"Solidarity doesn't depend on prosperity"
Annemarie Huber-Hotz, president of the Swiss Red Cross (SRK), talks about the 150-year history of this humanitarian organization, refugees and the importance of humanity in an unstable world.
The International Red Cross and Red Crescent movement has over 80 million members and more than 17 million volunteers worldwide. What do these people have in common?
Annemarie Huber-Hotz: All of them are committed to the same ethical principles and to international humanitarian law. It is impressive to see them following the example of Henry Dunant and the motto "Tutti fratelli" ["All are brothers"] as they dedicate themselves to protecting the lives and dignity of every human being.
Altogether, 72,000 volunteers work for the SRK. The Swiss Federal Statistical Office has reported a decline in "informal volunteer work"; while 23.2 percent of the Swiss population were volunteers in 2000, that share has since dropped to 18.6 percent. Have you noticed a difference?
Yes, it's noticeable in certain service areas – fewer volunteers are working with the elderly, for example – but particularly when it comes to time-intensive or longer-term assignments. However, people are still eager to volunteer for some kinds of work, such as providing support for refugees. Corporate volunteering programs like that of Credit Suisse are able to offset some of the drop in the number of volunteers, and that is cause for optimism.
The face of poverty and need has changed over the past 150 years.
People often say that the younger generation is preoccupied with its own concerns. Are you finding it increasingly difficult to recruit younger volunteers?
No, we're seeing growing numbers of very active young people. But volunteer organizations like the Swiss Red Cross need to provide the right conditions for volunteers – to appreciate them, and to involve them in developing and implementing new ideas. They need opportunities for training, for taking responsibility and for working in teams. They also need support.
The SRK is celebrating its 150th birthday in 2016. How has the organization changed over the years?
Nothing has changed in its fundamental values and commitment to helping those in need, no matter who they are. But we have adjusted to changing times by introducing new kinds of services in the areas of health care, social services, integration and rescue operations. The face of poverty and need has changed over the past 150 years. Today our efforts focus on the disadvantaged, the lonely and those in precarious health, as well as their families. But we also work with families, children and adolescents, asylum seekers, refugees and the undocumented.
Initiatives in foreign countries have taken on a more prominent role – why is that?
Mainly because many countries struggle with poverty and poor health care. There are enormous needs. It is also because of cooperation within the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement, as well as our solidarity with sister organizations in developing countries.
The more stable the country, the better it is for a national Red Cross organization.
How important are Switzerland's stability and neutrality for SRK's success?
Both are important for Switzerland. The more stable the country, the better it is for a national Red Cross organization. For the SRK, however, the most important factor is the generosity of the Swiss people, and the solidarity they show toward people who need help.
In your speech marking the 150th anniversary of the Swiss Red Cross, you quoted the English poet William Blake to the effect that we are all doomed until humanity awakens within us. What did you mean by that?
Everyone needs community and a humane environment. But we also need to do our part – beyond what the law requires. Through our involvement, we experience the happiness, satisfaction and meaning that can be derived from showing compassion for others.
Is it easier to be compassionate in times of prosperity? Would an economic crisis make us less willing to show solidarity?
No, not at all. Solidarity depends not on prosperity, but on a society's culture and a recognition that we all need to help one another. Even in difficult economic times, the Swiss people have always been very supportive of the SRK.
The number of relief organizations in Switzerland has grown over the past 50 years. How has this changed the work of the SRK?
You're right, there are now relief organizations and charitable foundations for every conceivable purpose, and fundraising is a particular problem. I believe, however, that there is room for all of us and that by working together in an intelligent way, we will be able to achieve our goals.
The SRK is supported by private individuals and foundations as well as cantons and communities. What role does cooperation with companies play?
We have to work together to address social challenges. Accordingly, we attach great importance to partnering with the business community – not just because of the financial support companies provide, but also because of the opportunities they offer for knowledge sharing and the commitment of their employees. We are grateful to be able to engage in such fruitful cooperation. Together we can do more!
Worldwide, conflicts have declined – with the exception of the past two or three years.
You also have contact with politicians. Given the tense international situation, have you experienced more attempts to exert political influence?
Independence and neutrality are essential if the work of the Red Cross is to be accepted by all parties, even when we are engaged in very delicate missions. Only then will we be able to fulfill our humanitarian role of aiding the world's most vulnerable people. That also holds true for our work in Switzerland, for example helping refugees and the undocumented. The government and administrative authorities respect that.
From the perspective of the SRK, is the world more or less safe than it was 20 years ago?
Worldwide, conflicts have declined – with the exception of the past two or three years. The media, however, create the impression that violence is everywhere. This causes anxiety for many people, and it plays into the hands of nationalist parties that are trying to convince us that we are under constant threat and exploiting fears for their own ends.
More people are fleeing their homelands than at any time since World War II. Is this the greatest challenge the SRK has ever faced?
The SRK has always come to the aid of refugees. But the fact that refugees are now arriving from other cultures represents a new challenge. Another new element is that the SRK is now aiding refugees in other countries, for example Syrian refugees in Lebanon.
Can you understand the anxiety many people in Switzerland feel about the flow of refugees? They are worried about losing their own culture. They fear the economic consequences of integration and are concerned about a threat to the welfare state.
Yes, I understand their anxiety. They will be less fearful if they get to know refugees and their reasons for fleeing their homelands. I should also note that Switzerland has a good, albeit strict, asylum policy. The people who are seeking asylum, a small fraction relative to the size of the Swiss population, do not really pose a threat to our culture or our welfare state.
The SRK was very much involved in the establishment of the Swiss health care system. Given demographic change, will care for the elderly be a future focus of the SRK's efforts?
Providing support for older people and the family members who care for them will remain one of our focus areas. But we will also be devoting more attention to families and the ill, as well as to the integration of those on the fringes of society.
It was once your dream to become Secretary General of the United Nations. What are your dreams today?
I wasn't serious! Today I dream of a more just world in which more people have the resources and opportunities they need to live a life in dignity. To that end, we need more solidarity, respect and willingness to compromise in the political arena – even in Switzerland.