Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Meetings with remarkable men.

There are remarkable people who leave a lasting impression on you and your curiousity wants to find out more about them. For me one such man was Henrik Beer who was the secreatry general of the League of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (later became of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies)from 1960 to 1982. I, and many others who knew him, rate Henrik one of the greatest huamnitarians of the 20th century. I asked Brian Walker the ex head of OXFAM to pen a few thoughts as I am beginning to gather information on Henrik, in the hope that in time I can publish a book on him.


Henrik Beer – an appreciation.

I first met Henrik in 1975 shortly after my appointment as Director of Oxfam and when it was a single, world-wide agency head-quartered in Oxford.

My predecessor, the late Sir Leslie Kirkley, took me to Geneva that spring, principally to introduce me to Henrik as the leader of the main “Disaster” response agencies. These had come together at Henrik’s invitation to form what was called (somewhat clumsily) – “The Geneva Ad Hoc Committee on Disaster Relief”. This loose association was based in the offices of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. It was chaired by Henrik.

This was the start of a fine, high quality friendship which lasted through to Henrik’s untimely death in 1990. I visited Henrik in hospital three days before his death. He smiled throughout our short conversation despite his obvious pain and clear understanding of his condition. Here was a man of quality.

Henrik was highly intelligent. A born conciliator he was able to hold confidences with integrity, anxious to improve through better and wiser management the contribution of his national Red Cross Society members. He was anxious to break the un-natural distinction inherited between “disaster relief” which was the focus for the national Red Cross Societies and ICRC, and “development” with all its political baggage and radical philosophy which ICRC was anxious to avoid.

Our partnership, I felt, was crucial to the evolution of the then six Ad hoc committee members, and in due course we were able to help the Red Cross/Red Crescent itself to assume a role in development as well as in disaster response.

This was by no means easy for Henrik - but his sense of good humour and his steady determination were at once impressive and effective.

We agreed to set up a daily fax system for disseminating to member agencies the latest news from the ground in any disaster, with Henrik’s office concentrating on “relief” and Oxfam on the “development” side of any potential response. That remains the standard mode.

Occasionally, Henrik would ask me home to have supper or to discuss contentious issues in private. He was an excellent host, always honest as well as honourable. I came to realise he was a great admirer of the late Winston Churchill and, as a Swede, appreciated the dry humour of the English. His integrity was unimpeachable; so was his humanity.



Brian W. Walker. 16.12.07.

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