It is surely one of the most demanding roles in any field. Elhadj As Sy, Secretary General of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) has the unenviable task of co-ordinating a massive, globally interconnected organisation that reaches 160 million people each year through its 190-member National Societies.
Dealing with the daily plight of refugees, the poor, the unwell and the dispossessed requires a certain kind of character, a toughness mixed with an enduring belief that things can – and must – be better. As Sy is at the helm of an organisation that aims to tackle the major humanitarian and development challenges of this decade by “saving lives and changing minds”.
"I’m still motivated by the same simple principle: be there, at all times, at the side of people and accompany them to respond to their needs."
With this backdrop I ask Mr As Sy about his personal mission at the IFRC. His answer is unequivocal: “I’m still motivated by the same simple principle: be there, at all times, at the side of people and accompany them to respond to their needs. Of course their needs will be many and varied, and may change in different settings. It is up to us then to adjust.”This ‘adjustment’ requires, among many other qualities, diplomacy and grit. Says As Sy: “Be there on the side of the people, but also be at the side of those who may be part of the problem, helping them to become part of the solution. That’s why you have to engage with the most powerful of this world and at the same time you should be able to sit on the ground with the most destitute. For me the leadership journey is the ability to be yourself in each of those settings. And that’s maybe a permanent journey that we all have to undertake...”
Humility as inspiration
As Sy adds that humility can be a source of inspiration and motivation for moving forwards:
“In the past there was an idea that humanitarian workers were the idealists with values, then on the other hand, you had the private sector who were efficient, driven by profit and results and so on. I think the situation is much more nuanced today. Our challenge is to have the humility to understand and respect each other better and to realise we have something extremely important in common; a willingness to do good in general.
"I think it’s about wanting to do good for people and wanting people also to be in a situation to be your clients and customers and wanting also to serve. It’s truer today because even your customers, supporters and staff would like to associate with something like that.”
"I think it’s about wanting to do good for people and wanting people also to be in a situation to be your clients and customers and wanting also to serve"
As Sy has an impressive track record in humanitarian work. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Arts and Human Sciences from the University of Dakar and pursued his Master’s studies in Arts and Germanistik at the University of Graz, and graduated from the Vienna Diplomatic Academy where he is named in the hall of fame. He was also awarded a postgraduate diploma in Education from the Ecole Normale Superieure in Dakar. He speaks English, French and German and is a Senegal national.
Before taking up his post at IFRC in August 2014, As Sy served for nine years (between 1988 and 1997) as Director of Health and Development Programmes with Environment and Development Action in the Third World based in Dakar, Senegal. He later worked with The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria as its Africa Regional Director. He also served as Head of UNAIDS in Eastern and Southern Africa and Representative in New York. More recently he was Director, HIV/AIDS Practice with the United Nations Development Programme in New York. Before joining the IFRC, As Sy was UNICEF’s Director of Partnerships and Resource Development in New York. He also served as UNICEF Regional Director for Eastern and Southern Africa, and Global Emergency Director for the Horn of Africa.
Reflections on the private sector
I probe As Sy on whether or not he believes business leaders can learn from the humanitarian, public health or development sectors. His answer is precise and well argued: “There’s a cultural difference in terms of work processes, in terms of procurement, supply management and in logistics. These are all areas where there is a need to strive for results across all sectors. So, if you ask me what business leaders need to do to do good, they could put these skills and expertise at the service of people in need.
"There are other dimensions that are extremely important like the protection of the environment and natural resources that need to be managed with responsibility"
“There are other dimensions that are extremely important like the protection of the environment and natural resources that need to be managed with responsibility. For example, issues related to water which is extremely important to production but also, in a humanitarian setting, can be a source for peace and stability. It can also be a source of conflict if not managed carefully. There are issues related to economic disparities. Inequalities are sometimes much more dangerous than poverty itself, so I think there is a lot to reflect on in the private sector in terms of sharing knowledge, expertise and resources of all kinds, so we all have an enabling environment where we can do business and also provide development and humanitarian assistance at the same time.”
The IFRC’s future thinking has been guided by its Strategy 2020 a Collective Plan of Action document which sets out its aims and ambitions for the rest of the decade. Does the business community form part of that thinking? “Absolutely. We look to them to partner with us for resilient communities, to partner with us in accompanying people to recover what is very important to them, but what they have lost in a humanitarian setting, which is their dignity. These are areas, along with food, shelter, water, sanitation and hygiene where we look to partner with the private sector.
“It always amazes me that if I travel to the most distant villages on earth, regardless of which continent it is, I can find a bottle of a certain soft drink. There is certainly an expertise and a way to get it there, but in those same places we need also to get drugs and food and other supplies. How can we partner in that regard? How can we also partner to stimulate the private sector for humanitarian response? There is a lot of innovative work taking place now in the area of ‘cash transfers’ *. If we provide people with cash based on the assessments that we’ve made, then the private sector can bring in the goods.
“It is also a dignified way of helping people rediscover their dignity. There is a shame that you see sometimes in humanitarian settings, in the eyes of a proud father and mother receiving a bag of maize. It is just so painful to experience. But if people have the purchasing power so that they can choose what they need at a point in time, then they can begin to rediscover that dignity. That’s vital.
Productive members of society
“I was in Zimbabwe recently in a very remote, rural area and accompanied a woman whom we had provided with cash to see what she was going to buy. She was telling me how hungry her children were, but when I accompanied her to the shop, I saw that the first thing she bought was a bar of soap. She whispered in my ear that they hadn’t washed for the last 10 days. This, again, demonstrated that the recovery of dignity through being clean was almost elevated to the same level as food. But then if my team had gone there to define priorities, the first thing they would buy would be a bag of rice, sugar or milk. I think that tells us again that the human dignity of people is extremely important, and its recovery is an important part of resilience.”
We conclude, inevitably perhaps, by talking about people. Says As Sy: “We have a tendency to recruit or work with people that are like us and reflect our own model. I think that’s another nut that we need to crack. I hope that organisations like yours can help. That is the reason why sometimes we don’t do recruitment ourselves but reach out to search firms that can bring – the word I was looking for is ‘composite’ – a kind of composite index that will bring different dimensions together and help us attract different kinds of candidates.”
"We are putting humanity at the centre of all that we do so that we can be there at the side of people"
In the end, says, As Sy “we are putting humanity at the centre of all that we do so that we can be there at the side of people, accompany them to respond to their needs which would in turn make the world a better place for everybody, for your neighbours, your friends, for parents, for work and for business.”
*Defined by the World Bank as the provision of assistance in the form of cash to the poor or to those who face a probable risk of falling into poverty in the absence of the transfer. The main objective of these programmes is to increase poor and vulnerable
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