New IFRC president sets out priorities

Francesco Rocca, the new president of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. Photo by: Loey Felipe / United Nations

BRUSSELS — Strengthening the role of local groups and fighting corruption are among the priorities for the new president of the world’s largest humanitarian network.

Italian lawyer Francesco Rocca was elected president of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies during its General Assembly Monday in Antalya, Turkey. The former president of the Italian Red Cross won 98 votes from the 178 national societies that voted, beating challenges from Mohammed Al-Hadid from the Jordanian Red Crescent; Sven Mollekleiv from the Norwegian Red Cross; and Margareta Wahlström of the Swedish Red Cross.

The 52-year-old told Devex he wants to focus on “localization,” strengthening the role of the IFRC’s 190 national societies.

“That means increasing their capacity to prevent wars and assess their territories, to have volunteers better trained, but of course that means also working on the integrity of the national societies,” Rocca said. He flagged, “setting up new policies to be more transparent, more accountable about how they allocate resources.”

“Don’t be worried about the money, because if you are well prepared you will always ... find someone who is so generous to support you,”

— Francesco Rocca, new president of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies

The IFRC expressed “outrage” last month after an internal investigation found that at least $6 million meant to fight the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa was lost to fraud in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea.

It said in its 2016 annual report that it had trained 450 employees in fraud and corruption prevention, and Rocca said he wants to do more.

“It’s for sure one of my priorities,” he said, flagging that he wanted to explore new powers for internal auditors to intervene to prevent misallocation of funds, rather than detecting wrongdoing after the fact.

IFRC Secretary General Elhadj As Sy told the BBC that the Ebola revelations could damage the Red Cross movement.

“It hurts,” said Sy, a paid staff member who heads the IFRC global leadership team. “To those that are hurt we are saying it hurts us as well. It is totally unacceptable and we are sorry for that ... The fact that we are uncovering this is a signal that we will remain transparent, that we will be held accountable ourselves and hold anybody else accountable.”

The IFRC coordinates international assistance during disasters in non-conflict situations, while the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) supports victims of armed violence. The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement consists of these two bodies, in addition to national societies.

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The IFRC spent 365.4 million swiss francs ($365.9 million) in 2016, mostly on health and migration issues, while receiving 244.9 million swiss francs ($245.2 million) in funding. The European Commission was the leading donor, contributing 42.7 million swiss francs, followed by the Swedish, Norwegian, and British Red Cross organizations.

The federation claims 14 million active volunteers in 190 countries through its network of 160,000 branches, which are subunits of the national societies.

Rocca, whose term begins Wednesday, represented the Italian Red Cross on the IFRC governing board from 2009 to 2013, and was an IFRC vice president from 2013 to 2017, responsible for Europe. Prior to joining the Italian Red Cross, Rocca was general director of Sant’Andrea Hospital in Rome, and before that, a lawyer working with Mafia informants during the 1990s.

“My clients allowed [us] to discover a lot of crimes and links about the most powerful organized crime in the world at that time,” said Rocca, who spent six years under police escort.  

He said the experience helped him learn about “the dark part of our world.”

“I think this helped me read the social dynamics. What happens around us is not only what you see on the surface. There is something hidden from our eyes. This has always helped me in everything I do.”

The IFRC presidency is an unpaid, voluntary position, and Rocca said he will continue his work as a lawyer and consultant. The Italian replaces Tadateru Konoé, from Japan, who is stepping down after two terms as president.

Konoé wrote for Devex last week that his successor must lobby to protect vulnerable migrants, focus more on disaster preparedness, and grapple with the changing nature of volunteer work. Rocca said properly preparing to face the challenges of war and natural disasters was the key to attracting donors.

“Empowering the youth is imperative for my mandate,” Rocca said at a press conference Monday. “We have to mix the experience of the adults with the enthusiastic approach that the young volunteers are able to bring in our organization.”

“Don’t be worried about the money, because if you are well prepared you will always ... find someone who is so generous to support you,” he said. “I think we have to be focused on our preparedness and then I’m sure we will increase our capacity to attract support and donors and to engage the private sector even more in our activities.”

Konoé argued that groups such as the IFRC must do more to meet the aspirations of volunteers who want “greater flexibility and a greater diversity of engagement opportunities,” and who are more likely to align with causes rather than organizations.

“Empowering the youth is imperative for my mandate,” Rocca said at a press conference Monday. “We have to mix the experience of the adults with the enthusiastic approach that the young volunteers are able to bring in our organization.”

“The young bring with them integrity,” Rocca later told Devex. “There are no grey areas with them and this is something that I love.”

This week’s IFRC statutory meeting, which runs until Saturday, is designed to begin discussion on the federation’s priorities through 2030.

The general assembly also elected four voluntary vice presidents who will sit with Rocca on the IFRC’s governing board, which also includes representatives of 20 Red Cross and Red Crescent national societies. The newly elected vice presidents are Senegal’s Abdoul Azize Diallo (overseeing the African region); Venezuela’s Miguel Angel Villarroel Sierraalta (the Americas); Chen Zhu of China (Asia Pacific); and Kerem Kinik from Turkey, who will oversee 53 countries in the Europe region.

Kinik told a gala dinner in Antalya that the IFRC’s main mission was to put the humanitarian agenda above all other interests, “be it national, personal, or institutional.” In the same speech he called for “stronger and more respected national societies within the federation.”

“We believe that the activities of the federation should be stepped up,” Kinik told Turkish media. “The federation is not where it should be at the moment. We are determining new visions and strategies. We will focus on the next four years with new goals.”

Read more Devex coverage on the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

About the author

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    Vince Chadwick

    Vince Chadwick is the Brussels Correspondent for Devex. He covers the EU institutions, member states, and European civil society. A law graduate from Melbourne, Australia, he was social affairs reporter for The Age newspaper, before moving to Europe in 2013. He covered breaking news, the arts and public policy across the continent, including as a reporter and editor at POLITICO Europe.