The International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent (IFRC) and its vision of the future: a resilient American continent
The IFRC Americas Regional Director carries the organization’s values in his veins, heart and mind. Walter Cotte is a trained engineer and administrator, but has been involved with the Red Cross since he was a child. He had his start at age 10 thanks to his mother, who thought this would be a positive way to entertain a very restless child.
What started this way soon became a calling: from a very early age, Cotte received an indelible and fundamental lesson: in his own words, “you can be happy by making others happy, too.”
With extensive experience within the Federation – he’s been a rescue worker, person in charge of special projects, peace and sanitation processes; and worked on different missions in various locations worldwide – Cotte knows the Latin American region like very few do: geographically, of course, but above all, on a humanitarian level.
From Panama, the Federation supports 35 countries in the region; their presence here fulfills two functions: on the one hand, from the City of Knowledge, the Federation operates administration, operation and management tasks, coordinating from here for all of the Americas. On the other hand, it runs a modern global logistics center in the Isthmus – one of five in the world and the first of its kind to start operating – from which they provide help dispatching supplies for emergency situations and coordinating logistics for the countries in the region, and the rest of the world.
Cotte welcomed us in his office, on the fourth floor of building 224 at the City of Knowledge; a place where, in his opinion, “a lot of science, but also a lot of practice” converge. The first thing that strikes you from his workstation is the walls -they are entirely covered in colorful annotations and detailed maps of the region. This collage is nothing more than his work plan, including tasks, assigned roles and above all, goals in progress and multiple strategies that are constantly evolving. The roadmap always in front of him.
In this conversation with Sapiens, the 60-year-old Colombian shared his future view of the continent’s humanitarian needs, analyzing where are our vulnerabilities and strengths, and discussed the consequences of climate change in the region and how we can prepare for the challenges we face.
You have traveled extensively across the continent, working directly with vulnerable populations in humanitarian crises. What is your assessment of the current situation in Latin America? Can we identify trends?
I think the continent has three fundamental problems, the effects of which we see in three areas. On the one hand, there is a migratory phenomenon, human mobility is exerting strong pressure. In addition, there are severe difficulties in managing violence, both are very serious issues in the region that have worsened in the last year. The picture is this: 23 countries in the region are impacted by migration in some way; of those, fourteen are receiving much larger volumes of migrants than they have received in the past ten years. And of those fourteen, eight are facing serious internal conflict and riots.
The second issue has to do with climate change and the risks and vulnerabilities it implies. Latin America’s biggest risk is flood, but there is also risk of hurricanes and water sprouts, particularly in the middle area of our continent. Latin America also presents the very opposite of this: droughts and forest fires; earthquakes, all of which make our region very complex.
The other unresolved issue affecting us has to do with water and sanitation. A fifth of Latin America’s population do not have latrines or good water and sanitation systems. We are not talking about any small group: we are a billion people and it is truly alarming that 200 million people in our region suffer from this situation.
What role does the human factor play within this panorama of latent risks in the region?
An extremely important role. These issues are strictly related to human behavior: ignorance (denying problems that are real), indifference (in addition to denying them, we do nothing to help) and inaction (even after knowing this and seeing effects, we remain undaunted). This only accelerates deterioration and vulnerability.
One day, those same people who do nothing are going to be seriously affected by these very situations; the vulnerability in the planet is not partial.
How do stay positive and how do we organize ourselves to face such situations?
For me, being positive is a normal effect of being human. The IFRC is an impartial and humanitarian entity, our strength and energy comes from fourteen million direct volunteers and some eighty million indirect followers of the organization. We are ‘solidarity in action’ and have the obligation to always be useful to the continent. I think positivism is born from those moments in which we see volunteers all over the world, who -out of nothing, and often without anything- do a lot for others.
And I’m not just talking about the Red Cross: this happens in other organizations and at all scales: volunteering is a huge humanitarian force that generates joy and fills you with positivism, since it enables you to see how, every day, people are recursive and keep surprising you in incredible ways by being happy and making others happy.
Despite the fact that as a continent we face these problems, these do not win the battle – and I hope that they never will. Thee positive power and the immense wave of solidarity in our continent remains undefeated.
How does the Federation tackle these issues?
The first thing is to inform. The information must be analyzed and used correctly in technical terms, but also on a humane level – respecting populations’ and people’s rights. Information is absolutely vital because it helps us see threats, as well as opportunities in a systematic way – it also allows us to influence and raise awareness.
For example, how does one raise awareness about the things relevant and important to a population? You have to adapt your message to the population and context, respond to people’s needs. We strive to create an open information system, an “Esperanto” system of sorts, and we do this with the support of the UN, governments and universities.
The second thing we do is maintain integrated, hub-like systems in the region. This is an interesting solution because it has to do with information, but also with research, development, and generating knowledge for the humanitarian cause. On the other hand, it implies educating and massifying knowledge, as well as coordinating and developing logistics.
Thirdly, the Federation also seeks to work with volunteer leaders and local people. That is why we are in 9,600 municipalities in the continent; we have a very strong human network because we know things happen locally.
Similarly, in order to get an ever-faster response and accelerate our ability respond, we seek to train people intensively; we have an accelerated process of leadership voluntary work.
We also do advocacy or humanitarian diplomacy to act and resolve: speak to states and governments to support them in different projects, health, violence emergencies, along with the region’s Red Crosses. We are a ‘machine’ that seriously moves to serve people.
Which course do you think we can chart for the future to attack these vulnerabilities in social processes before they turn into humanitarian crises?
Something akin to what we are doing now, which is to create an investment in awareness for the future: that is, invest in peace, development and prevention. We have a very great responsibility in that regard.
Also, every dollar invested in prevention saves us $ 7 or $ 10 in the future, up to $ 14 or $ 20 in other countries. So why not invest now and avoid catastrophes later on?
The UN has stated that the number of humanitarian crises worldwide is growing due, in part, to climate change. This is a global problem, but how does it affect us locally?
Sometimes we tend to focus mainly on global analysis, but we also have to think that, in order to help, we must solve on the regional level and thus contribute to a more widespread solution.
Climate change is an accelerating factor to the problems we have in the region, including violence! The curious thing is that it has created tensions due to politically convenient interpretations, such opinions have nothing to do with the scientific evidence or what is actually found in the communities.
For example, denying that water level is rising in the Caribbean islands is like denying that water can soak. Everyone sees how forest fires are increasing and the impact this makes, how America’s glaciers are shrinking. This hydro-meteorological configuration is seriously affected by climate change.
What are we lacking as a region to move forward?
I think the region must, systematically, strongly and consistently, control everything related to drug trafficking, violence, crime and corruption. This would help in other topics. We must enforce this virtuous process in order to change things and move forward.
We also need a new configuration of collective imagination, accompanied by good, positive leadership. It would be fantastic if our students that finish university would be attracted by public office, because it is a way of serving society and not for other reasons. States must be efficient and manage and produce services for the people.
We also need more gender balance in the region, include women more; at the Federation we promote this thoroughly. Despite the stigmas, I feel that in Latin America we are finding solutions to our obstacles, including from a feminine perspective of life and a broader gender perspective.
What about Panama? How do you evaluate the country and how does the Federation act here?
Panama is, in several aspects, a paradise surrounded by many ‘fires.’ Therefore, it is imperative that we know what real risks we do have and, consequently, generate a process of awareness and education to protect our country and the precious resources we have. Concrete [resources] like water, biodiversity, plant mass, but also intangible [resources] like peace, democratic education, inclusion and the nation’s stability.
In a country like Panama, climate change, water and sanitation, for example, should be flagship projects to continue growing positively. By addressing these problems, one could reduce morbidity and thus raise our children with a greater capacity to grow and understand how to generate equity and opportunities.
Both here and in the region, it would be wise to protect volunteerism and community leaders: ensure that these people have a strong voice in country decisions. We must strengthen good leadership, enhance education and transparency based on the reality of each community.
The IFRC supports the Panamanian Red Cross and, through it, supports national systems and State logistics whenever necessary from our logistics hub. We also provide support the technological, training and education arenas; as well as in the protection of life and of humanitarian, health and risk management systems.
What have you learned after a lifetime dedicated to humanitarian work?
I think about that every day. For me, it means never giving up, always fight. To me, it doesn’t seem right to give up. Human beings should not give up, even if things look or become very bad.
We are here to do just that: to solve problems. The other thing is to always be positive. We must fight so that the positive side of things remains visible and enhanced. At the Red Cross we focus on doing good and doing it well, but always with the idea of replicating this in other parts of the world, massifying the benefit for many people.
All human beings should “run a humanitarian marathon,” which means that we should be useful to others, serve, solve problems, prevent, attend, recover and develop people’s capacities to make all populations more resilient. That is the goal.
Our dream is to have a continent with a billion resilient people.-