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Relief in sight? How well prepared is Australia to respond to a crisis in our region?

Mr Robert Tickner, CEO, Australian Red Cross


Robert Tickner took up the position of the Secretary General – Chief Executive Officer (CEO) in February 2005.

Prior to taking up this appointment he was the CEO of Job Futures Ltd.

Robert served as Federal Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs from 1990-1996 and is Australia’s longest serving Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs. Before being elected to the Federal parliament, he was a lecturer in the Faculty of Law at the Institute of Technology as well as the Faculty of Business Studies. He later served as Principal Solicitor to the NSW Aboriginal Legal Service. Between 1977 and 1984 he served as a Councillor on the Sydney City Council including a very brief period as Acting Lord Mayor.

Robert is committed to ensuring that Australian Red Cross remains a leader in the not-for-profit sector in transparency and accountability and delivers more effective and efficient humanitarian work domestically and internationally.

Shortly after his appointment Robert travelled to tsunami-ravaged areas of Indonesia to witness first-hand the plight of affected communities and Red Cross operations to provide assistance. Since then Robert has visited a number of other countries in Asia and the Pacific where Australian Red Cross is active, including China and Timor Leste.

Responding to international disasters and crises in our region

Speech by Robert Tickner , CEO, Australian Red Cross to World Vision/AusAID: International Series Forum, 23 August 2007

Thank you for inviting me to speak about our Australian Red Cross’ perspective on the challenges of responding to international disasters and other crises in our region.

Before I begin, I would like to acknowledge the presence tonight of my dear friend Lowitja O'Donoghue.

One of my central messages is that everyone in this hall can make a difference in some meaningful way to future international disaster responses.

Overview of ARC

Australian Red Cross is one of 186 Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. That’s very close to universal representation – the UN itself has 192 member states.

The National Societies have established a federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies whose secretariat is based in Geneva and Australia is currently represented on its Governing Board. With the International Committee of the Red Cross – the ICRC - which has a specific mission to protect the lives and dignity of victims of war and violence, we comprise the largest humanitarian network in the world.

In the decades since its establishment in 1914, Australian Red Cross has pioneered and delivered a range of health and social welfare services both domestically and internationally. We are also an organisation undergoing a huge internal reform process. After operating for 90 years as a largely, state and territory based organisation, we are transforming into a much more effective nationally cohesive organisation. This transformational change will enable us to vastly increase our effectiveness in all our work and programs. My predecessors Jim Carlton and Martine Letts did much of the ground work leading to these reforms.

We provide over 70 community services ranging from the well known blood service (led by my colleague Dr. Robert Hetzel and son of Dr. Basil Hetzel, Chair of the Hawke Centre here tonight); to providing breakfast to kids in remote outback aboriginal communities with the active support and engagement of those communities; to giving material and psychological help to victims of bushfires, floods and other disasters.

Just a year ago we mobilised over 80 staff and 430 volunteers from around Australia to assist people affected by Cyclone Larry.

To carry out this vast work both within Australia and internationally, we rely on generous donors big and small, but we are also grateful for the support shown by Governments for our work.

It would be remiss of me if I were not to also acknowledge in the presence of Minister Downer the strong support he has given to the work of Red Cross and the high level of continuous collaboration we enjoy with AusAid and his department.

The very first way people can make a difference is to help Red Cross in its original fundraising efforts and we need your support.

At the outset, I should also stress that voluntary service is one of the Fundamental Principles on which Australian Red Cross and the global Red Cross Red Crescent Movement is based. Australian Red Cross services are delivered by over 30,000 volunteers. Worldwide the Movement has in the order of 97 million volunteers.

Without volunteers ARC could not do its work and if you want to help us make a difference, volunteering for Red Cross is a great way to do it.


Let me begin with some basic information about disasters – what the world has experienced recently and the challenges that may confront us in our region in the years ahead.

Since 1993 the RC / RC federation has produced an annual World Disasters Report, documenting and analysing events and issues and the Federation is grateful for AusAid support for the publication.

According to the most recent edition of World Disasters Report, in the decade to 2005 there were 3416 natural disasters reported. They caused 835,000 deaths and over 2 and half billion people were otherwise affected – for instance, by injury or the destruction of their homes.

Last year did not see natural disasters on the scale of the Tsunami 2004 and the Pakistan earthquake of 2005. But the number of events that provoked disasters was larger and more people were affected.

Australian Red Cross and the Red Cross and Red Crescent Federation has been actively involved in responding to many of these crises and we acknowledge the generous contribution of AusAid to our work on an ongoing basis.

The number of people who live in areas vulnerable to disasters is increasing each year within our region and the sheer majority of that increase is in areas of the world with the smallest share of resources and the biggest burden of exposure to disasters.

The impact of disasters is greatest on people who are poor and women are worst affected.

Increases in the frequency and intensity of natural disasters have been linked to climate change and the Federation and ARC are very concerned by this threat.

The Asia Pacific region is subject to a large number of natural disasters - more than half of the 3400 disaster incidents reported in the decade to 2005 were in Asia and the Pacific. And even excluding the exceptionally devastating Tsunami, more than half of people killed by natural disasters were in Asia and the Pacific. If you include the Tsunami, the proportion of global fatalities that occurred in Asia and the Pacific was over 3 quarters.

Over 60 percent of the world's population lives here and 700 million people live on less than a dollar a day.

Low lying coastal nations have been identified as particularly at risk if sea levels keep rising such as the island nation of Tuvalu.

In the case of Tuvalu we are speaking of 11,000 people. Imagine the impact on a country like Bangladesh, home to millions, which would have half its main rice producing area inundated by a 1 metre rise in the sea level.


So far I have focused on natural disasters. The human suffering caused by war and other types of conflict is also immense - death and injury; rape; displacement; deprivation of food, water and shelter.

The number of wars between nations has been decreasing but internal conflicts continue to be common and may persist for years.

In our region, Sri Lanka, Timor-Leste and the Solomon Islands immediately come to mind as recent instances.

Wherever serious international conflict occurs, both the National Society, Red Cross and Red Crescent organisation and the ICRC are likely to be present playing a key role in emergency, humanitarian relief or in promoting the observance of international humanitarian law , or both.

Responding to disaster

Our response to international disasters takes a number of forms.

In public terms, the best known is emergency relief after disasters have struck – providing life saving assistance: shelter, food and basic health care are some of the immediate needs.

I think it is important to acknowledge that the capacity of ARC (and I am sure, other major reputable aid organisations – although I am not speaking for them) has been significantly increased as a result of our experience in the Tsunami response.

I took up the position of CEO of ARC on 14th February 2005, just 6 weeks following the Tsunami and in my first speech on my very first day on the job, made a commitment to significantly enhance the capacity of the organisation to be involved in international humanitarian responses and particularly in our region.

Australian Red Cross is now investing in our emergency response mechanisms in order to ensure we have a capacity to rapidly deploy a multidisciplinary team of trained field personnel (delegates), skilled in the provision of water and sanitation, emergency shelter, logistics and public health. We are able to assist with material resources and equipment, within 24-48 hours of a request for assistance in an emergency in Asia Pacific

Australia Red Cross has a core group of skilled and experienced public health, logistics, and shelter professionals available to deploy and is stockpiling water, shelter, and sanitation equipment, as well as equipment to control mosquitoes, in strategic locations throughout the region.

But we also believe we can do better, and that we can do this through effective partnerships.

The Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement provides opportunities for Australian Red Cross to partner effectively with other Red Cross and Red Crescent colleagues.

In the Pacific, Australian Red Cross works closely with other Red Cross National societies contributing to emergencies in the region, particularly the New Zealand and French Red Cross Societies. Later this year a significant disaster scenario operation will take place out of New Caledonia, involving all Red Cross Pacific partners.

But in addition to Red Cross and Red Crescent partners, Australian Red Cross recognises the importance of working closely with others in our sector and particularly those based in Australia.

We also believe targeted partnerships with like-minded government and corporate organisations can bring more benefits and higher performance in disaster response. Here we see synergies with organisations in the Local Government sector whose people understand grass roots community service, and organisations who specialise in health and particularly logistics, this sector being one of the core challenges for effective response in our Region.

The building of our strategic linkage with key community, corporate and professional bodies will be a major focus of our work over the coming year, as will be that of boosting our capacity as a training organisation to better prepare overseas emergency aid and development workers.

I hope that there are people in this room who will think about working with ARC in the future in such emergency responses, whether as a doctor, a nurse, a water and sanitation expert or perhaps as an accountant or manager. There are many ways you can make a difference.

I want to turn now to the question of Disaster Mitigation.

In addition to well publicised response mechanisms, much of Australian Red Cross’ less publicised activity involves other measures such as preventing disasters occurring and mitigating the impact of disasters.

In this as in other international work, our approach is to undertake projects in partnership with the local Red Cross and Red Crescent national societies as far as possible. We have such partnerships with the national societies in 11 countries in the region. A focussed and united approach to disaster management, by the international community, is essential to achieving better results for beneficiaries.

In the Pacific region, a key focus of our work is to resource and strengthen the national societies so that they are better able to recruit, train and retain the volunteers who are essential to assisting individuals, communities and families in times of crisis. The reality is that a number of the Pacific nations have weak or poorly performing state institutions, so effective disaster preparedness and response demands a far more substantial role by civil society than in countries like Australia.

I mentioned earlier that logistics was one of the core challenges of disaster response in the Pacific. The reality is that communities in the Pacific are so remote that immediate relief of the scale needed may be impossible. Red Cross has instituted a “container” program – placing more than 50 containers of relief items throughout the Pacific. One of these containers was located on Gizo Island and was the first source of assistance following the April earthquake and tsunami affecting this area of the Solomon Islands in April .

However, this container program whilst serving a valuable initial response, needs to be supplemented by a robust supply chain: to get the right relief to the right place at the right time. I am pleased that AusAID has sponsored and is working with a partnership of Australian humanitarian organisations, including World Vision, Oxfam and Red Cross to research the supply chain for emergency response in the Pacific to identify better ways to do this work.


Time does not permit me to talk about how critical it is to continue to achieve high levels of accountability to both donors and beneficiaries. I regard this as a “sacred trust” issue and perhaps we can better explore this issue in question time.

Last year independent consultants delivered a major evaluation of the response of aid agencies to the communities affected by the Tsunami sector. Terrific work was documented, but we were also provided with some very confronting recommendations about how to do things better.

One is that the international humanitarian community needs a fundamental reorientation from supplying aid to supporting and facilitating communities’ own relief and recovery priorities. What this means is recognising the resilience and capacity of local communities in responding to disasters and acknowledging local communities as first responders for the majority of search and rescue and for the early provision of food, water and shelter. This is certainly very much in accord with the Red Cross and Red Crescent philosophy but we must all attach a higher priority to the work.

Another recommendation which we are working to take on board is that all actors should strive to increase their disaster response capacities and to improve the linkages and coherence between themselves and other actors in the international disaster response system, including those from the affected countries themselves.

As another initiative of Red Cross we are establishing a fund source for use prior to an emergency in risk reduction activities, during an emergency so we can respond on Day 1 rather than waiting to generate funds, and for use after an emergency so that that the community is more resilient and better able to prevent, prepare for, mitigate and respond - within the capacity of their own resources, into the future.


Some of you may have noted that I have avoided offering a conclusive response to the question which is the theme of this forum: how well prepared is Australia to respond to a crisis in our region?

I don’t think it is easy to offer a definitive response.

I would confidently say that we are better prepared than ever before – that we have learned lessons, that we are better resourced, that we have established and strengthened strategic partnerships with government and other humanitarian organisations.

But to use a very non Red Cross analogy I am mindful that we must avoid the alleged tendency of generals to "fight the last war" – to use the strategies and tactics of the past to achieve victory in the next crisis.

Each new earthquake, tsunami and violent conflict will have unique elements that will provide new challenges.

Responding to humanitarianism crises is a complex and demanding task.

It is inspiring to see the response of people to the plight of men, women and children in their neighbourhoods, in their nations and abroad, in our region.

Australian Red Cross witnesses it every day in the calls we receive from people wanting to donate money or to forgo lucrative and safe jobs in this country to work in difficult and sometimes dangerous environments abroad.

The strong humanitarian sentiment of the Australian community underpins the capacity of all those represented at this forum to respond effectively to crises in our region. That’s as true for the government, as it is for Red Cross, World Vision and other organisations which rely on voluntary donations and community support.

It’s a sentiment we must both celebrate and nurture.

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While the views presented by speakers within the Hawke Centre public program are their own and are not necessarily those of either the University of South Australia or The Hawke Centre, they are presented in the interest of open debate and discussion in the community and reflect our themes of: strengthening our democracy – valuing our cultural diversity – and building our future.

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