Prague, 10 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The International Red Cross and Red Crescent societies are increasingly being called upon to provide essential services to the world's most vulnerable, as natural disasters continue to strike and as failing economies undermine the availability of social services.
According to the latest Red Cross Emergency Appeal for 1999 -- launched in late December -- the number of people who need help around the world is growing, particularly in areas like the Caucasus, Russia's Far East, Central Asia and Afghanistan.
Our correspondent spoke this week to Margareta Wahlstrom, under secretary-general responsible for disaster response for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) in Geneva.
Wahlstrom said the 1999 emergency appeal -- for some $175 million -- will help bring assistance to some 23 million people through 55 different programs. Wahlstrom said two of the largest programs are slated for the Caucasus and Afghanistan.
RFE/RL asked Wahlstrom to describe IFRC efforts in the Caucasus, where she says long-term socio-economic changes brought on by the collapse of the Soviet Union are taking their toll on close to half a million people.
"Right now, money is going into two areas -- one is the social [services] area, where we are trying to assist people really on the margins, and this means providing food and health-related costs. We help with clothing and supplies to survive winter. The other area we are looking at is to strengthen the national Red Cross Society of all these countries so they'll take on more and more responsibility of what now is very much supported by international sources. And [we have] some emergency situations still ongoing after many years -- Azeri refugees. In Georgia, we also have refugees and displaced persons, and in Armenia -- in its way the most stable, but at a very low level of socio-economic strength."
Wahlstrom said these problems are compounded by the as-yet-unresolved conflicts over Nagorno-Karabakh and Abkhazia. She said as a result, more than one million internally displaced people are unable to return to their places of origin.
Turning to Central Asia, Wahlstrom said 20 years of conflict in Afghanistan have brought a constant deterioration in that country's socio-economic situation and a dramatic worsening of the plight of the most needy. In the course of 1998, Taliban forces gained control of more than 90 percent of Afghanistan, imposing strict Islamic rule. Walhstrom said the situation there remains as "unpredictable as ever."
"I think the unpredictability is the mix of international isolation -- not having a stable government that controls the country to lead the development effort. It's unpredictable in terms of the balance of possible disruption, security and what the rest of the international community does. It is, on the other hand, very predictable in that the population suffers increasing deterioration of very basic needs like health. And the education system has fallen apart. And there are very vulnerable groups in the country which -- in addition to all this -- is very subject to natural disasters."
Wahlstrom said the main focus in Afghanistan remains on local health provisions through 46 primary health clinics around the country.
Wahlstrom said the Taliban has neither aided nor hindered their efforts. She said some one million people last year alone were treated to primary health care in Afghanistan. Of that number, Wahlstrom said most were women and children.
"Women and children -- particularly in Afghanistan, where there is a very high mortality rate, but also in many other Eastern European countries suffering from very rapid decline and changes in the socio-economic and political climate -- tend to suffer very quickly because governments are unable to keep up commitments made to these systems and that tends to affect, of course, the groups of society that need these systems most."
Wahlstrom told our correspondent that the decision to focus largely on health care in Afghanistan was shaped by the presence of chronic malnutrition and low immunization levels, resulting from the collapse of the health system and the destruction caused by the internal conflict and natural disasters, such as earthquakes. She adds that with additional funds, some 2.2 million Afghans could benefit from international Red Cross/Red Crescent services.
An emergency appeal for Russia's far Northeast -- Kamchatka, Magadan and Chukotka -- comes during what the IFRC is calling "the worst of times" for over 80,000 vulnerable people whom it says are on "the brink of catastrophe." Food, clothing, medical and hygienic supplies will form the bulk of the aid. Thus far, relief work in the region has been some of the most logistically challenging, with temperatures plunging to minus 50 degrees Centigrade.
Wahlstrom said it is a similar story in the five Central Asian republics, where freezing temperatures and empty stomachs are becoming -- as she put it -- "all too familiar." Factories are closed, unemployment is endemic and the state support safety net has ceased to function. Unlike other regions where the IFRC operates, the structure and network for aid exists but not the resources.
In every instance, no matter what or where the plight, Wahlstrom said the IFRC is trying to send the message to build local capacity and utilize local resources. She said the federation also hopes to influence a change in attitude by encouraging people to take greater responsibility for themselves and the rest of humanity.
"This is a long-term scenario that we will be engaged in for the next 10 years ... in combination with some of the economic crises in Asia [and] the increasing number of people affected by natural disasters. I do think we have a difficult 10 years ahead of us, looking particularly at these social areas and the risks and situations that individuals are facing. And of course it will be up to governments and the international community to look at, but something where we need to make joint efforts."
Wahlstrom said at present the IFRC has secured about 10 percent of what she called "hard pledges," or firm commitments of aid, and another four percent or so of soft commitments. She characterized it as "not a bad start," in comparison to other years, but said an additional five emergency appeals have since gone out. She said the grand total the IFCR is seeking is really closer to $250 million. But beyond the financial realm, Wahlstrom said the "human dimension" is where success will ultimately be measured.
As she put, even if Red Cross/Red Crescent efforts only effect lives in the short term, such efforts still bring hope, a sense of people who care, and a semblance of dignity to the growing number of the world's most vulnerable.