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Red Cross volunteers learn about the ICRC in the UK


Guest post by Sarah Cotton, Public Affairs and Communications Co-ordinator, ICRC UK

I am currently on the train on the way back from a great trip with the Youth Advisory Panel to Edinburgh. For those of you who don’t know, the Youth Advisory Panel comprise 150 enthusiastic young British Red Cross volunteers who seek to make the British Red Cross better by ensuring their own views and perspectives are heard and appreciated by others within the organisation.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has been lucky enough this year to extend its strategic partnership with the British Red Cross to encompass this impressive group of 15-25 year olds through Louise Halpin – ICRC Red11 Project Volunteer 2011. While the rest of us have been toiling away at our day-to-day jobs and tasks, Louise has been busy organising a fantastic event for her peers in bonny Scotland. The aim has been to better inform the British Red Cross Youth Advisory Panel about the work of the ICRC and whisk them away for a night to consider the future of humanitarianism via an ICRC organised TED event.

The adventure started yesterday afternoon, when 15 young advisors (plus me) met in the Beehive Inn in Edinburgh to watch TEDxRC2: Multiplying the Power of Humanity ( This TED event brought together 8 inspirational speakers in Geneva as a side event to the 31st International Conference of the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement, which takes place this week with all National Societies, the ICRC, IFRC and all state signatories to the Geneva Conventions. The event featured the founder of the Somali Red Crescent and Somali mid-wife: Edna Adan Ismail, Norwegian Foreign Minister: Jonas Gahr Store and Political Cartoonist Patrick Chappatte – to name just three.

Notwithstanding a couple of technical glitches, the group were suitably inspired by this fascinating show, which was watched via live web-link to the event in Geneva, to indulge in some post-TED analysis. In groups we discussed each talk in order to draw examples and lessons which could be learned by the British Red Cross to develop humanitarian inspiration for the future. For more about these ideas… watch this space!

This morning there was no rest for the good humanitarian, as the group assembled ready to tramp up the hill to Edinburgh Castle. Once there we were free to appreciate the heritage of a magnificent Scottish landmark, before heading to the ICRC Humanity in War photographic exhibition, stationed in the National War Museum deep within the Castle grounds. The Humanity in War exhibition is a collection of photographs from the ICRC’s archive that shows moments of humanity in that most-inhumane environment – war. The exhibition has been available to view at Edinburgh Castle since this February and will remain there for just another few months before it moves on to Northern Ireland and Canada in 2012. The British Red Cross were instrumental and inspirational in bringing the exhibition to Scotland and we are very grateful to them for making it happen.

One final highlight of our jaunt to Scotland then followed as the group assembled in a very posh conference hall in the Castle to link up with ICRC UK Head of Mission: Geoff Loane, via skype. Geoff gave the group an overview of the role of the ICRC across the world and then answered some pretty tough questions! These covered what the current ICRC response to the situation in Somalia consists of, how the ICRC and International Federation of the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement work together with National Societies in the field, and whether a principle of independence sometimes obscures a principle of humanity.

Having grilled Geoff about the ICRC’s role and now being fully fledged ICRC supporters inside the belly of the BRC, the YAP were left free to wander round Edinburgh and contemplate a truly fantastic 24 hours.

Thank you once more to Louise Halpin for all your help arranging this event and if any one of you would like any more information about the ICRC, please don’t hesitate to get in touch!

The Dilnot Review must be acted upon


Guest post from George McNamara, head of public policy at the British Red Cross.

The Dilnot Review is a once in a generation chance to tackle the social care crisis facing the country. It’s concerning to hear health secretary Andrew Lansley referring to its proposals as “regressive” and suggesting they may not be fully implemented, as he is reported to have done by Local Government Chronicle.

With the problem of how we will look after the growing elderly population becoming more not less important, it is crucial that Dilnot’s recommendations are both listened to and acted on.

However, much more thought needs to be given to the long term future of adult social care provision because without substantial investment in preventative and lower level services, any new funding model is bound to fail.

For example initiatives such as the British Red Cross’ home from hospital service intervene at moments of potential crisis when people would benefit from support to better link them in with their community, build the skills and confidence they need to prevent conditions from worsening, and allow them to live independently.

This means vulnerable people are less likely to need intensive and expensive support from local authorities, and are able to stay safe and well in their own homes for longer.

Money spent proactively on these services ultimately saves local commissioners hundreds of thousands of pounds, money that could well be spent on implementing the urgently needed Dilnot reforms.

The above post appeared this week as a letter in Local Government Chronicle.

Food insecurity is a population issue, but it’s not an over-population issue


Mary Atkinson is our economic security advisor who specialises in food and livelihoods issues.

With the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) announcing this week that the world’s population may double by the year 2100, many are understandably worried about the strain on our natural resources.

This isn’t a new worry. In fact, when you tell people that almost a billion people in the world are hungry now, it’s not uncommon for them to say that families in developing countries shouldn’t have so many children if they can’t feed them.

While the global population is on the rise, the world’s current hunger problem isn’t due to the number of people on the planet. The world produces enough food to feed everyone – including large families in developing countries – and this is even after a third of it has it has been wasted or thrown away.

The real issue is poverty: through no  fault of their own, many people around the world can’t access the food they need – properly nutritious food – mostly because they cannot afford to buy it, particularly now that food prices have risen to record levels.

There are two main approaches to producing food. One is through large-scale industrial farming, which uses lots of pesticides, fertilisers and machinery that are all reliant on cheap and plentiful supplies of oil.

Woman in Lesotho watering crops

©British Red Cross/Caroline Maxwell

The other is by supporting small-scale farmers, who already produce most of the world’s food, so they can produce more. Evidence suggests that small farms can have as good, if not better, yields than industrialised farms, even when using more sustainable environmentally friendly farming methods.

Around 75 per cent of the developing world’s poor live in rural areas and depend on agriculture for their livelihoods. By supporting their farms, we not only strengthen their livelihoods and tackle poverty, but also boost local food supply, keeping prices lower and protecting the environment. And we know that as communities rise out of poverty, family sizes get smaller.

The Red Cross is well-placed to support small-scale farmers, since we have local branches with many of our volunteers living in the communities they serve. Many Red Cross National Societies in Africa, for example, have volunteer gardeners who help people in their villages develop more productive home gardens using green farming practices adapted to local climatic conditions. They also encourage people to diversify their livelihoods because farming is risky, with good and bad years. This helps people become more resilient when crops fail.

A big part of the world’s food problem is that the western world is promoting our type of diets in developing countries, exporting a love of fast food, lots of meat and dairy, and high-fat and high sugar diets. This is leading to a different kind of environmental and health disaster than the one we’ve seen in the past, but a disaster all the same.

Right now nearly a billion people go to bed hungry, while about a billion others go to bed obese (with many of these in the burgeoning middle classes in developing countries). According to the World Health Organisation, coronary heart disease – for which obesity is a major cause – is already the leading cause of death in many poorer countries.

A man and two young boys hold packets of seeds

©British Red Cross/Caroline Maxwell

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation predicts that we will need to feed an additional 2 billion mouths by 2050, and so we will need to produce 70 per cent more food. But this figure is calculated on the assumption that we will continue down the disastrous path we’re currently on, with more and more people consuming a westernised diet high in fat and animal products that not only requires more land, water and energy to produce but leads to all the associated health consequences of overnutrition.

How we eat here in Britain, and in other wealthy countries is unsustainable. If everyone ate like we do in Britain, we’d need three planets to produce enough food. If everyone ate like the U.S., we’d need five planets.

Is this really what we want?  Producing more food also doesn’t solve the underlying cause of hunger: poverty and unequal access to food. It will not eradicate hunger.

We need more sustainable and equitable diets. The world’s hunger problem isn’t because families have “too many” children; the problem also rests with our own population and what we all eat , not over-population.

Cooking food that lasts with songs and laughter in Lesotho


Caroline Maxwell is our PR and public affairs planning officer. She was in Lesotho this week to visit Red Cross projects teaching communities how to protect their food supplies.

When you step into the community kitchen in the south eastern Quthing district of Lesotho, your senses are hit by the commotion surrounding you. Firstly the aroma of fruit jams and vegetable stews heating on the stove. Secondly it’s the sound of the cooks singing rhythmic songs in Sesotho, their local language about their love for life and cooking, and finally you have the sight of a rainbow collection of jars on the shelves filled with food such as beetroot pickle, peach jam, stewed spinach and tomato chutney.

It has the hustle and bustle just like any other kitchen, but this community kitchen not only produces great food it has also become a sign of hope for the local people.

Their village, Portmani, is part of the British Red Cross and Lesotho Red Cross Societies’ integrated community home-based care and food security programme. The programme began in 2010 and aims to help vulnerable people in four districts in Lesotho become more resilient to HIV and food insecurity.

With the help of care facilitators and food security officers, the Red Cross is helping people with HIV and related diseases, orphans and vulnerable children, the elderly and other members of the community by providing seeds, tools and training so that they can grow and eat variety of nutritious fruits and vegetables – all from the comfort of their own gardens.

Despite unreliable weather conditions such as recent low rainfall, the local community are still able to enjoy their produce thanks to the innovative fruit and vegetable preservation recipes that are developed and shared from the Quthing kitchen.

One of the local residents, Molenepu (42) told me: “My favourite is the tomato jam. We’re able to grow lots of tomatoes and sometimes you think what else can I make with them? The recipe for the tomato jam is so simple to follow.

“My children love to eat it with bread as a tasty snack. And the great thing is that it lasts for many months because it is preserved. We are so grateful for this Red Cross programme. Before we struggled to eat, but now we have much more choice. It’s so much fun learning new recipes in the community kitchen.”

Here’s one of the preservative recipes for peach marmalade, straight from the Quthing kitchen in Lesotho:

Peach marmalade
12 medium-sized firm ripe peaches
1 large lemon or 2 small lemons
1 small orange
1kg sugar
½ teaspoon ground ginger

1. Rinse and plunge peaches into boiling water to loosen the skins.
2. Plunge the peaches into cold water.
3. Gently slip of the skins with your fingers or a knife.
4. Cut into halves, remove and discard the pips.
5. Coarsely chop peaches.
6. Finely slice lemon and orange.
7. Combine lemon, orange and peaches in a saucepot and simmer gently for 15-10 minutes, until the orange and lemon rinds are tender.
8. Add the sugar and ginger and bring to a boil, stirring until the sugar is dissolved.
9. Boil rapidly until it reaches the jellying point.
10. Pour into warm sterilised jars and seal.


Recovery is not enough for east Africa


Karen Peachey is the British Red Cross’ east Africa representative, based in Nairobi.

Child carrying food and a baby home in Kenya

Katrina Crew/British Red Cross

The story of the east Africa food crisis is not just about failed rain – there are a lot of confounding factors. It’s a very diverse region. The Kenyan story is different than what’s happening in Somalia, and it’s a totally different story than what’s happening in Dadaab.

My colleague Stephen McDowell, a food security advisor for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, wrote a fantastic article called “Don’t blame it on the rain” that explains some of the problems facing pastoral communities here.

The short-term consequences of food insecurity are not just malnutrition and health problems but can also lead to conflict over natural resources. It’s already there. Violence related to cattle rustling has been a factor between some pastoralist communities for years, but in times of crisis it gets worse.

Many areas are prone to drought but over the years, for a number of reasons, communities have become less resilient to it. If we just give people food, we’ll almost inevitably go back next year and have to do the same thing over again. But if we meet their life-saving needs now as well as investing in long-term solutions then we may be able to help them change their futures.

To do this we need to invest in working with communities to see how best they can strengthen or diversify their livelihoods. But it’s not easy, and change will take time – pastoralism isn’t just a livelihood, it’s about culture and a way of life.

As the British Red Cross, we need to work closely with and support our sister Red Cross and Red Crescent National Societies in the region – the National Societies which are made up of people who are from the communities they are working in and who understand the complexity of the problems and understand the opportunities that exist.

Child at Tiya nursery school in Kenya receiving food

Katrina Crew/British Red Cross

In Kenya, the British Red Cross has been supporting the Kenya Red Cross in both their food relief programme and their longer-term work with vulnerable communities. For example, donations to our East Africa Food Crisis Appeal have helped provide nutritious porridge for malnourished children in northern Kenya, but late last year we also used £70,000 from our General Funds to support the rehabilitation of some of the boreholes that pastoral communities depend on for water. We’re now working with the Kenya Red Cross to see how funds that have been recently been donated can be used to meet immediate needs and contribute towards some of these longer-term solutions.

There’s no quick fix. We need to fund and implement long-term projects that give people hope that the future will be better. Recovery’s not enough. If we just get people back to where they were before, we will have failed. We need to do better.

The road to Dadaab


Faye-Callaghan-in-EthiopiaFaye Callaghan is the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies’ communications manager for Africa. She has  been visiting drought-stricken communities in north-east Kenya.

A red sandy track stretches far into the distance, bordered on both sides by low bush – grey and dead. The only interruption is the scattering of cows lying at the side of the road, they too are grey and dead. The scorching sun beats down relentlessly; drivers of broken down trucks seek respite in the shade under their battered vehicles.

The drought has made this part of north-east Kenya virtually uninhabitable. But with all eyes on Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee camp, still swelling day by day with Somalis who have trekked for weeks, what of those who ordinarily live in the communities nearby?

“I had five hundred cattle once,” laments Sheikh Mohammed, resident of Lago, a village just a few kilometres from Dadaab camp. “Now what do I have? A family of twenty and nothing to feed them but the handouts we get every few months.”

At least water is one less worry for Mohammed since the Kenya Red Cross started trucking in 40,000 litres every two days to this community and hundreds of others in the Garissa region. Here people depended on shallow wells, but a lack of rain for over a year means they dried up some time ago. And with the nearest borehole 70 kilometres from Lago, the community was left in a terrible situation.

Women with babies strapped to their backs in colourful cloths wait anxiously for the truck to arrive. A donkey, exhausted from its toil, collapses before it has even been loaded with full jerry cans. The women group together to help it to its feet; without their donkey, they too will soon collapse from carrying heavy loads.

“Now my cattle have died, I want to settle here,” said Mohammed, a former Somali pastoralist. “I want my kids to go to school, but without water that’s not possible. It’s hard to live without water,” he adds, needlessly.

The Kenya Red Cross has been working in Garissa for decades and runs a successful agriculture project that has helped many former pastoralists find new livelihoods growing fruit to sell at the market. “This Tana River project has been so successful,” said Sahal Abdi, the Kenya Red Cross’ regional manager in Garissa.

If giving out food isn’t the answer, then perhaps helping them grow it is. “We want to do more work on long-term approaches, helping people change to more sustainable livelihoods. Of course we have to save lives, and that’s why we do the water trucking, but we need to stop this situation happening again,” emphasised Abdi.

Back in Lago, being able to grow food is just a dream for Sheikh Mohammed. This drought has changed his view on the future for his children. “My hope was once that my children would be pastoralists like all the generations of my family have been. Now I just hope for an education for them, and that we survive this drought.”

Since many humanitarian organisations are working in the camp in Dadaab, the Kenya Red Cross is focusing its efforts on helping local communities through the drought. It has launched an appeal for 14 million Swiss francs to continue both life-saving activities like water distribution and investment in long-term solutions.

A once in a generation chance to address the social care crisis


The Dilnot Review is a once in a generation chance to tackle what can only be described as a crisis in social care. If questions around how we pay for an ageing population’s needs aren’t dealt with now, we are simply storing up a far greater crisis for the future.

There can be no escaping the fact that much more money and investment is needed if we are to meet the long term needs of today and tomorrow. But up and down the country local authorities are cutting the type of social care support which could reduce or defer the need for residential care.

Today we urge the Government to act urgently to halt this reduction in provision. It will undoubtedly cause hardship, particularly to the most vulnerable. And it will place even more strains on the system.

At the British Red Cross we passionately believe that social care is as much about community support as it is about long term residential care. Our home-based care services have been shown to aid speedier recovery and allow a better quality of life. And crucially, at a time when money is tight they can prevent readmission to hospital and save money. One such project based in Nottingham has saved the NHS over £250,000 this year alone.

Guest post from George McNamara,  head of public policy.

Comment on NHS reforms: Britain needs an integrated health and social care system


If the aim of the ongoing NHS reforms is – as it should to be – the safeguarding and improvement of patient care, this cannot be achieved without also addressing the ongoing crisis in social care.

What is needed is a much more integrated health and social care system.

With local authorities cutting social care services which are often vital for preventing hospital admissions, it would be short-sighted to ignore the knock-on effect these cuts will have on an already stretched NHS.

Without urgently needed support, the shortfall in social care provision will quickly undermine improvements to the NHS, leaving patients worse off.

Voluntary organisations have an important role to play in providing health and social care to those in need, and the reforms must not squeeze out their skills and expertise.

The pause may be at an end, but we urge the government to continue listening to the experiences of organisations like the British Red Cross who work with some of the most vulnerable people in the country on a daily basis.

This is a guest post by George McNamara, head of public policy at the British Red Cross.