Thursday, 30 April 2009

Strange new world

With so much grim news around at the moment, from Swine flu, the economic crisis and climate change, it is always refreshing to read some breezy, half serious journalism. Here is an article I read in the New York Times last week by Garrison Keillor, pictured left.

I am a poor wayfaring stranger traveling through this world of woe, but it's OK, I am well paid for the woe and I enjoy watching my fellow wayfarers, the road guys, the men who fly from town to town, talking on their cell phones, hustling software and industrial carpeting, advising companies on branding issues, guys with pagers, laptops, BlackBerries, and voices like drill bits.

Road guys tend to be a little grim, which you would be too if you were trying to peddle your widgets these days. They don't sit in the gate area and exchange stories about road life. Except lately, I've heard numerous road guys discussing the Domino's Pizza hooha in which an employee in Conover, N.C., shot a video of another employee making a salami sandwich, farting on it and adding some cheese he had pulled out of his nose — which was posted on YouTube and promptly viewed by millions of slackers and mouth-breathers and apparently had such an effect on Domino's business that its president, Patrick Doyle, made his own YouTube appearance defending the brand.

This is the world turned upside down, in which satirists finally have some power to step on the big boys' toes and make them squeal. Two minimum-wage employees with a cheap videocam are able to make such a stir that a man who earns almost half a million a year has to stand up and say that the Conover store has been closed and sanitized, that the two "team members" are charged with felonies, that Domino's makes a delicious and hygienic pizza, and that the company is now re-examining its hiring practices so as not to admit to its team the sort of person who would pull cheese out of his nose and fart on the salami. "It sickens me," he said.

This shakes up some of the road guys, who wonder what the world has come to. But it's the very world they live in.

The Internet is fundamental to the migratory life. You can sit here — I'm in St. Louis right now, at Gate A17 — and shower the world with your e-mails and check your Facebook friends to see what they ate for breakfast and download anything you care to look at. All you need is a laptop and a little plug-in wireless antenna. It's an electronic world that keeps you in the loop as you zoom around. It isn't the real world anymore.

In the real world, the booger video is piffle. A joke. It doesn't require the company president to make an official statement — Matt the night manager just says, "Hey you guys, cut it out and go clean the toilet."

But in the Strange New World in which I travel and am quite comfortable, thank you, it is amplified to an absurd level, which of course is the strategy of satire. What Jonathan Swift strove to create in "Gulliver's Travels," the Conover Two brought about with a simple upload.

Teams of consultants now will be brought in to Domino's and other large corporations to draw up multipronged strategies for fighting back against booger attacks. Actors will be hired to shoot mock videos — of car rental employees wiping their noses on steering wheels, hospital orderlies ridiculing unconscious patients, pilots mixing martinis in the flight deck, sausage workers introducing bodily fluids into the kielbasa — and tens of millions of dollars will be spent on training programs to show top executives how to respond to gross-outs, all because two members of Team Domino got bored one day and had a funny idea.

And then we will hear about guerrilla skirmishes between corporations, Domino's sneaking out a video purporting to show rats running through a Pizza Hut and the Hutites responding with one of a coven of witches explaining the Wiccan meaning of the dots on the domino. It is tempting — the thought that for practically no expense, you can force the president of Burger King to make a public defense of the product and say that, no, the French fries do not include deep-fried tent caterpillars. The denial is what plants the idea firmly in the public's mind.

Meanwhile, I call on all Americans to stand up for the Conover Two and for our national sense of humor that has served us so well for so long boopboopbadoop. People have been grossing each other out for centuries and this is no time to stop. Is this a felony? No, it's snot.

Garrison Keillor may be reached at

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Putting the ‘customers’ first

Beneficiary communication is a very important part of our work here in Indonesia with communities affected by the Tsunami. I would like to give an example of the outstanding programme run by the Irish Red Cross.

Irish Red Cross held an ‘Information Day’ to target students and their parents, and beneficiaries of secondary education cash assistance programme (SECAP) to regularly remind them of the importance of the programme and the programme's procedures.

In April last year, a group representing the community of Aceh Barat district in Banda Aceh province, traveled to Banda Aceh to meet and convey to BRR (Government Department responsible for Tsunami) their disappointment in a programme. The demonstration continued for a few days until the Irish Red Cross offered to facilitate a session via radio, giving the community and BRR an opportunity to find solutions. The discussion led to a commitment by BRR to pursue the matter with a higher authority, which culminated in a satisfactory to the beneficiaries.

The is one example of the Irish Red Cross’ efforts in improving beneficiary communication. It is the only partner national society with a programme specifically addressing beneficiary communication; community outreach. One of the activities in this programme is a radio session which broadcasts on-air live discussions, bi-weekly dramas and daily public service announcement on various topics.

The topics aired in the radio session are determined by the Irish Red Cross team based on the questions raised via email, mobile text messages and telephone calls from the community. For example, if many community members asked questions on land titles, the Irish Red Cross team will set up a radio session with this topic and invite guest speakers from government institutions and/or non-governmental organizations. This will provide an opportunity for the community members to raise their questions directly to the relevant parties. In some cases, when the issue has not been solved, the Irish Red Cross team will facilitate an off-air meeting between the community members and relevant entities, such as above.

Red Cross Youth in Banda Aceh march to campaign on climate change.

The community responds to the radio sessions with enthusiasm; the calls and text messages both on-air and off-air has increased since this programme was first launched in November 2006. In its first month, the team received 11 calls and 38 text messages from 49 clients, whereas in July this year, 3,530 clients have conveyed their messages via numerous text messages, phone calls, email, letters to dedicated post office box, Indonesian Red Cross (PMI) staff/volunteer and even fax.

Radio broadcasting is only one of many tools used by the International Federation in beneficiary communication. Communication to beneficiaries is an integral part in many projects implemented by the Red Cross and Red Crescent. In the transitional shelter programme, the International Federation and its implementing partners brought local communities together and informed them on the nature of the programme and its implementation. Furthermore, the communities were involved in the construction of the shelters and even supervision of the construction processes. This involvement has created a sense of ownership towards the programme and the shelters, as demonstrated by their active participation in the rebuilding and maintenance of their new homes. Similarly, in the water and sanitation projects of the International Federation, communities are involved in the planning and implementation process, creating an environment supportive to the programme and its sustainability

Sunday, 26 April 2009

At the United Nations Headquarters in New York

I arrived back in Jakarta yesterday after a 30 hours flght from New York via Frankfurt and Singapore. After spending most of my Red Cross life in the field, it was fascinating to visit the highest level of humanitarian diplomacy and policy, and briefly rub shoulders with the likes of Ban Ki-moon, Bill Clinton and Helen Clark. It was also interesting to meet the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent team in New York and to see first hand the crucial advocacy work they are doing. We were very proud when Bill Clinton acknowledged the work we had done in the Tsunami, and I had the opportunity later to meet him, and shake hands.

UNDP Administrator Helen Clark, President Bill Clinton and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at the report launch. Photo: UNDP

Report on tsunami recovery reveals need to involve local communities

New York — To better respond to natural disasters, governments should invest more in risk reduction for vulnerable communities and make sure to reflect gender concerns in the recovery processes, says a report presented today at the United Nations. Involving local communities in the recovery process, according to “The Tsunami Legacy: Innovation, Breakthroughs and Change” report, is as instrumental as installing high-tech early warning systems. The report also highlights the need for governments to incorporate disaster risk reduction measures in national development plans.

Ban Ki-moon, Helen Clark, Dr. R.M Marty M. Natalegawa (Permanent Representative of the Republic of Indonesia to the UN), Bill Clinton and Kuntoro Mangkusubroto (Chair of the Tsunami Global Lessons Learned Steering Committee) look at copies of the report. Photo: UNDP

Commissioned by The Tsunami Global Lessons Learned Project, an organization that includes representatives from five of the hardest-hit countries – India, Indonesia, Maldives, Sri Lanka and Thailand – in addition to the UN and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the report documents lessons learned from the global recovery response to the tsunami and shares best practices to help prevent and prepare for natural disasters.

“Our capacity to cope with natural disasters is much greater than we realize,” said UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in response to the report. “Yes, we cannot prevent the events. But we can diminish the potential for disaster. Doing so requires foresight and advanced planning, not just emergency relief. That is why this report is so important.”

Since the 2004 Indian Tsunami, there has been a flurry of activity by governments, international agencies and civil society organizations in order to create national and regional early warning systems. Twenty-four early detection buoys have been placed in the Indian Ocean, and 168 governments have resolved to reduce multi-hazard risks. In addition, 250,000 new permanent houses and over 100 air and seaports have been built, 3,000 schools constructed and hundreds of hospitals rehabilitated.

"As UN Envoy for the Tsunami Recovery, I was proud to help the nations and communities affected by the tsunami to ‘build back better’,” President Bill Clinton said. “Thanks to continued contributions of time, money, skills, and needed items by UN, the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, hundreds of NGOs, donor governments, the private sector, citizens and governments of the affected communities, and citizens around the world, significant progress has been achieved in building and in preventing and mitigating future disasters. But much remains to be done. I’m hopeful we will continue and strengthen our efforts to promote good governance, economic development, and disaster preparation, even in these tough economic times.”

Celebarting after the function, Antti the Finn, Jerry Talbot, Bill Nicol, Maude Froberg and Anne Christensen. Bill Nicol played a crucial role throughout the Tsunami in Indonesia as senior adviser to the Director of BRR. Jerry Talbot spent two years running the IFRC operation in the Maldives and then became special representative to the Seccretary General of IFRC. Jerry, Bill and Satya Tripathi, Head of UNORC, Indonesia, and Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, were my Tsunami heroes

When the 2004 tsunami hit, many people could not access assistance simply because of their gender, ethnicity, age, class, religion or occupation, says the report. Women were particularly hit hard. However, according to the report, the recovery process provided an opportunity to address underlying social disparities in the region, strengthen human rights protection for marginalized groups and creating an environment for social participation. Community capacity to respond to early warning systems was improved and disaster awareness programmes were included in many school curricula. In addition, several countries adopted anti-discrimination measures to help all victims benefit from aid, including victims of conflicts.

“The tsunami recovery effort has showed that by working together —and by collaborating with local communities at every step along the way— we can indeed build back better,” said Helen Clark, Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme and Chair of the UN Development Group. “One of the principal lessons drawn early on from the tsunami is that all countries need to be better prepared for when natural disaster strikes. What is needed is bold action —from governments, the UN, and other partners — to make sure appropriate disaster risk reduction measures are instituted.”

Jerry Talbot, Eddy Purwanto, Bill Nicol, Dr. Kuntoro Mankusubroto and myself. Eddy, Bill and Dr. Kuntoro are from BRR, the Indonesian Govt. Ministry in charge of Tsunami.

“Through the tsunami, we have also learned that there is a large reservoir of goodwill, which forms the foundation for strengthening the bonds of humanity and solidarity”, said Dr. R.M Marty M. Natalegawa, Permanent Representative of the Republic of Indonesia to the UN. “We should build on this reservoir to forge closer ties between nations and inspire a more humane world.”

I thoroughly enjoyed the visit to New York and apart from meeting from meeting the high wattage luminaries, I met many lesser luminaries in the heart of New York. here are a few photos.

Stano, a waiter at Scotty's Diner.

Gurung behind the counter in his convenience store.

Gurung's convenience store

Scotty's diner

A Manhattan street.
Empire States building
Jerry and I enjoyed a long walk in Central Park on Saturday.
Times Square
A view across the river from the UN headqiuarters in Bew York.
My first visit to the UN Security Council Chambers, a place I have dreamed of being a fly on the wall.
Anne Christensen showing me her favourite statue of an African woman in the UN headquarters.

Friday, 24 April 2009

Dispatches from New York

I am on the road again. Wednesday night it was Jakarta to Singapore. There I met my colleague Jerry Talbot and together we made our way to JFK airport in New York via Frankfurt. Over 30 hours in the air.

I was in an aisle seat going from Singapore to Frankfurt, and next to me was a 65 year old marine engineer from Myanmar, called U San Myint. At the window seat sat Herman, yes a German, who didn’t speak a word of English. At first I counted my blessings as U San was a small man which meant I had lots of arm room on his side of the arm rest, He also spoke reasonable English so I was able to quiz him about his days at sea where he travelled to many parts of the world on Japanese ships. I manged to get some sleep as we flew across Asia and Turkey, and as first light broke across the Black sea, breakfast was served , I noticed U San bring out the air sickness bag. O no ! he was going to vomit. I had just lifted the foil lid off my cooked breakfast of scrambled eggs, potatoes and bacon, when he gathered a large ball of saliva and Flem, and spat into the bag. Obviously he had been doing this while I was sleeping as the bag was bulging with tissues and spittle. As he spat into the bag, I am sure I could see droplets of saliva spraying my eggs and bacon. I thought, I hope he doesn’t have TB, and started my breakfast. Apart from spitting regularly into the airsickness bag, U San was a pleasant companion as he told me about his grown up children and grand children living in New York. But he continued spitting into the bag every now and then. Over the years I have had to put up with other people’s irritating habits, and they with mine. After breakfast I switched on the movie channels and was delighted to find Slumdog Millionaire. It was every bit as good as it was cracked up to be and I can see how it got 8 awards at the Oscars. What a wonderful actor Patel is in playing Jamal Malik.

I worked quite a lot in slums in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nepal over a few decades and it brought back so many strong memories. The noise, the smell, the laughter. the crying and the squalor I remember flooded back. It was all there in Slumdogs, except the smell. U San’s spitting added a live touch in the next seat, while Herman muttered away in German in the window seat. ( see photo)

I am heading to New York for the presentation of the Tsunami Global Lessons Learned Report to the Secretary General of the UN, Ban Ki- moon, and his special adviser Bill Clinton. In many ways it is a celebration of the outstanding work done by the Governments, the Red Cross Societies, the NGOs, and most importantly, the affected people themselves, in building back better after the Tsunami.

New York Thursday afternoon.

Landed about 11 am NY time at JFK airport in our aging Singapore Airlines Boeing 747-400. It took at least five minutes for my personal information to come up on the computers screen, so I had a good opportunity to talk to the Immigration Officer. We discussed the Tsunami, 9/11 where some of his friends were killed. He was in the Police department then and had the job of identifying cars that were wrecked. He told me huge cars were burnt into an unrecognisable ball of metal. The officer happily stamped my passport and told me the hot places to go in NY.

New York is grayish-brown and dusty and looks if it is still struggling to accept spring.

Manhattan Island

Jerry and I are staying in a small hotel on Manhattan island, called Murray Hill east, which is close to our office in New York, and close to the UN where we have meetings all day tomorrow. The district is generally regarded as the area from 34th street to 42nd street, from MADISON Avenue to the east River. The hill and hotel is named after Robert Murray whose 18th century farm is now Murray Hill Just behind the hotel on the hill, is the site of the original farmhouse. Legend has it that Murray’s wife and daughter saved George Washington;s army from British capture in 1776 when General William Howe and his landed at Kips Bay, they made their way to Murray’s farm. Mrs Murray and her daughter staegically served Howe lunch which gave Washington time to slip with his troops to Harlem Heights and out of Harms way.

Once we unpacked, we went to the IFRC office a few blocks away and met Michael Schulz, Maude Froberg, Anne Bang Christtensen, Fantaye (Ethiopia) and Antti the Finn, who make up our team, do crucial advocacy work at the UN Headquarters. Michael and his team do a lot of political lobbying, positioning of the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement, advocating for the most vulnerable, and of course raising funds from all the countries who are represented at the UN in NY.

We all assisted Jerry Talbot to polish his speech tomorrow that he will give after Ban Ki-moon, Bill Clinton and the Governments of India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Thailand and the Maldives.

Friday 245. The Big day

Got to bed last night at around 9.3o pm NY time, 8.30 am Friday Jakarta time. Got 4 or 5 hours sleep but up doing some work at 4.00 am.

Left hotel at 6 am and headed up Murray Hill by way of 39th street. The first rays of sun caress the skyscrapers. I am hungry. I see a sign SCOTTY’S DINER – Open 24 hours. A step into a cosy atmosphere. A tall handsome waiter in his late 20s asks, “What do you want Sir ?”

I am starving. I order bacon, eggs and sausages, a cup of tea, I get talking to Stano, short for Anastano. He tells me he’s Greek and earning money working here until he can get a better job. He is an economist and he tells me about the down turn in the economy. We agree what has happened down the road at Wall Street is unforgivable, and then he tells me he wants to come to New Zealand. I hear Spanish being spoken by the other waitresses. I ask Stano if he’s proud to have Obama as President. He hesitates and says, “ Give him time, he has to prove himself.”

I tuck into a breakfast that would do any New Zealand farmer proud. Stano keeps popping by to say a few words and a pretty Spanish waitress refills my cup with tea. The locals pop in for coffee, a newspaper, a chat. The greet me warmly and one elderly man enquires as to my health. I am beginning to like this city. I take a photo of Stano, one hand on the counter, the other akimbo.

I need to read a real paper. I find a busy, colourful shop with the hoarding announcing, 39 Gourmet Deli and Convenience Store. I stop to admire the beautiful selection of cut flowers. They must be romantic people these Greeks, Spanish, Italians and Indians. I buy milk, tea, chips and orange juice, and ask the guy behind the counter for the best paper in town. He recommends THE NEW YORK TIMES. We get talking and I find he is from Nepal. “Namaska” I greet him. “How do you know my languages ?” he asks. I explained I worked there for some years. His name is Gurung. He explains his father was a Gurkha in the British army and he is from Pokhara. We spent five cherry minutes discussing Nepal. I take a photo of Gurung smiling proudly. I know feel secure. I have two friends in New York, Stano and Gurung. I promise I will come and see them tomorrow morning.

I walk the streets and love the openness of people and shops. There are many dry cleaners and shops announcing Laundry. The large ground floor windows at Polaris Cleaners are flung wide open and women busily press clothes. I walk down Lexington street watching Manhattan come to life.

I go back to the Hotel and shower. I look forward to the big dat at the UN headquarters. New York has put me in a great mood.

I will post some photos when I am back of the people I met and let you know how the event at the UN went.

You are invited to attend the Tsunami Global Lessons Learned Event,presenting a report on lessons learned from the five countries most affected by the tsunami tragedy: India, Indonesia, Maldives, Sri Lanka and Thailand.

The report will be presented to the Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and former UN Special Envoy for Tsunami Recovery, President Bill Clinton by UNDP Administrator Helen Clark in her capacity as UNDG Chair, and the Permanent Representative of the Mission of the Republic of Indonesia, H. E. Marty Natalegawa.

The presentation will be followed by discussions on the experiences and lessons learned.

When: 3:00 – 6:00pm, Friday, 24 April

Please be seated by 2:45

Where: Trusteeship Council Chamber, the Secretariat

The Tsunami Global Lessons Learned Event will offer a unique opportunity for various partners to engage in cross-border learning, take stock of the amassed knowledge and share best practices of the recovery and reconstruction efforts following the Indian Ocean Tsunami on 26 December 2004. The high-level event is jointly organized – and co-chaired – by the United Nations Development Group and the Permanent Mission of Indonesia to
the United Nations. The proceedings will also feature the official release of a new global stock-taking report entitled The Tsunami Legacy: Innovation, Breakthroughs and Change, a summary of the report’s major findings, as well as an opportunity for representatives of the five countries to detail their specific experiences of the recovery.

Significantly, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and former UN Special Envoy for Tsunami Recovery, President Bill Clinton, will be on hand to offer remarks on the recovery process. They will also be the first recipients of a copy of the new report, handed to them by the Permanent Representative of the Mission of the Republic of Indonesia, H. E. Marty Natalegawa and UNDP Administrator Helen Clark in her capacity as UNDG Chair.

After these presentations, the floor will be opened to the invited guests, which include Permanent Representatives from all UN member states, heads and directors of all UN agencies and UNDP Bureaus, representatives from major NGOs and UNDP staff.

The report on The Tsunami Legacy: Innovation, Breakthroughs and Change looks broadly at the lessons drawn from the massive recovery efforts that followed the disaster zeroing in on the experiences from the five worst affected countries: India, Indonesia, Maldives, Sri Lanka and Thailand. It details the arduous task of ensuring that all victims of the tsunami – even those less visible in the initial damage assessments – would get access to and benefit from the aid. Responding to the danger of exclusion, recovery actors in all five countries embraced new and innovative strategies for ensuring that victims and vulnerable groups would get the required assistance.

Monday, 20 April 2009

Indonesia: New beginnings for young survivors

I spent last week in the Tsunami affected areas of Aceh, Indonesia, where the Red Cross is nearing the end of its Tsunami recovery operation. As I travel about inspecting the work we have done, I hear so many stories from Tsunami survivors. Here are a few of them.

Four years after the disaster, Masrizal and Bahtiar are looking to the future. Along with nearly 500 other young people, Bahtiar is participating in a vocational training programme provided by the American Red Cross and the Indonesian Red Cross

Masrizal is a sensitive and quiet young man. At age 27, he has a strong vision and a desire to enrich himself and help others. But beneath his stoic demeanor lies a moving story of tragic loss and new beginnings.When the December 2004 tsunami struck, Masrizal lost his entire family, his home and all of his earthly possessions in a matter of hours. His village of Lamlumpu, in Aceh Besar, was utterly destroyed and many of its residents killed.“My parents and siblings disappeared in the waves, together with most of the other people who lived in my village,” he says. “It left me all alone in the world.”

Compassionate and concerned

But Masrizal says the experience made him more compassionate and concerned about the well-being of those around him. He says he often thinks of his mother and tries to emulate her. He remembers her as a warm and lively woman who was at the centre of community life.“My mother was always involved in community events,” he says. “She was easy to talk to and I felt like I could tell her anything.”More than a year ago, he received a new house from an international organization near where most of Lampulu's surviving residents have settled. He has also found a job at a local blood testing laboratory, where he works part time.

Badly injured

Like Masrizal, 20-year-old Bahtiar also lost nearly everything to the tsunami. Caught up in the waves, he was badly injured but luckily managed to survive. Unfortunately, both of his parents and five of his siblings did not.“There was nothing left from our home - it disappeared completely,” Bahtiar, who was aged 16 at the time, recalls. “I felt sad and confused, but thankfully I had my relatives to care for me during that time.”His surviving family members helped nurse him back to health and supported him while he completed secondary school.

Sustainable income

Four years after the disaster, Masrizal and Bahtiar are looking to the future. Along with nearly 500 other young people, Masrizal is participating in a vocational training programme provided by the American Red Cross and the Indonesian Red Cross (PMI). The training, which is part of the psychosocial support programme, aims to help tsunami-affected youth like Masrizal to gain the skills they need to earn a sustainable income.“We are allowed to choose the type of training based on experience and interest,” Masrizal says. “Once I complete the course, I hope to earn more money and establish my own business.”Participants can choose from a range of courses, including carpentry and computer skills.

The training, which is part of the psychosocial support programme, aims to help tsunami-affected youth like Masrizal to gain the skills they need to earn a sustainable income.

Masrizal has chosen a course in electrical repair while Bahtiar has selected a mechanical repair course.“I want to continue my education and go to university,” Bahtiar says. “Hopefully the income I earn from being a mechanic will pay for my school fees.”

Incredible recovery

Though Aceh has seen incredible recovery and growth in the four years since the disaster, it remains one of the poorest provinces in Indonesia. Now that houses have been built and major infrastructure repaired, economic recovery assistance is one of the most pressing needs for survivors.With tsunami-related aid from the government and international organizations coming to an end, it is vital that young people have the skills that they need to continue on the path to recovery and self-sufficiency. The training is being implemented in partnership with local government agencies who help identify local experts to act as facilitators and provide professional certificates to participants successfully completing their course.On the last day of vocational training, Masrizal receives an “A” score for the course.“The more skills and knowledge that I have, the better my life will be and the more I can contribute to my community,” he says.

Bahtiar receives his training certificate.

Psychosocial Support Programme (PSP) in Aceh

The PSP programme is working in 160 villages and 139 schools in Aceh Besar, Banda Aceh and Aceh Jaya. After over two years of support in Aceh Besar and Banda Aceh, activities in these two districts are ending while activities in Aceh Jaya will continue through December 2009.To date, 388 community and school facilitators have been trained to design and implement psychosocial activities. 5,624 individuals have been trained in psychological first aid, equipping them with the skills to sensitively respond to the needs of those affected by crisis. It is hoped that these individuals will be able to continue to support their communities in times of need long after the programme ends.With Indonesian Red Cross (PMI) and the University of Indonesia, the American Red Cross is designing and supporting a Master’s degree course in disaster psychology. The first course will begin in February 2009 with 20 students from across the country. As PMI staff and volunteers, these students will trained and prepared to respond the psychological needs of disaster survivors nationwide.

Masrizal proudly display his training certificate.

Special thanks to Wilda Anggraeni, American Red Cross in Aceh, Indonesia for some of the text and photos.

Finale: I am off to New York tomorrow night, 22 April, to be there for the presentation of the Tsunami Global Lessons Learned Report to the SG of the UN and Bill Clinton who has been his special adviser. It will be great to see New York again. The last time I was in New York was 1986 after going to the North Pole with Will Steger, and I appeared on Good Morning America in Polar bear trousers, seal skin boots, Beaver mitts with a badly frostbitten face. Dan Rather was the host on the show. That night in 1986, after 4 months of isolation, I hit New York town and had quite a party.

Saturday, 11 April 2009


A few people have asked me about our 1986 North pole expedition. Here is an article from the New York Times.

Published: February 25, 1986

One of five teams of dogs that started out for the North Pole. Photo: Bob McKerrow

In early March 1986 when the dormant winter sun first glimmers on the horizon, 58 hardy travelers will set out from the northernmost point in North America for the North Pole.

The grueling 500-mile trek from Ward Hunt Island in subzero cold will take seven men, one woman and 50 sled dogs through a maze of ice ridges and across channels of open water that appear and vanish as the ocean currents shift the polar ice.

In a throwback to the early years of Arctic exploration, the expedition is making the trip without outside support along the way, except for emergency two-way radio contact.

The American explorer Adm. Robert E. Peary reported that he discovered the North Pole on April 6, 1909. His claim was challenged by a rival, Frederick A. Cook, who said he reached the North Pole nearly a year earlier on April 21, 1908. Inconsistencies cloud both accounts, though Admiral Peary's is more generally accepted.

The North Pole has now been visited by airplane, snowmobile and even submarine. While the newest explorers would be the first confirmed travelers to arrive at the Pole on their own without mechanical means, the trek is as much a test of science as it is a test of their courage.

Each of the explorers will live for two months on a daily diet of 7,000 calories, three times the intake of a regular adult. The diet is deliberately high in fat as part of an experiment on the health effects of cholesterol.

''This pole trip is probably the ultimate in self-reliance,'' said Will Steger, the leader of the Steger International North Pole Expedition. Mr. Steger, a 41-year-old former science teacher who lives in a log cabin near Ely, Minn., has logged 12,000 miles of Arctic travel. He said the trip to the North Pole left little margin for error.

''The average person who'd go up there probably wouldn't last a day,'' Mr. Steger said at his base camp on Baffin Island in Canada's Eastern Arctic. ''The eight of us doing it are specialists. We've looked at the obstacles and we've developed systems to overcome those obstacles safely.''

The five Americans, two Canadians and one New Zealander have a 60-day ''window'' to reach the North Pole before the ice starts breaking up, meaning that they have to average about 15 miles a day. While the distance is 500 miles on the map, detours could double it. For that reason, Mr. Steger said, ''I wouldn't want it any warmer than 40 below.''

The expedition spent two months training on Baffin Island before setting off to the North Pole. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Three Major Obstacles

Mr. Steger foresees three obstacles. The first are the ''pressure ridges'' formed of ice thrust upward as plates of pack ice collide and buckle. He expects to confront ridges as high as 30 to 40 feet. His team must hack trails over them that five dog teams hauling two tons of supplies can follow. ''We look at this in a way as a road construction project,'' Mr. Steger said.

Another obstacle will be ''leads,'' or patches, of open water formed in ''shear zones'' where ocean currents crack and separate the ice. The leads can range from a few feet to several miles wide. The expedition is carrying a small boat to scout a way around the water, but may have to wait overnight for it to freeze. There is another risk that unstable ice could break up under the travelers, even while they sleep.

The last difficulty is finding the northernmost point on earth, which lies beneath a layer of moving ice. A point marked as the North Pole one day could be 10 miles away the next, putting an exhausted team in danger of missing its objective. The magnetic North Pole on which compasses rely lies south, and limited visibility or a storm would obscure a sextant reading from the sun.

Paul Schurke (l) and Bob McKerrow (r) taking a noon sunshot with a sextant on the training trip. Photo: Bob McKerrow

A reporter who traveled with the team for two days on a rehearsal run across the ice of Baffin Island's Frobisher Bay confronted more basic problems. In extreme cold the simplest tasks, from boiling water to erecting a tent, become clumsy, even painful. The enemy is not so much the cold as the bitter wind, which deadens exposed flesh like an overdose of Novocain.

The previous year, five of the expedition did a 1500 km training trip from the MacKenzie River delta in Canada to Point Barrow Alaska. Taken on that trip. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Carelessness Can Be Disastrous
Carelessness can prove disastrous. On one training trip, matches used to light the stoves that cook food and melt ice for drinking water were mislaid briefly.

''Moving along on a day when it's 40 or 50 below, your attention funnels down to a fingertip or an earlobe that's been bitten by the wind,'' said Paul Schurke, another Minnesotan who is a coleader of the expedition with Mr. Steger. ''We're working on taking an inventory of each other throughout the day, tuning in to each other's level of alertness.''

Even in rough pack ice only a few feet high, sleds career, snag and tip, making them hazardous to ride. The dog handlers run or ski alongside to keep the weight to a minimum. ''If you're not alert or agile, it's easy to get your leg pulverized under the sled,'' Mr. Steger warned.

But such travel can also be exhilarating because of the dogs, which, once harnessed to a sled, pull so relentlessly in the white Arctic silence that a metal anchor must be thrown overboard to bring them to a halt. Left to themselves the dogs will trot for hours without coaxing. At night they sleep contentedly in the snowdrifts.

''The worst punishment you could do to our dogs is to leave them behind,'' Mr. Steger said. ''They live to pull. They live to travel on expeditions.'' The howls emitted by several dogs who were left behind on the practice trip proved his point.

Mr. Steger bred some of the the expedition's dogs in Minnesota. ''I took the size of the Eskimo and the spirit of the Alaskan dogs and mixed in a little wolf for endurance, intelligence and spirit,'' he said.
Another 35 dogs have been leased from two Arctic communities. The Eskimo dogs, at about 80 pounds, are a little heavier, shaggier and wilder than the American dogs. All those making the long trip are male - to minimize distractions.

Mr. Schurke, who has worked with dogs for eight years, called the relationship between man and dog synergistic. ''You draw a lot of energy from your dogs beyond the pulling power on your sled,'' he said. Dogs to Be Airlifted Out

Each dog team will haul a 16-foot wooden sled with 800 pounds of provisions and gear, most of it food. Once a sled-load of food is consumed, the sled will be left behind. The Peary expedition killed and ate its spare dogs, but Mr. Steger said he would not consider doing that. So, in the only departure from the self-reliance of the expedition, a plane will fly in after three weeks to carry out half of the dogs.

Dogs in the Arctic are usually fed frozen seal and other game, but on this expedition they will eat a special diet of dry meat rations developed for military dogs performing under great stress.

The humans will also be on a special diet of 7,000 calories a day, prepared in two bland meals a day of butter and peanut butter, cheese, fatty meat pemmican, noodles and oatmeal.

''Seven thousand calories is marginal, just enough to get you through,'' said Mr. Steger, who consumed 10,000 calories a day on a solo trip through the Western Arctic last year. ''We have no outside source of heat, so we're depending on our body heat to keep us warm.''

Fat accounts for 70 percent of the diet, and Mr. Schurke said the serum cholesterol level of team members was being monitored as an experiment. He and Mr. Steger have been on high-fat diets before, and when they underwent medical tests at the University of Minnesota before leaving on this trip, Mr. Schurke said, their cholesterol levels were found below the minimum for their age groups, suggesting that they had burned the excess cholesterol.

World class skier Richard Weber cooking pemmican in the tent. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Bob McKerrow, the New Zealander, pointed out that other medical tests had focused on the negative aspects of fat and cholesterol. ''I believe that we'll be better off with a high-fat diet,'' he said. ''Sugar carbohydrates are very fast release, but we want the slow-release effect that can keep us going for 24 hours.''

Bob McKerrow checking emergency radio equipment on a training expedition. Note his seal skin boots ( Mukluks) made by Inuit women at Frobisher Bay. Photo: Bob McKerrow

The team is leaving salt and sugar behind. ''Extra salt means drinking extra water. Extra water means extra fuel, and we can't carry it,'' Mr. Schurke said. The disciplined Mr. Steger also ruled out candy bars, over the protests of some members, arguing that the prospect of such a treat ahead might distract team members and contribute to an accident.

The sleeping bags, parkas and long underwear of the dogsledders are insulated with synthetic fibers developed by Du Pont, which is an expedition sponsor. But team members are sticking with beaver-skin mittens and floppy sealskin or caribou-hide mukluks. ''My alertness resides in my fingers,'' said Mr. Schurke said. ''If my fingers are warm, my head is where it should be.'' First Woman to Pole

Ann Bancroft, a 30-year-old physical education teacher from Minnesota, could become the first woman to reach the North Pole unaided, but the prospect, she said, ''is not something I dwell on a lot.'' On the recent trip she kept up with the men in moving her dogs and sled through the rough ice. ''I think if I pace myself and go steady, I can chop all today,'' she said.

The team members play down the notion that they may become the first people to prove that they got to the North Pole. Some scholars question whether Admiral Peary could have covered more than 30 miles a day in his final dash as he claimed, or whether he found the North Pole using limited navigational readings. Others have wondered why Dr. Cook referred to islands and other landmarks that do not exist.

Mr. Steger, who has studied the journals of the early Arctic explorers, avoided speculation about who reached the North Pole first. ''The main thing is that we do the trip unsupported,'' he said. ''This controversy will never be solved.''

The expedition at the North Pole, 1 May 1986.

Friday, 10 April 2009

Discovering White Wolves with Jim Brandenburg

Caption: Ellesmere Island is a vast, lonely land whose inhabitants must struggle to make out a living. Wolves are tireless travelers who roam the thousands of square miles of their territory in search of prey.Photo: Jim Brandenburg

Luck ! I don't believe in that imposter. You create your chances. I have been fortunate, or perhaps strategic during my life by creating opportunities. Being in the right place at the right time has opened so many doors..

In late February 1986 when I was a member of the Steger International Polar Expedition, I met Jim Brandenburg, an internationally renowned nature photographer, at a remote weather station, at 80 degrees north, not far from the North Pole. In fact our reason for being there was to reach the North Pole unsupported using dogs to pull our sledges.

The meeting with Jim Brandenburg and the White Wolves is told by Jim himself .

Living with an Arctic Legend
Jim Brangdenburg
the trail to the Pack

The Eureka personnel rarely took advantage of the natural world outside. To be sure, the winter environment is about as hospitable to human flesh as outer space: a half-hour without your proper "space suit" and you will almost certainly expire. Still, after a few days at the station waiting out expeditionary snafus, I felt myself getting extremely jumpy from boredom and claustrophobia. For three days in a row, I had whiled away the hours by aiming my binoculars through the murky blue twilight at a distant herd of musk oxen, which looked like raisins in the snow. I thought it might be fun to take a closer look.

Bob McKerrow, a Steger team member from New Zealand, agreed to go along. We assumed the herd was very close, but after a half-hour of steady hiking we realized that they were at least four miles away from the station. Lacking any experience with the animals, we approached with great caution. There are no trees to climb in the high Arctic, and we felt quite certain that the horns and hooves of an adult musk ox could make short work of us. As we came closer, the magnificent ancient beasts, living remnants from the Stone Age, came into sharper focus.

Having grown up on the prairie, I had expected musk oxen to be similar in size to buffalo. In reality, they are much smaller - about the size of cows, though they are more closely related to goats than to cattle. With their sure-footed hooves, they have little trouble scrambling along rocky precipices.

I could see the animals' extremely long guard hairs, almost a yard in length. Thanks to these hairs, which are prized for yarn, as well as their highly insulated undercoats, musk oxen are never affected by the cold, no matter how low the temperature drops. Noting their indifference to the climate, it occurred to me for the first of many times in the Arctic how nice it would be to have a little more hair myself.

Musk Oxen, Ellesmere Island. Photo: Bob McKerrow

At one point, we evidently got a little too close to the herd, because they quickly assumed their classic protective circle: a phalanx of horns and front hooves radiating at every point on the circumference, flanks shoved together at the center. This strategy, evolved over eons of living in a treeless environment, is a very effective way to protect the young against Arctic wolves, the major predator of musk oxen. It is not so effective against human predators like the Inuits who found the musk oxen relatively easy to kill.

McKerrow and I backed off and the musk oxen resumed their grazing, pawing holes in the snow to get at the frozen grass and sedge below. We studied them for hours, until finally cold and fatigue got the better of us and we decided to begin the long hike back to the station. The sun at this time of year lurks just below the horizon for most of the day, creating a kind of permanent blue dusk. On the way back, I trailed behind, taking photographs of the landscape. McKerrow was about a quarter-mile ahead when it happened.

A pack of six Arctic wolves, trotting in a direct line of march over a nearby rise, appeared like ghosts materializing from the blue ether. At first, I thought I must have been hallucinating from cold, hunger and fatigue. Three of them split to my left. Three others swung around to a steep embankment that flanked a nearby frozen creek. They trotted to the top and sat there, eyeing me, their bodies silhouetted against the murky horizon.

Alpha 1. The Mother of the pack. Photo: Jim Brandenburg

One wolf, which I thought might be the leader of the pack, sat on the ridge and inspected me with a kind of fearless, bemused curiosity. Much later, when I returned to search for a pack to live with and photograph, I would remember this individual wolf and be convinced he was the same alpha male I would come to know as Buster.

Some years after meeting Jim Brandenburg in a remote part of the Arctic, he went on to publish his amazing book:
White Wolf:White Wolf:Living with an Arctic Legend. Jim sent me a an autographed copy of his book when it was first published and I quote from the publisher It is a new landmark in nature publishing. With a pack of wild Arctic wolves, Jim Brandenburg has created an extraordinary portfolio of wildlife photographs. The Arctic wolf, a powerful and compelling predator, has been captured ever sogently in the pages of White Wolf. Brandenburg reveals his love for both his subjects and his art as he describes in the text his thoughts and emotions while photographing a magnficent Arctic wolf, the alpha male of the pack.

Polar Bears on Ellesmere Island, Photo: Bob McKerrow

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Amarillo - With Marie whos waiting for me there

A photo taken on the outskirts of Amarillo

What makes blogging interesting is the interaction between the writer and the people who visit your site and leave comments. This dialogue can be most enlightening and for me, has led to some warm and lasting friendships that I never thought possible.. Then there are the loyal regulars who visit my blog almost every day. The most regular visitor is a person from Amarillo who usually visits the site about 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Jakarta time. S/he never leaves a comment but I know they are there. Amarillo has always had a place in my heart since I first heard it many years ago (late 1970)in the song sung by Tony Christie. The song was written by Neil Sedaka and Howard Greenfield, referring to Amarillo, Texas. It is about a man travelling to Amarillo to find his girlfriend. The reason that Amarillo was chosen for the song was because it was the only place name that Sedaka could think of that rhymed with "willow" and "pillow".

Although written by two North-Americans about a US city, the song became famous in the United Kingdom and around Europe, and remains generally unknown in the United States. So to all my readers out there, thank you, and especially to my friend from Amarillo. I really appreciate you dropping by almost every day.

I case you have forgotten the words, here it is:

Show me the way to Amarillo

Sha la la la la la [3x]

When the day is dawning,
On a Texas Sunday Morning
How I long to be there
With Marie whos waiting for me there
Every lonely city
Where I hang my hat
Aint as half as pretty,
As where my baby's at

Is this the way to Amarillo?
Every night ive been hugging my pillow
Dreaming dreams of Amarillo
And sweet Marie who waits for me
Show me the way to Amarillo
Ive been weeping like a willow
Crying over Amarillo
And sweet Marie who waits for me

Sha la la la la la la X3
And Marie who waits for me

Theres a church bell ringing
With a song of joy that its singing
For the sweet Maria
And the guy whos coming to see her
Just beyond the highway
Theres an open plane and it keeps me going
Through the wind and rain

Is this the way to Amarillo?
Every night ive been hugging my pillow
Dreaming dreams of Amarillo
And sweet Marie who waits for me
Show me the way to Amarillo
Ive been weeping like a willow
Crying over Amarillo and sweet Marie who waits for me

Sha la la la la la la X3
And Marie who waits for me

Sha la la la la la la X3
And Marie who waits for me
[Repeat till fades]

Thursday, 2 April 2009

An outstanding leader retires

Some months back I wrote an article on leadership and said there were a few great leaders I have worked for over the decades. One such leader retired on Monday, 31 March 2009. Jerry Talbot the special representative to the secretary general for the tsunami operation of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

Jerry has been an outstanding leader for he had excellent vision, took a long-range perspective on the big things and was able to develop concepts. He focused on people and inspired trust in all he met. He was gifted with a strong intellect and made a huge contribution for over 40 years to global humanity.

Bill Clinton with his arm round Jerry Talbot (far left) in the Maldives. The leadership qualities of Bill Clinton are renowned, but Jerry Talbot hid his light under a bushell, during a Red Cross career that spanned 41 years.

Jerry comes from a large family who still farm In Onga Onga in the Hawkes Bay. Above is a photo of a cattle farm in Onga Onga.
Not surprisingly with his farming background, his first assignment for the New Zealand Red Cross in 1968 was taking some bulls for breeding in Western Samoa. I often joked with him that he was an impressive bull-shipper. The next year he spent one year in Vietnam working on livelihoods programmes for displaced people. For 14 years he was Secretary of the New Zealand Red Cross and under his leadership, it developed into a very well functional organisation. Next he moved to Geneva in 1990 where he became head of the Asia Pacific Region for the IFRC. Jerry is married to Jen, a very lively and intelligent women, and the have three married sons. During his red Cross career he spent time helping his sister run the family farm and when possible, he would slip off to a quiet stream or river, where he indulged in fly fishing. There, like on Thoreau's Walden Pond, Jerry would reflect on the troubled world and come back more motivated to change the world.

In January 2005. Jerry moved to the Maldive Islands where the IFRC built thousands of houses, put in new water supplies, restored livelihoods and assisted many thousands of families. One on the greatest tributes to Jerry Talbot is through his leadership and vision on Dhuvaafaru Island in Raa Atoll, where the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) has created new homes for more than 3,700 people who were displaced from their original island after the Indian ocean tsunami struck in 2004.

At the opening ceremony on 2 March 2009, His Excellency Mohamed Nasheed, President of the Maldives paid tribute to Jerry Talbot for his leadership in making the dream of a new village on Dhuvaafaru possible.

His Excellency Mohamed Nasheed, President of the Maldives and Jerry Talbot at the opening of the settlement on Dhuvaafaru Island.

Work began in April 2006 when the 40-hectare coral island was uninhabited. In just under three years, and at a cost of 32 million US dollars, the island has been transformed into a thriving community that boasts 600 houses, three schools, an island administration block, an auditorium, a health centre and a sports stadium. IFRC has also built amenities including the island’s power plant, sewage system and roads.“Developing a whole uninhabited island into a ’safe island’, which is now home to almost a 4,000-strong population, is indeed quite a feat,” says President Mohamed Nasheed. “The government appreciates the generosity and humanitarian work of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in the Maldives and throughout the world. I’m sure all Maldivians are very grateful for the Red Cross and Red Crescent’s partnership with the Maldives in rebuilding the country following the tsunami.”
This is but one of hundreds of Jerry's success in improving the lives of vulnerable people. I remember visiting villages in the central Highland of Vietnam with Jerry in 1973 where he showed me thriving agricultural projects he had started with a New Zealand Red Cross Welfare team in 1968.

Last Monday in Geneva, there was a farewell party for Jerry. I couldn't be there. So I sent a few lines to be read out. here they are.

Dear Jerry
It was 1971 when I first met you. You were a veteran having started working for the New Zealand Red Cross in Samoa in 1968. That was 41 years ago. I remember flying to Bangladesh with you in 1972 in a New Zealand Air Force C-130 with a Land Rover, from Wellington-Auckland-Sydney-Darwin-Singapore-Calcutta-Dhaka. I recall the pilot of our plane almost hit an Indian plane coming in to land in Calcutta. The pilot told us later, the air traffic controller shouted “ O my God, that was a near miss, it seems I am going to have another day like yesterday.”

Jerry Talbot (l) talking to Red Cross volunteers on the remote Tsunami affected island of Nias, Indonesia.

Then the next year we did a 3 week assessment in South Vietnam looking for an appropriate location for the NZ Red Cross to work.

When you were head of Asia and Pacific we travelled through the battlefields and storehouses of sorrow in Afghanistan together. Then in early 2005, the boot was on the other foot, I line-managed you in the Maldives. I remember you almost drowned me in the Maldives an hour out from Male when our boat sprung a leak. The next year you were line-managing me when you became Special Rep. to the SG for Tsunami.

Jerry Talbot (l) and myself on Laamu Island, Maldives

Jerry. it has been a joy working with you, for you. Your leadership has been outstanding and inspiring. I think this quote is apt:

Be tough yet gentle
Bold but humble
Always swayed by beauty and truth.

I will miss you, the Red Cross will miss you.

Forty-one years of dedicated services you have given. Something to be proud of.

The Federation team in Indonesia thanks you from the depth of their hearts for the superb leadership you have provided, the example of integrity and humility you set, and the calm way you dealt with crises.

The head of BRR Kuntoro Mangkosubroto holds you in the highest possible esteem, and has greatly enjoyed working with you. I attach a photo of you both at the Tsunami Champions meeting.

Jerry (r) talking to Kuntoro Mangkusubroto Photo: Bob McKerrow

You are a Champion Jerry, and I am losing an outstanding boss, we are all losing a great leader and boss.

Happy fishing in those beautiful NZ rivers.

Ni sa Moce
E noho ra
Malo le lei
Tera Makasi


Goodbye in Fijian, Maori, Samoan and Indonesia

Jerry Talbot wrote with passion and conviction. Here is an article he wrote late last year.

Tsunami response strengthens community coping
30 December 2008
By Jerry Talbot, the special representative for the tsunami operation of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies

In mid November in 2008, a 7.7 magnitude earthquake shook the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, taking four lives, damaging bridges and roads, and forcing 1,000 families from their homes.

Most people around the world didn’t hear about the quake and its aftershocks. It just wasn’t big enough to make the headlines.

Nevertheless, trained Indonesian Red Cross Society volunteers immediately went into action in Sulawesi. They evacuated people from collapsing houses, distributed medicines, blankets and baby kits, and assessed the situation to see what else people needed.

Thank goodness for those local volunteers. Damage to the roads meant they were on their own during the critical first few hours after the disaster. But even if the roads – and ports and airports – are clear, outside aid always comes later. And the funds available always depend on the generosity of donors.

The Sulawesi disaster reminds us that the most important resource in disasters is not money. It is people, people who are trained and committed, people who are prepared to respond when the unthinkable happens. The spirit of volunteerism from within communities at risk means being on the ground before a disaster strikes and being trained to leap into life-saving action at a moment’s notice.

A catastrophe like the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami draws an immense profile, billions of dollars of aid, tonnes of relief items and hundreds of foreign aid workers.

With those resources, the Red Cross Red Crescent has been able to run the biggest disaster response operation in its history, with a budget of Swiss francs 3.108 billion and programmes across the Indian Ocean.

The achievements are remarkable, given the diverse range of challenges and complexity thrown up by the disaster. Four years after the disaster, 97 per cent of planned houses have now been completed or are under construction; more than 500,000 people now have access to an improved water source; and 375,000 have been reached by community-based health services.

Yet the tsunami operation is far from normal. Business as usual is responding to a variety of localized, daily shocks that have the potential to undermine years of painstaking social and economic development, and cumulatively affect far greater numbers of people with suffering and hardship. Business as usual in many contexts is dealing with multiple minor disasters, sporadic unrest, outbreaks of disease, ever-higher prices for food and fuel, or creeping climate change.

The best response to these daily shocks is not headlines and donations from afar. The fastest, most appropriate response comes from those who live and work alongside the people affected. It is finding solutions and engaging at the grassroots level.

In the immediate aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami, trained Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteers – who had often lost loved ones themselves – went to work to help those around them.

Jerry Talbot (l) and Bob McKerrow centre with a member of the French Red Cross on Laamu Island, Maldives.

That same spirit is alive in Indonesia today after the Sulawesi earthquake. It is alive in the food crisis in the Horn of Africa. It emerged in May 2008 after the Sichuan earthquake and in Myanmar after Cyclone Nargis. And in the ferocious hurricane season in the Americas.

Our work begins long before disaster strikes. Our approach is to reduce the risk of disasters through building a culture of prevention labelled “early warning, early action”. Early warning means proactively analyzing real and potential risks, and preparing communities for the expected - and unexpected - threats that may emerge. Early action means addressing structural vulnerabilities to mitigate those risks and to prevent devastation and suffering.

Acehnese fisherman Zainal Abidin lost his house in the tsunami. He asked the Red Cross Red Crescent to build him a traditional-style wood-frame house on stilts. “I chose this house because I am afraid of another earthquake and tsunami,” he told the Red Cross Red Crescent. “We are afraid of living in a brick house because of earthquakes, but we feel safer in this wooden stilt house because it doesn’t shake when there’s an earthquake.”

Red Cross Red Crescent programmes build the capacity of the community to cope – and ultimately to strengthen development. Our programmes to enhance disaster preparedness and the capacities of our member National Societies change ways of life, attitudes and mindsets at the grass roots level. They encourage people to work together in peace across ethnic, religious and class lines under common Red Cross Red Crescent principles.

Because of the catastrophic nature of the tsunami, the reality is that many people and places will never fully recover. Tragedy cannot be erased with houses, schools and hospitals, jobs, fishing nets or clean water.

The outpouring of generosity after the tsunami, however, has enabled the Red Cross Red Crescent to invest in enhancing communities’ ability to cope with future shocks such as disaster, disease, conflict, inflation or climate change. By building realistic capacity in communities and in local Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteer networks, we work to bring sustainable improvements to people’s lives before, during and after disasters.

A snowy winter in Kabul, Afghanistan

Afghan woman and other poems from Samay Hamed

I will never forget that snowy winter in Mazar I Sharif, Northern Afghanistan. in 1993- 94 when I met Waheed and his brother Samay Hamed. Waheed was a scrawny 17 year old who had learnt some BBC English. The killing in Kabul had reached hundreds a day and as various factions fought, people fled to Mazar-I-Sharif for sanctury where there was relative peace. Hundreds of thousands of displaced people needed assistance from the Red Cross, so I moved there to increase the volume of our humanitarian assistance.

I employed Waheed as an interpretor and his brother Samay Hamed worked as a Doctor for the Afghan red Crescent Society.

When I published my book of poems and photographs in 2003, Mountains of Our Mind, I included 12 of (Abdul) Samay Hamed's poems. Since then he has gone on to be one of Afghanistan's leading poets.

The other day Samay Hamed wrote to me and shared me his lates poems and a photo of he and his brother. He is happy for me to share his poems with you.

Samay Hamed (l) and Waheed Warastra (r)

Can I see what I wish?

I see my mother watching my gritty grave
on this grizzly ground
She is pouring tears and water into the broken pot
for the desert-pigeons

I can even sense the fragrance of her face
The fragrance of her old cloth - flowered
with colorful patches-

I see my father selling left-over parts of the mortar-shell
to the iron-peddler to buy a nipple
for my month-old sister

I see my brother making bricks from dust and sweat
to rebuild our house
He is making, too, a big brick for my grave
to prevent whirlwinds destroying my silence

From this gritty grave on this grizzly ground

I can feel my playmate chewing a fresh leaf,
riding on a wooden horse

I see our neighbors praying for my little soul
while she crosses the singing bridge

I see every one in the violet face of our village
after violence


Can I ever see my month-old sister
sitting with my mother on the roof of our home,
inviting small birds to a morning snack?

With not a single bullet to interrupt them?

Can I?

Afghan women outside the Mosque in Mazar-I-Sharif. Taken 1976. Photo: Bob McKerrow

The Afghan Woman

The Afghan woman in a blue veil
looks like a piece of sky torn off and fallen
on the smoking street
she is trying to rise again
but it seems that a wave is frozen
The Afghan woman,

When she reaches her hand out from her cloth-cell to
to sell a chewing-gum
Several small and colorful rainbows
dance round her wrist

The Afghan woman
hides her love in the shoes she has never worn
Pays her father’s debt with her virgin dreams
Tells her problems to a cloudy mirror
in the dark corner of a basement

The Afghan woman
Is cooking
But still not working!

A baby on her left arm
A teenage boy in her right hand
She is running faster then machineguns


The bridge is crossing the Afghan woman!

The Mosque in Balkh, near Mazar-I-Sharif. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Ouch! Telephone cards!

The orphan boy is shouting from his shirt
of dust and smoke:

Telephone cards! Telephone cards!

He runs after the sleepless cars
He follows the waving baskets of grapes
He stands in front of a shop
full of perfume and shooting stars
The shopkeeper hits at him with a fly-swat

Ouch! Telephone cards! Telephone cards!

Since he was 5 years old
he has been selling hundreds of telephone cards

But his own second-hand mobile had never rung!

We have to believe

The black and white film of the night
is always the same here
Just its red burning subtitles change

Sometimes they change so horribly that you want
to write under the window :

Minus 18-years old!

It is difficult, but we have to believe
there is a lover plying guitar with her/his
blood-lightings behind this wall

It is difficult, but we have to believe
this sky, covered by red full-stops of bullets
Will turn to a poetry collection of galaxies again

The window will open us towards the fresh breath
of hidden forests
The door will welcome sunny smiles

It is difficult, but we have to believe
a silken child is opening the cage of our bones
to emerge like a free-form Haiku

To translate us for ourselves

In spite of our difficulties we must believe