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Local volunteers are the heart of every humanitarian response

by By Tadateru Konoé, President, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies | International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC)
Monday, 5 December 2016 05:25 GMT

* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

On International Volunteers Day, let’s commit to supporting the people who give so much of their time and energy to make their communities safer, stronger and more resilient.

In the middle of the night, as Hurricane Matthew battered her community, Micheline Lagrenade watched in horror as the roof of her house vanished into the roaring darkness. She and her children took refuge in a neighbour’s house, which then began to flood. The next morning, shocked but unhurt, Micheline and her family walked out into a scene of utter devastation – their home had been destroyed, along with countless others across Haiti’s southern communities.

How did she come to terms with the shock of losing everything? “I decided to put my Red Cross vest on,” she said, “and join the teams that were helping people on the ground already.”

After Matthew made landfall, Micheline and her fellow Haiti Red Cross Society volunteers helped hundreds of people in those first hours and days - rescuing injured survivors, and making sure their most vulnerable neighbours were safe and being looked after. They provided comfort after the horror of the hurricane, letting people share how they felt, and giving care and support.

Micheline has been a volunteer with the Jérémie branch of the Haiti Red Cross since 1992, and has supported her community through some of the country’s most desperate humanitarian crises. Modestly, she says that her life is not so different from that of many women – bringing up her four children and supporting their education, working hard to get by in difficult circumstances – but she always finds the time to serve humanity.

Around the world, volunteers like Micheline give time, skills, energy – sometimes even their lives - to work towards a more caring world. Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteers walk the first and last mile in any time of hardship. They are the first to respond in a disaster or crisis, and they make sure no one is left behind.

The skills of volunteers save lives. Their compassion gives comfort. And their local networks and community knowledge means they are often best placed to give life-saving support.

Around 17 million Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies volunteers work to support stronger, more resilient communities worldwide. Many risk their lives delivering comfort and aid in some if the toughest places in the world - more than one million Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteers are working in war-torn countries, and tens of thousands risk their lives helping civilians affected by conflict. Tragically, each year, too many of these heroes die while giving aid and support to people in need.

These are just ordinary people, doing what they can to help others, without expectation of material or financial gain.

Whether providing medical services following an earthquake in Ecuador or conflict in Syria; risking their lives to educate communities and conduct safe and dignified burials during an Ebola outbreak in Africa; providing shelter, water and sanitation to people affected by hurricanes in Asia; or patrolling the Mediterranean to save the lives of migrants making the dangerous journey by boat, Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteers embody the power of humanity every day.

IFRC’s decades of experience as the world’s largest volunteer-based organization has shown that skilled local responders, backed where necessary by international resources and expertise, are best-placed to help their communities prepare for and recover from disasters and health crises. And we know that volunteers are crucial to building resilience at all levels, ensuring that people are better equipped withstand future hardship.

The World Humanitarian Summit, held in Istanbul in May 2016, was an important step in recognizing the role of local actors such as Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteers. One of the outcomes of the summit was a call for increased investment in local and national civil society organizations, particularly those working in fragile contexts and communities vulnerable to disasters, conflict, climate change, and health crises. The summit rightly called for a target of at least 25 per cent of humanitarian funding supporting, as directly as possible, local and national responders by 2020.

This was important and overdue recognition. It needs to be matched by stronger service conditions and protection for local actors and volunteers. Insurance, psychosocial support, training, protective equipment, and legal support are essential for any humanitarian worker, paid or unpaid.

It is time the world gave these local heroes the respect they deserve.

On International Volunteers Day, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies salutes these local heroes: the mothers, fathers, young people and grandparents who work to make the world stronger, safer and more humane.