"In the four years since the last Pan African Conference in Algiers, we have seen huge advances made by the Red Cross and Red Crescent across the continent," said Mr Juan Manuel Suárez del Toro R., President of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). His words were echoed by Bekele Geleta, the IFRC's Secretary General, himself born in Ethiopia.
One of the highlights of the day was a message sent by the United Nations's Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon, which was brought to the Conference by his Special Envoy, Cheick Sidi Diara. "I was a Red Cross volunteer myself and I am a keen observer of your work. I was also the beneficiary of a Red Cross scholarship in the United States. I have seen first hand the importance of your work," said Mr Ban in his message, emphasizing the need for greater cooperation between the UN and the IFRC, whose work he sees as complementary. "When a disaster strikes, the International Federation is often the first on the scene. Whether flood, drought or earthquake, you provide immediate, life-saving assistance," wrote Mr Ban, who also reminded everyone that additional efforts are needed to achieve the Millenium Development Goals and eradicate extreme poverty.
During the opening ceremony, the new South African Minister of Health, Barbara Hogan, had also called for more cooperation with the IFRC to fight HIV in her country, which is located in the heart of the pandemic.
"Together for Action in Africa"
Representatives of 53 Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Africa, of Movement partners and other organizations are attending the Conference. "For us as hosts, this wide participation is very encouraging," said Isaiah Midisha, President of the South Africa Red Cross Society.
Participants were also keen to emphasize the need for African Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies to reinforce partnerships at national levels. "The theme of the Conference 'Together for Action in Africa' is a clear call to all leaders to further develop strategic partnerships in order to achieve our main goals and reduce our levels of dependency," explained Anselme Katiyunguruza, Secretary General of Burundi Red Cross. "Such a Conference is important for us to agree on a number of commitments and follow up on issues that we agreed on during the previous years," commented Michael Nataka, Acting Secretary General of the Uganda Red Cross Society.
More "good news" from Africa
To better reflect on the slogan of the conference, the IFRC launched the "Believe in Africa" Initiative to promote more positive stories from Africa, which is often portrayed by the media as a continent of poverty and war. The call to work together with the media and other humanitarian organisations to highlight more "good news" from Africa was widely relayed by national and international media.
"As humanitarians appealing to donors we face essentially the same dilemma as journalists," said Bekele Geleta. "It's our duty to bring hidden humanitarian crises to light and advocate on behalf of Africans who may lack food and decent health care (...)".
"But the cumulative effect is that Africa's successes are being squeezed out of the picture. Meanwhile, governments are becoming increasingly accountable and people and communities are working hard each day to bring about positive change. It is precisely this area of community-level partnership and capacity building that is at the centre of the Red Cross Red Crescent approach," he added.
A "Johannesburg declaration"
The "Believe in Africa" Initiative was also inspiring for the youth who met in Johannesburg right before the opening of the conference, issuing a strong call for an increase of the involvement and participation of youth in key Red Cross Red Crescent strategic and decision making forums. "Youth are not just the future but the present of our organization," said Mandisa Kalako-Williams, Secretary General of the South African Red Cross Society. "Every single action that we undertake relies heavily on youth volunteers," she added.
The 7th Pan African Conference is supposed to end on Wednesday with a "Johannesburg declaration" that will set the main strategic objectives for Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Africa for the next four years.
Issues being discussed include the continued devastating impact of HIV and AIDS and other infectious diseases on African communities, the increasing challenges posed by accelerating climate change, and the need for an increase in long-term developmental funding to address these and other humanitarian challenges.