Opinions & People WYN

Helping hands

by WIEF

With over 25 years of experience in leadership roles in the humanitarian sector, Elhadj As Sy has served as Director of Health and Development Programmes at Environment and Development Action in the Third World, Senegal (1988 to 1997), and the Director of the HIV/AIDS Practice, UNDP, New York (2005 to 2008). He has also held senior positions at the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria; UNAIDS; Director of Partnerships and Resource Development, UNICEF, where he was also Regional Director for Eastern and Southern Africa and Global Emergency Coordinator for the Horn of Africa. Sy holds a Bachelor’s degree in Arts and Human Sciences from the University of Dakar, a Master’s degree in Arts and Germanistik from the University of Graz, and a postgraduate diploma in education from the Ecole Normale Superieure, Dakar. He was appointed IFRC Secretary General in 2014.


Elhadj As Sy grew up in Senegal in an environment where people encountered humanitarian and development problems such as drought, floods and political crises. The country was relatively peaceful when Sy began his professional path, but in 1989, a new conflict at the border with Mauritania displaced 75,000 people. “That conflict was a tipping point in my professional life and it further determined my personal commitment to humanitarian work,” he said. In this session, Sy shares his experience and views on humanitarian efforts and on-going refugee issues.


Valerina Daniel
What drives you in what must be a very demanding role?
Elhadj As Sy
The key word is “humanity”. Unfortunately, there is a need for humanitarian assistance today more than ever. Since the Second World War, there have not been as many people who have been forced to leave their homes—

125 million migrants and refugees combined are on the move and we try to describe the situation using big numbers, but behind each unit there is a human being that is facing multiple deprivations and trying to recover what is most important to them, which is human dignity.

That shared human dignity motivates us to work alongside the principles of our movement of the Red Cross and the Red Crescent to respond to their needs.

Valerina Daniel
What do you think are the major humanitarian challenges we face today?
Elhadj As Sy
Now, we have never faced so many challenges as far as humanitarian assistance is concerned. The fact that crises are getting more protracted—wars and conflicts have been going on for years, and what is very critical now is that there are no political solutions to the political problems. There is also the issue of unplanned urbanisation and climate change, which are making regions very prone to natural disasters.

Valerina Daniel
Do you have any memorable experiences that you encountered in remote areas that you can share with us so we can learn about the real situations of humanitarian development in the world today?
Elhadj As Sy
In the most remote areas, there is one thing which is very constant. Before any organisation arrives on the scene or tries to develop a response, the indigenous or local people are often the first humanitarian responders. These are some of the poorest people but they are also the ones who help refugees and who share their last grain or take the clothes off their own bodies to provide warmth to infants. That is what we find in communities. These communities are a source of inspiration to us and there is a growing recognition of the local actors and their importance in making a difference particularly in the early hours of a humanitarian response. Unfortunately, this is where we see the best human beings, next to the worst. There are also horrible situations where victims are trafficked, abused and violated. There are always those who will be part of the problem.

Valerina Daniel
Have you felt that the world is not responding enough? Do we need to do something more progressive—more radical?
Elhadj As Sy
We can do more in many instances, but we estimated that we need USD 20 billion to respond to humanitarian needs effectively, hence the need to emphasise the importance of local actors and the partnership and collaboration between the private and public sector to learn to understand each other and complement each other in terms of skills and information.

Valerina Daniel
Every day when you wake up, what do you tell yourself to remain spirited and resolve all the problems?
Elhadj As Sy
Situations where immediate actions could make a difference in a lot of people’s lives— seeing a toddler in agony that we have to try to recuperate in a nutrition centre and then, three weeks later, they are running around, laughing and playing like every other child—that child’s smile is something you will never forget and will always remind you that your efforts are worth it. Another reminder is that you’re not merely providing people with food and water, granted that’s important. But it’s more about helping them to rebuild their lives so they can stand on their own two feet. For example, we gradually reduce humanitarian assistance as they slowly rebuild their livelihoods such as starting their own business and caring for themselves, becoming breadwinners for their families and taking care of their children. Another aspect is that we’re not alone: there are 17 million volunteers in 190 countries who are doing humanitarian work and that reminds us that we are a big family, which makes our efforts truly worth it.

Valerina Daniel
I read in an article in which you said you had a simple principle in life: “Be there at all times at the side of people and accompany them to respond to their needs. Be adjustable but also be yourself.” What did you mean by that?
Elhadj As Sy
We are not the kind of “interventionistic” organisation that goes into a community when aid is needed and then gets out once the initial shock is over. Rather, we are embedded in the community. Those 17 million volunteers I talked about, they come from the same communities that are affected. For example, when we had the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, our volunteers were there and they aided the communities to respond to a disease they were not familiar with as well as addressing difficult issues like sexual behaviours and taking care of orphaned children. They had to do work they were not prepared for, such as providing safe and dignified burials for victims; the same goes for the Zika outbreak. It’s important to be there permanently side-by-side with those communities to accompany them, to respond to their needs and we do that with respect. That builds trust and credibility, and your work has a greater impact.

Valerina Daniel
Today, the world is facing refugee problems in conflict areas and the Mediterranean. How do you see countries handling the problem so far?
Elhadj As Sy
It’s peculiar that the poorest countries host the largest numbers of refugees. One-third of Lebanon’s population is constituted by refugees—that is over a million—similarly with Jordan. Turkey is hosting about almost 3 million. In the northern part of Kenya, we have a refugee camp called Dadaab—and it is the largest refugee camp in the world for over 25 years—hosting Somalian refugees. Today, Ethiopia, Chad and the Lake Chad Basin are hosting about 400,000 refugees. Then we look at Europe, which had a million refugees going into 29 countries and these are some of the richest countries in the world. This is the sort of distorted image that we need to rectify. We see that it is a global phenomenon that requires a global response but that response can only be developed from a legal perspective. Supporting the countries that are carrying the burden is very critical.

Valerina Daniel
How do you see refugees being treated today? Is the world focusing only on numbers or do we need to start treating refugees differently?
Elhadj As Sy
Yes, there are some fundamental rights, obligations we have towards refugees. Internationally, there is a categorisation of conflict refugees, but nowadays there are also refugees who are displaced due to a combination of climate change and recurrent natural disasters. So many people are stranded on the coast of Libya and closer to home, in the Bay of Bengal. They are fleeing their home countries to survive and there is an open call for us to respond to those needs so that they can regain their footing in life.
If we don’t address the issue, we will face situations like human trafficking, smugglers and criminals. Countries should ease the transition by providing visas and work opportunities, and ensure that the refugee route is safe by providing protection and educating refugees to not fall prey to exploitation. All of that requires the combination of protection, legal means and facilitation.

Valerina Daniel
How does the IFRC respond to this problem?
Elhadj As Sy
We are one of the few organisations that are present in the countries of origin, transit countries and countries of arrival, so we have the opportunity to provide aid throughout their journey – all the time on the side of the communities. We also provide assistance by educating refugees so that they make informed decisions and also provide legal and social protection, namely to women and children because there have been so many unaccompanied minors recently. We create an enabling environment which is safer and more tolerable for everybody.

Valerina Daniel
What is the One Billion Coalition for Resilience?
Elhadj As Sy
The One Billion Coalition for Resilience is an initiative by the IFRC to help communities build resilience against catastrophes and improve response time by being prepared. It is a partnership that is bringing different organisations and partners together to see how we can, by 2025 through our joint effort, build the capacity of 1 billion people who will lift themselves out of the situation of vulnerabilities and resist further shock. For example, we know that there will be a monsoon season every year but the destruction can be mitigated if we are better prepared. This will be able to reduce the number of people affected annually. That’s what resilience is about: we must build communities that can withstand catastrophes and recover effectively.

We can accomplish this through partnership and collaboration between the public and private sectors, like collaborations between Zurich Insurance in Indonesia and other UN organisations like World Food programme, UNICEF and World Child. If they work together to build capacities: early warning, early action, pre-positioning of supplies and so forth, then we will be able to prevent refugee exploitation by smugglers and criminals.

Valerina Daniel
How can business sectors participate in this One Billion Coalition for Resilience?
Elhadj As Sy
One good example is procurement and supply management: how do we get the medicine we need the most in a fast and efficient way to the hardest-to-reach and most vulnerable communities? There isn’t a remote village in this world that I visited where I don’t find a bottle of a very famous drink. But when it comes to essential life-saving medicines and drugs, it’s a struggle to get them to the communities. So how can we bring that logistics expertise and collaborate with businesses to make sure that we reach people with necessities. This can create a win-win scenario. Besides, I believe that the private sector would also be invested in having healthy communities that can maintain the economy and those working in the private sector would feel good for contributing to the betterment of communities with their products.

Valerina Daniel
How do you see humanitarian development in the future?
Elhadj As Sy
It all depends on the ability of leaders to find solutions to the problems of the people. I must say that there is a kind of a breakdown in leadership because we are not finding solutions to serious problems. There are so many conflicts that are going on and the incapacity to stop them is simply unacceptable. People cannot be bombed on a daily basis. The disrespect of human life has to stop. You have to go back to the fundamental principles—the basis of humanitarian action, to take a step back and see how we can build trust and respect, to be there for them rather than just assisting them and to let them be a part of the solution instead of seeing them as a problem.

Looking to the future, I hope with education, the young will be equipped with a better perspective so that they do not replicate the horrible things that they’ve witnessed. I hope this will also reduce gaps and disparities between urban and rural areas, rich and poor, and so forth.

We believe that building people’s resilience towards catastrophes, working in partnership and communicating in hope, are the essence of true humanitarian efforts and this will contribute to a better tomorrow.

___________________

This report is based on a session from the 12th WIEF.

November 30, 2016
share this article