Frehiwot Worku has been secretary-general of the Ethiopian Red Cross Society (ERCS) for the past four years.

 The organization is currently preparing to mark its 80th anniversary since it was established based on the principles and objectives of the International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC). Being founded as the sole humanitarian organization by charter, the organization has been engaged in disaster prevention and emergency responses during drought and other natural and man-made disasters in Ethiopia. In fact, the organization also actively participates in various development programs in close partnership with the government and international ICRC-affiliated organizations. The Reporter’s Yonas Abiye this week sat down with Secretary General Freihiwot and discussed on ERCS’s role in disaster management, its institutional structure as well as the country’s overall look in disaster preparedness and prevention, risk minimization and the coordination among the various stakeholders and the areas that need further attention. Excerpts:

The Reporter: Can you tell us something about the activities of ERCS?

Frehiwot Worku: ERCS has been working as a government arm (support) in the humanitarian sector in Ethiopia for the past eighty years. We are now preparing to celebrate our eightieth year anniversary. It is, in fact, the only humanitarian organization in Ethiopia which was established by charter. This is a common practice in Red Cross associations around the world. They are established by charter and work to cover the gap left by governments in the humanitarian sector. In this regard, ERCS works in the area of disaster prevention, environmental protection and humanitarian relief. However, our activities are not as such limited to these areas. We involve ourselves in other developmental activities like community water projects. But now, we are thinking that our fragmented efforts in various areas are not the best way to go forward. Although our disaster response work is the main activity and that we cannot choose not to do it any longer, we should try to focus our activities into areas where we can have greater impact. We have decided to choose a few of these sectors and do an exceptional work in these areas, work we can be identified with. We want to develop the expertise in these selected sectors. So while celebrating our eightieth year, we want to make these changes. And I am sure we will announce these new directions in two months.

What was ERCS’s objective from the outset? Is it disaster prevention or emergency relief?

The Red Cross was first established with the object of disaster prevention. It started out as a movement to care and accommodate for causalities of war by mobilizing people and resources. It began in Sweden and was recognized by the government and spread to other countries. In Ethiopia, drought has for long been the biggest disaster. During the rule of the Derg, when the country’s foreign relation was restricted to a few countries, ERCS was massively engaged in assisting drought affected communities. Eventually, ERCS started providing routine services like ambulance and first aid services by recruiting members and volunteers. During the time of peace, the society engages in developmental activities including building capacity in disaster prevention.

Are these disaster prevention activities carried out in disaster prone areas or is it a nationwide endeavor?

We have branches in all regions of the country and we carry out  disaster prevention activates in all areas where our branches are located. Where there is no disaster prevention work, there will be disaster preparedness activities in connection with sanitation and hygiene, HIV/AIDS, other epidemics and so on. In disaster-prone areas, we work in collaboration with other organizations to minimize risks of disaster such as environmental protection, irrigation and so on. As has been repeatedly stated, poverty is the country’s biggest enemy and we have projects in poverty alleviation. In this regard, we provide interest-free loans to help vulnerable communities such as those in Tigray and Somali overcome economic hardships. We are scaling up projects like this to include other areas as well.

Do you have your own mechanism in which you identify disaster-prone areas?

There are assessments undertaken by the government. Especially now-a-days there are massive assessments being made by the government to identify disaster-prone areas. But we also have our own assessment methodology of disaster prone areas which we conduct in collaboration with the international network. Our capacity is limited; so we focus on disaster-prone areas where the danger is severe.

Tell us about how ERCS is coordinating its work with the government or other organizations?

With regard to our cooperation with the government, we have a partnership with the Ministry of Agriculture in connection with disaster prevention and preparedness. They identify gaps in their activities and we collaborate with them to address these gaps. We also have partnerships with the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Women, Children and Youth Affairs and fire departments. We provide special assistance in volunteer recruitment and awareness creation. In case of emergencies, we are one member of that emergency response team. We also have similar cooperation with regional governments and bureaus.

Would you say the environment of collaboration is conducive to efficiency?

Well, it could be better. The government has its own working procedure in its collaboration with organizations like ours and others. But these working orders can improve for  better coordination. With a strong coordination mechanism in place, the collaboration between the government and organizations like ours can get better. For instance, the coordination in disaster prevention and preparedness on natural disasters like drought has resulted in the development of expertise. But where I see gaps in coordination is when it comes to urban reliance and disaster risk management. In this regard, the coordination is poor and the risk is also high. Let alone huge disasters like earthquakes, we have seen gaps in minor disasters like fires. One of this country’s strong attributes is that everyone joins hands when some kind of emergency arises. But it is not systemic. There are gaps in coordination. With a better coordination, carried out we can build our capacity to respond to disasters. There are some activities being carried out. A disaster risk assessment is being conducted for Addis Ababa in which we are a part of. But in my view, disaster preparedness and prevention is not growing consistent with the pace of development and the size of Addis Ababa. If a major crisis occurs, the damage will be high. The city is overcrowded, the roads are congested and on top of that public’s awareness in not adequate. A lot needs to be done in terms of disaster prevention and preparedness in the city.

Do you see the need to establish an institution at a national level tasked with a response and coordination of activities in disaster prevention and preparedness activities?

There surely is the need. I believe there is a draft plan being prepared concerning coordinating disaster response mechanisms led by the prime minister. Various sectors have mandates but these activities should be undertaken  in a coordinated manner. There has to be a legal framework defining the responsibilities of organs in cases of emergencies. This is critical.

How do you assess the road system in place in ambulance service delivery?

In other countries there is a special lane for ambulance service. In addition, awareness is also there. Drivers either stop their car or make way for ambulances. With congested roads in Addis, how can ambulances deliver their service? What can drivers do? I usually see ambulance service providers facing such problems. But the problem is not just infrastructure; enforcement of the existing laws also needs improvement.

Is there such a consultation between, say, the Addis Ababa City Road Authority, and ERCS during the designing of roads?

There has been no invitation for such consultations. And to be frank, we have not done any lobbying activity during road design works either. Maybe the consultation should be there. But when the government devises a disaster preparedness system, these things should be taken into consideration. Our ambulance service, firefighting capacity, the condition of our roads and the police force are some of the things that need to be considered. Maybe due to the work I do, whenever I see the city expanding, I see risks. Whenever I see housing projects spring up, I see risks. I ask myself how we can deal with emergencies. I envision a Red Cross ambulance post at every condominium site. We need a pharmacy and ambulance post at every condominium site. You can imagine how long it would take for an ambulance service from the center of the city to reach the remote condominium sites. Maybe the government can assist us by providing us space at these sites. We are working closely with the fire department in Addis Ababa. They are opening up new branches. We would also like to expand.

How about the engagement of the private sector in emergency response? We see some in the private sector providing financial assistance in case of emergencies but, again, it seems there is no system in place.

In developed countries, the governments carry out the emergency response activities. They own the process because they are financially capable. But in countries like ours, there can be room to engage the private sector. But for the private sector, there is always the consideration of returns. They will be reluctant to join the sector if the return is not high. For instance, they will not provide free ambulance services. So the way to go about it is to strengthen the capacity of the government and the public. There should be efforts to raise the public’s awareness and create capacity. Those are some of the things we do. We train people in first aid in schools and other places. Our target is to see to it that there is at least one person per household who is trained in providing first aid. But in terms of contribution, the private sector can play a role in availing resources. But the government should own the process. And institutions like ERCS should expand their network and capacity.       

How about the educational curriculum? There is no institution that provides courses in emergency response. What is your view on that?

Raising the awareness of the public is very crucial. For instance, California, where I lived for some time, is prone to earthquakes. And students are taught from early age how to deal with them when something like that occurs. Every child knows what to do when earthquakes occur. We also need to identify the disasters we are prone to and train the society on how to best deal with such disasters. Such trainings should be given to children in schools from an early age.