Friday, 23 March 2012



In order to discuss the possibility of a Red Cross and Red Crescent role in a strategy for sustainable development, one has to be equipped with a historical perspective. Questions must be answered such as how the environmental issue has been perceived by the Movement, and in what way this perception has been translated into action. Therefore, a review follows of the Movement’s statements on environmental issues as well as of some of its environmental programmes.


2.1 The Movement and the Stockholm Conference
“Environment” as a specific issue seems to have been first mentioned in reports or resolutions from Red Cross bodies around 1970, when the matter was raised by the Health and Social Service Advisory Committee. The Committee’s report relates its discussion of the destructive effects of industrial civilization on nature and the depredations caused by man”, and its conclusion on nature and the depredations caused by man”, and its conclusion that the issue belonged on the Red Cross agenda. It was decided that the League Secretariat should find out from each National Society the role of the respective governments and Societies in the “fight against pollution” as a basis for establishing a Red Cross position on the subject.

The prelude to the issue being raised by the Committee seems to have been the European Regional Red Cross Conference in April 1970. In its resolution no. 3 on “Red Cross Participation in the Improvement of Human Environment”, the Conference considers the serious deterioration of the human environment caused by rapid industrialization and technological development and the acuteness the situation. The Conference deems necessary efforts on a national and international scale to deal with the matter, and asks the League to present proposals for an active Red Cross participation in improving the human environment.

Accordingly, the League’s Health Committee, chaired by Dr. Domanska of the Polish Red Cross, presented a report to the League Board of Governors’ in Mexico in 1971.

In describing the environmental problem, the report focuses on the effects of industrial society on ”the physical and mental health of mankind”. It finds that not only is the influence of noise, air and water pollution on man’s physical well-being of concern, but also the impoverishment of social life in the large industrial towns.

Regarding the Red Cross/Red Crescent role in dealing with environmental problems, the report emphasizes the potential of its voluntary workers, with their “dedication, zeal, generosity and good will”. These should be engaged in action coordinated with other voluntary agencies and – in particular – with the authorities. The auxiliary role of the Red Cross/Red Crescent should not exclude, however, the exertion of “some sort of pressure” on the authorities to undertake measures found necessary by the Society in question.

According to the report, however, the most important contribution of the Red Cross would be suitably adapted health and social development work. Examples given include information to the public on the state of the environment and dissemination of measures to ward off the ill effects of pollution. The Red Cross/Red Crescent is particularly able to deal with the social dimension of environmental problems, for example, by relieving the strain caused by loneliness, disability and old age. In its educational endeavors, the Red Cross/Red Crescent should particularly focus on young people.

The Board of Governors responded to the report by passing a resolution (no 29) on The Red Cross and the problems of the Environment. The resolution recognized the responsibility of the Red Cross to Contribute to the protection and improvement of human living conditions, especially in the medico-social field, and concluded by charging the Secretary General to continue the League’s contribution to the preparation for the UN Conference on the Human Environment in 1972 in order to clarify the Red Cross environmental role. It also identified the need for “concrete planning and leadership within the Red Cross” as regards its participation in environmental improvement. (The resolution’s request that the coming reappraisal of the Red Cross, later known as the “Tansley report”, should take the environmental issue into serious consideration seems to have passed largely unnoticed).

The League’s Secretary General at this time was Henrik Beer. In a personal capacity he had been appointed of the advisory panel to the UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in June 1972. The report to the League’s Executive Committee in September 1972 on the follow-up of the Board of Governors’ 1971 environment resolution is, consequently, mostly a report from the Stockholm Conference.

In its conclusion, the report states that, unprecedented in terms of UN conference history, all main Red Cross concern had been discussed: hygiene, health, urban development, population, war, poverty, education, youth, development, disasters etc, demonstrating the intersectoral and interdisciplinary nature of the environmental issue. It concluded that, given the great diversity of environmental problems, priority should be given to the special position of National Societies in developing countries, in order to strengthen their role as government auxiliaries.

A view of the prominent role played by Beer personally in the Stockholm Conference, it is interesting to hear his views as reflected in his statement to the Conference on the Red Cross role and the environmental issue. Beer stated the Red Cross belief in universality as the basis for all humanitarian efforts, implying thereby its relevance for dealing with the issue at hand. He then refers to the traditional role of the organization in counteracting the effects of war which may “be regarded as something aiming at ameliorating one of the worst man-made threats to a decent environment”. Special mention is then made of the work on what came to be the Additional Geneva Protocols, which had just started at that time, and include articles on the protection of the natural environment in war.

According to Beer, the basic tasks of the Red Cross had already been re-defined as a broad effort to improve the human environment. A list of practical examples of environmental action is then given. These include environmental health campaigns, urban social programmes, pre-disaster planning, prevention of accidents and family planning. Beer concludes by saying that the most important task ahead is to create awareness and pressure for reform at all levels of society. In this undertaking, an organization like the Red Cross, with its almost “professional optimism” has a special role to play.

2.2 A Working Party on the Human Environment
The Executive Committee’s reaction to the League report is expressed in its Resolution no 14. This entrusts the environmental issues to a new body, an ad hoc working party under the aegis of the Health Committee, composed of a small number of “especially qualified representative of National Societies”.

The working party was to consist of representatives from the National Societies of Australia, Czechoslovakia, Finland, France, Hungary, India, Poland and Tunisia. UNEP and the League were also represented at its meetings. The working party’s report to the League’s Board of Governors and the International Red Cross Conference in 1973 was drafted by R. Sztuchlik of the Hungarian Red Cross.

The 44-page report begins with the background to the Working Party’s mission by referring to the Stockholm Conference and its recognition of a decent environment as a fundamental human right. It underlines the relationship and interdependency of environmental and development problems. As for the Red Cross role, this can be clearly deduced from, and justified by, its Principle of Humanity.

Although the Red Cross’ main activities emphasize “improving the health and welfare of man through preventive measure and corrective action”, all aim at improving the human environment. An understanding of the need for a global, ecological approach is now needed. The universal nature of environmental problems makes the Red Cross a suitable actor, the more so in view of the confidence it enjoys from the authorities and the public. The report then suggests guidelines for Red Cross action. These emphasize its role as auxiliary to public authorities and propose that it appropriately concentrate on uncovered needs, giving priority to preventive measures and involving volunteers and youth.

A broad range of possible Red Cross action is then presented under the partly self-explanatory headings of Educating and informing, Channeling and pressing forward, Undertaking specific projects, Giving priority to prevention, Enrolling volunteers and Cooperating with other agencies. Under the second heading is mentioned the potential role of the Red Cross in advocating environmental legislation, by mobilizing public opinion, lobbying and acting as a link between the community, public authorities and industry.

Concerning proposed areas of Red Cross action, emphasis is put on a broad range of preventive health measures both in poor rural and urban environments, including involvement in community planning and housing rehabilitation.

In its outline of methods and models for Red Cross action, the report stresses the point that the organization must act as a catalyst, initiating self-help activities through the use of a problem-solving approach.

The report ends by describing five examples of what is labeled Red Cross environmental projects:

Baltic Sea Project – Finnish Red Cross Youth

University Student Health Programme – Republic of Korea National Red Cross

Anti-Filariarsis Campaign – Republic of Korea National Red Cross

Community Education Plan for the Improvement of Home Life – Peruvian Red Cross

Drug Abuse Education and Rehabilitation Programme – Swedish Red Cross

The report was presented in 1973 to the Board of Governors at its Session in Teheran which, in its ensuing resolution (no 31), repeats the main themes of the report. In a following resolution (no 32) on Working Party on the Human Environment, the working party is upgraded to a Commission, still attached to the Health Committee. The Commission was to be composed in such a way as to ensure that all major regions in the world “likely to share specific environmental problems may be represented”.

2.3 A Commission on the Human Environment
Immediately after the 1973 Board of Governors’ Session, the 22nd International Red Cross Conference became the first Conference to be held since the environmental issue was put on the Red Cross agenda three years earlier. This Conference, the Movement’s highest body, confirmed in its resolution on the Environment (no. 17) that it is an issue of Red Cross concern, “being one of the major problems of our time”, and recommend action at the national level in harmony with Government’ plans as well as pursuit of the matter at an international level.

• training and education, of staff and field workers, in order to improve service to disaster victims

• projects, at field level and aimed at disaster prevention, conducted by Southern Societies or other organizations.

In its final chapter, entitled Ecodevelopment, the report listed a number of technical examples of environmental rehabilitation interventions with a potential disaster prevention impact.

Prevention Better than Cure was, in many ways, a landmark in the literature on disasters and their causes. It has had a great influence on the awareness and debate within and, perhaps even more, outside the Movement. The translation of this awareness into policy and action, however, is a difficult process that is far from complete.


3.1 The 70’s
The records on what Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies understood as environmental activities during the 70’s are found in reports from the Working Party on the Environment to the Board of Governors in 1973, from the Commission on the Environment to the Board of Governors in 1975 and from the Community Services and Development Commission to the Red Cross Conference in 1981. Out of the 16 National Societies mentioned in these reports 11 represented developed and 5 developing countries.

The reports cover a fairly wide range of activities, some of which it is rather surprising to find being labeled as environment projects. Most of them, however, are aimed at informing and educating the public on causes and effects of environmental hazards and how they can be counteracted. Some of these projects were quite ambitious. For instance, in 1973 the Finnish Red Cross launched a nation-wide campaign to highlight the country’s environmental problems, using public debates and exhibitions as the means of action. The campaign focused on the health effects of pollution and was underpinned by a resolution – passed by the Society and given much media attention – criticizing Finland’s “outdated and defective legislation about environmental protection”.

The campaign has unexpected success, in the Society’s own view, because it met an unfilled need and could rely on a strong and nation-wide organizational network that no “traditional” environmentalist group could match.

A slightly similar, independent, role seems to have been played by the Canadian Red Cross Society, which prepared a pedagogical package of high quality to be used by Red Cross Youth and in schools. The package included a teacher’s handbook, booklets, games and posters that all aimed to convey an improved understanding of the environment and its protection.

When one compares different Societies’ educational and awareness crating activities, there seems to be a clear division. It is between those Societies that acted independently relative to their governments, like the Finnish who did not hesitate to take on an advocacy role, and those that were mostly auxiliary to national authorities. In the latter category would be found Societies from centrally planned countries. The Red Cross Society of GDR says of itself that its environmental activities “are integrated in the relevant State-coordinated measures, laid down in specific legal provisions”.

Among specific projects undertaken, several Societies seem to have arranged, or perhaps more often taken part in, cleaning-up campaigns with their volunteers. Societies that report such activities are those of Bulgaria, the Federal Republic of Germany, Sweden and the Philippines.

Some Societies also report preventive health and social programmes as environmental activities. Among such programmes are an anti-filariosis campaign (South Korea), a community education plan for the improvement of home life (Peru) and a drug abuse and rehabilitation program (Sweden).

From the documentation available for this study there is nothing that indicates that “environment” as an issue had a prominent place among the activities of National Societies in the 70’s. This general statement does not exclude the fact that it did play an important role to some Societies for longer periods or to several Societies for limited periods.

3.2. The 80’s
There are two sources that provide an idea of the importance of environmental questions to National Societies during the 80;s. These are Meurant (1984) and Tenna Mengistu (1989) who whiled investigating other issues has studied the relative importance of different activities to a number of Societies. Meurant, who studied the role of volunteers in National Societies, thus found that out of the 61 Societies surveyed, only 3 conducted environment protection programmes in which volunteers took part (pp 64, 71). The programmes in question were characterized as reforestation, cleaning-up work and “quality-of-life camps” (p 73).

Tenna Mengistu, investigating the degree of financial self-reliance of National Societies, established activity profiles for the 41 Societies who replied to his questionnaire. When asked to state their degree of involvement in environmental rehabilitation, two reported their involvement as high, three as fair, 17 as low and 19 as none. All the five Societies reporting a high or fair degree of involvement were African: Lesotho, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Senegal and Egypt.

For the African Societies reporting a heavy involvement in environmental rehabilitation, tree planting seems to be a major activity, often linked to youth programmes. For instance, in Senegal tree planting youth camps are arranged and in Zimbabwe a nation-wide programme to establish school woodlots is organized by the Red Cross Youth and coordinated with the Government’s campaign to increase environmental awareness among school-children. A programme with a similar objective has been launched by a Society not among those surveyed in Tenna Mengistu’s study, that of Burkina Faso. In a country with a very low schooling rate, the programme tries to convey environmental awareness to children both through formal schools and informal education, such as the Koran schools.

However, among environmental programmes run by African Societies there are none to compare with those of the Ethiopian Red Cross Society in size and complexity. This is particularly the case for the disaster prevention programme in the Wollo province with 400,000 beneficiaries. This programme emerged in the mid 80’s from the Society’s experience of giving relief to victims of a famine that was triggered by drought, but the consequences of which were grimly exacerbated by severe and accelerating environmental degradation.

Reforestations and soil conservation are major components of this programme, which is implemented by government agencies but managed jointly with the Red Cross which funds the programme and provides additional personnel. The programme has gained considerable international attention as and example of how a relief programme provides opportunities for development and how these opportunities can be seized. For discussions of the Wollo programme see Kassaye (1988), Anderson & Woodrow (1989) and Walker (1989). A smaller programme with a similar orientation in Sudan is conducted jointly between the Norwegian Red Cross and the Sudanese Red Crescent.

The experience from the famine in Africa in the 80’s and the discussion of its environmental and ecological dimensions has also influenced the orientation and design of educative projects run by Northern Societies in their own countries. Several Societies, among them the Nordic ones, have produced or sponsored booklets, videos and TV programmes that have focused on issues like deforestation and land degradation in the South.

However, the comment made regarding the relative insignificance of environmental activities for the Red Cross Movement during the 70’s seems to hold also for the 80’s. There are Societies which have a fairly pronounced environmental profile but they are still few in number. This conclusion seems to be strengthened by the fact that very few Societies have “environment professionals” on their staff.

Written by Johan Schaar

Johan also wrote another more detailed paper:

Schaar, Johan, A Shade of Green: Environment Protection as Part of Humanitarian Action, Henry Dunant Institute Working Paper No. 2:90, Geneva, 1990.


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