Aiding the Needy: the Italian Red Cross

From: “The Roman Forum” Monthly Newspaper – Year 1 Issue 4 – May 2006

The Roman Forum interviews Massimo Barra, President of the Italian Red Cross (IRC). The IRC is one of the oldest national Red Cross societies, active both in Italy and abroad, with projects in Iraq, Eastern Europe and elsewhere around the world. Dr. Massimo Barra has been a member of the IRC for over 50 years, starting at the tender age of eight, before becoming president in December 2005.

What are the activities of the Red Cross in Italy?
Our mission is to help the most vulnerable people. We do first aid, ambulance services, disaster preparedness and many other activities that correspond to local needs. For example, if the local needs are to create a service for immigrants, we create a service for immigrants; if it is to accompany the ill for specialist medical visits or prevent drug overdoses in the streets, we create the appropriate services. Our main strength is our network. We have almost 300,000 volunteers and are present in more than 1,500 towns and villages all over the country. Our network is second only to the Carabinieri.

Could you tell us what the Red Cross does abroad?
We are part of the International movement, in which “sister societies” show solidarity. We help sister societies to become self-reliant and efficient and we intervene both during peacetime and wartime. For example, we work in Iraq, where we managed a hospital which is now run by Iraqis, with the economic backing of the IRC. Also, as an auxiliary of the Italian army, we are present in Nassiriya, where we provide medical assistance to Italian soldiers serving there since the beginning of the war.

In your activities abroad, how does collaboration with national societies, including those of the Red Crescent national societies, make your work easier?
The relationship between the Red Cross and Red Crescent societies is very strong. We feel part of the same family. Furthermore, we consider the Mediterranean area a strategic area. Last year, we created a special regional secretariat for the Red Cross and the Red Crescent. We also organised an international youth camp in Fasano, in Puglia, with the aim of building cooperation, peace and understanding among the different national societies. We also organise specific training on drugs issues for countries in Eastern Europe and in Central Asia. Drugs issues are particularly relevant to HIV prevention. In Eastern Europe and Central Asia, the prevalence of HIV is closely connected to drug use. So we provide clean needles as well as medical and substitute treatments, we train locals and do advocacy to encourage these countries to start similar programmes. We have a considerable amount of experience in this field which we can share with other national societies. For example, the Villa Maraini anti-drugs centre in Rome, which I founded, meets about 700 drug addicts every day.

In some politically difficult areas the Red Cross is sometimes perceived as the arm of governments. How do you show local people that this is not the case?
Since the beginning of my presidency, I have insisted on reminding our fundamental principals, including neutrality, impartiality and independence. I was elected because there was no interference from the government. Last December, when I took office, I told government representatives, “I am grateful that this government had no hand in the electoral process, because if it had I never would have been elected.” To come back to the question: it is also important that people perceive that we are independent. In my life, I have learnt that even if something is not true, what other people think does count. So I don’t even want-to give the impression that we are linked to a political party.

Do you interact with the World Food Program or the Food and Agriculture Organisation, wt both based in Rome?
First of all, there is a political and strategic cooperation: information exchange, presence at forums, advocacy…We try to attend all the events organised by the United Nations in order to present our point of view. Then, there is also cooperation in the field. We work side by side with various UN agencies. The presence of the Red Cross in every valuable partner for delivering aid.

How is the IRC funded? Is there a culture of ‘charity’ like in Britain and the United States?
The IRC is an auxiliary of the public authorities and we receive funding from the state. On top of this, we do fundraising, but this is more symbolic than important from an economic point of view. We also organise events, such as concerts, operas or the Red Cross ball. Recently, for example, we organised a concert of George Pretre at La Scala in Milan, which raised 200,000 for assistance and special projects. Although we have a double source of funding, state financing is the strongest. I think we have to be more modern, not look back, and do fundraising in a more professional and modern way. Fundraising has become a science, to be done by specialists, but we do not have the specialists.

Do Italian personalities get involved to help raise the profile of you organisation?
Yes, many famous people help us. For example, the president of the Republic is the patron of the IRC and his wife is the honorary president of the Women’s Committee. We also have artists and other personalities. The IRC is present in all layers of society. There isn’t a single group which is far removed from the movement. Even drug addicts feel close to the Red Cross. Some are members and are proud of it. I usually say that stigma kills: stigma kills more than AIDS, stigma kills more than drugs.

The battle of Solferino, which prompted Henry Dunant to found the Red Cross movement, took place in Italy. Is this significant for the IRC?
It’s a memory… “A Memory of Solferino” (Ed: the name of the book that Henry Dunant wrote after witnessing the after math of the battle). Apart from that, every 25 June, on the day of the battle, we organise a march with torches from Solferino to Castiglione delle Stiviere, where the women healed the French, the Piedmontese and the Austrians in front of Henry Dunant’s eyes. Every year thousands come from the all around the world. This year, we’d like to do something even grander. On 22 June the international conference for the adoption of the Red Cross’ third emblem takes place. I would like all the delegations present in Geneva to go Solferino the next day to present the new emblem on the spot where the red Cross was born.