in the following interview, the deputy director of communications at the international committee of the red cross (icrc) explains why volunteer work is fulfilling, and why people are more important than possessions.
dear charlotte, where do you originally come from and how did you spend your childhood?
i am british and come from a small town named saffron walden, located in the south of england near cambridge. i basically had the most normal and uneventful childhood one can imagine. i grew up with three brothers, most of the time in one and the same small town.
were there any special events in your life that have led you to what you are doing today?
no, no particular event. but i was an avid reader of books and was strongly influenced by an elementary school teacher. he opened my eyes to many books that had a great influence on me as a child. it was during this time that i discovered books such as “the silver sword” by british novelist and poet ian serailliers. this book, based on a true story, is about the struggles of a family to find each other again after being separated by war. i was also strongly influenced by the pictures on the news from cambodia, the vietnamese “boat people”, and roland joffé’s oscar-winning anti-war film “the killing fields”. i knew from a very early age that i wanted to help reunite families that were separated by war, and that i wanted to do this with the “red cross”.
how would you describe the feeling of having helped someone, or having at least taken a bit of their sorrow from them?
when i worked in war zones for the icrc, i was always more afraid of “not” being able to help someone. so if i have to describe a feeling for this work, then it was generally a feeling of relief that i had been able to do something.
common sense and naturalness are the biggest enemies of greed and reckless behaviour. in your opinion, what would a sensible and ethical global economic order look like?
i am a strong believer in ethical behaviour, intuition and common sense.
you have worked in crisis regions like rwanda, bosnia or tadzhikistan. what have you learned from these experiences, and to what extent have they influenced your life?
i have learned that people are important – and not possessions. family and friends are irreplaceable; they give us a strong sense of self. i have learned this approach to life through the course of my work. i also have made the experience that we should take nothing for granted, as the line between safety and risk is a fine one. many of the people i have met throughout the years in these countries never thought that war would come to their country or would affect them directly. reality however was often very different.
henry dunant, the founder of the red cross, was inspired to establish his organization by the horrible experience of the battle of solferino 150 years ago. would you say that it often takes dramatic events to make people act or change their lives?
to a certain extent, yes - on both an individual and international level. i would like to describe this using an example. in the years before the second world war, the icrc drafted and sought approval for an international convention on the condition and protection of civilians of enemy nationality who were on a territory belonging to or occupied by a belligerent. no action was taken on that text, since governments refused to convene a diplomatic conference to decide on its adoption. as a result, there was no specific treaty that protected civilians against the horrors of the second world war. in reaction to the horrors of world war ii, the international community agreed in 1949 to adopt the fourth geneva convention for the protection of civilians. this was really a watershed moment in terms of ensuring that civilian populations and property are spared during times of armed conflict.
on an individual level, i definitely believe that many people are moved or inspired to do things because of something they have witnessed, lived through or heard about. it might be the loss of a loved one that moves someone to establish a foundation in their name, to help others in the same situation; it might be an illness that moves someone the raise funds for the development of a cure or a treatment for others; or it might be seeing the suffering of others that moves someone to volunteer and work for a non-profit organization.
many members of the red cross are working on a voluntary basis, without being paid. this is a stark contrast to the profit-oriented thinking in today’s economy and society. where do you think these people get the inspiration and strength for their voluntary work?
for me, this is true humanitarian spirit! i think that the communities in which people do their voluntary work are extremely inspiring. people realize that they make a difference, and that even small gestures can change something. the red cross and the red cross movement also have started a campaign about that this year, which is running under the name and the website of www.ourworld-yourmove.org .
when experiencing beauty and happiness, one does not think about war or violence. would you agree with this statement?
no, because i think that some people would wage war or use violence to protect these things. there are so many beautiful countries where there is war, so this statement is untrue – at least from my point of view.
would you agree with the statement that globalization means that everybody in the world should also take responsibility for our life together?
i think that there definitely should be a sense of collective responsibility. the universality of the geneva conventions (which form the backbone of international humanitarian law) denotes the sense of collective responsibility in times of war. these conventions show the fact that there is a responsibility to be respected, and set limits to the possibilities of warfare. regarding globalization, i believe that as a matter of principle one should not advance at the expense of others.
money researcher peter koenig claims that many people project basic elements of life like happiness, security and freedom onto the concept of money – which simply cannot work out. according to koenig, it is impossible to secure one’s existence through money. what do you think of this statement?
i agree that money does not make people happy. however, “existence” has a different meaning for different people. sometimes, the poorest people are the happiest as long as they are surrounded by the things they cherish the most. and the richest people are sometimes the unhappiest, because their wealth isolates them.
what is your main motivation for your everyday work, and where do you draw your strength from?
i strive to give my best, every day. i draw my strength from my family and friends. also, my perspective is that whatever i am going through, there are so many people who are much worse off than i am and who would give a lot to have a life like mine.
many people are racing through their everyday lives, but yet they complain about a lack of identification possibilities and a loss of meaning. would you say that many parts of our society are dominated by a lack of “meaningful behaviour”?
i think that the fast pace of life today makes us forget to look up and see the beautiful things around us. we often forget to appreciate what we have. sometimes we lose sight of the things that anchor us. we often fail to realize what we have ... until it is gone in the end.