.

A lot of conflict occurs because of misunderstanding, and in lots of instances, the values, tolerance, and ability to work with people of all backgrounds is what is important. The training gives you knowledge, but it may not change behaviour. But our focus is on working with young people to change their behaviour. It has been a success in many countries. We have to understand people who come from different backgrounds, religions, and when we understand that, differences can be addressed in a mature manner.

Differences will always exist, but are we dealing with that through dialogue to find solutions? The other way of dealing with it is through conflict.

The new Strategic Plan says two things: saving lives and changing minds. Saving lives is important, but changing minds is much harder and probably more important.

Q: The Sri Lanka Red Cross more than any other INGO has managed to remain impartial even during the conflict in the country. Moreover, you also work closely with the government on many projects. How do you maintain your impartiality and balance?

A. This is not easy, and this is where our major focus is on our seven fundamental principles. Three of them focus on neutrality, impartiality and independence. And these are not easy principles to follow. This is where a lot of investment in training and educating our people is important. This is also important in winning the confidence of people; when dealing with two warring sides, the importance of sticking to those principles and not taking sides which is the meaning of ‘neutrality’. Being ‘impartial’ means providing assistance to whoever needs it; the only partiality is deciding who needs it the most. The third is ‘independence’ which is not easy, especially in a political environment. But it is very important to maintain the independence of our actions, which is purely based on our need to serve and nothing else. The strategy is to have the global leadership and messaging which constantly emphasises this. The other important aspect is constantly educating the people, not only within, but also the various parties and the government. The importance of working closely with the government is to ensure that we can work independently. That relationship helps. Once they realise that this organisation is focused on humanitarian issues and nothing else, they don’t interfere. In a conflict environment, engagement with other actors is important. So we need to maintain that transparency.

Finally, it is important to have confidentiality. We are not an organisation that talks publicly about issues. Even when we were discussing difficult issues, we don’t go public. Then they know that there is trust on both sides. And they know we will not politicise any issue or take advantage of it. So when we have discussions with the government, it is open and honest. And if they want any international advice, we give that to them in confidence, not in public. This is not easy, but this is the only way in which we can continue to do our work.

Q: What do you see as the biggest challenge for your organisation in this area?

A. This area continues to be very disaster-prone. And with climate change getting worse every year, disasters are becoming more frequent, and this is seen even in Sri Lanka. We have three ‘Ds’ that we follow here. One ‘D’ is disaster; this is increasing because of climate change and unplanned human development. The second ‘D’ is disease; chances of epidemics and pandemics exist. The third ‘D’ is displacement; people moving because of conflict and also for economic opportunities, but when they move, they fall prey to human smugglers. These are the three big factors for us.

On the positive side, what I have seen is that in Asia, whilst the problems exist, the capacities are also increasing, government capacities are growing and they are showing more responsibility to their people.

Democracy and pressure from the people to hold them more accountable is also increasing. Local Red Cross organisations are becoming stronger. They are raising money in their own countries so that they don’t have to ask for international donations. From Geneva, I see that Asia is the region that is growing very, very fast in its capacity to deal with situations. Incomes are rising, education rates are higher, and the awareness is increasing. Asians are becoming very dynamic and entrepreneurial.

There is a hunger for success and people want to be successful and when you have that critical mass of people who work very hard to be successful, it brings in a dynamism in society, economy and politics.

I see that very much in Asia.


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