Monday, 21 November 2011

Memories of Henrik Beer, a Red Cross SG who brought the environmental challenges to the world stage.

My fondest memories of Henrik was on a snowy Geneva winter day Dec 1978 or Jan 1979 when I was a young desk officer at the secretariat. I was duty officer and needed to check the telex for urgent messages. As the snow was quite thick, I didn't want to get stranded in my car, so I skiied in with my 20 month old daughter, warmly wrapped, on my back, the 3 km to the office. On arrival I went up to the telex room to find Henrik Beer watching the results of the first run of a Men's Slalom event coming through on the AFP teleprinter. Of course he was following the progress of fellow Swede Ingamar Stenmark. He was delighted to see me and made a big fuss over Anita. After the results came through and I had done my duty officer work, he invited me to his office and we had a long talk and he produced a bottle of schnaps.

Anita was crawling and walking around the office of this famous man and Henrik was so warm and engaging with her. He asked me how old I was and I said, " 31 years. " You have a bright future, and remember one thing. Red Cross is not political but to survive and flourish in this organisation, you must understand politics."

Skiing home that late afternoon, glowing inside from the schnaps, I felt I had really sat at the foot of the Guru. They were the days before "Zero Tolerance."

In late 1981, just before Henrik Beer retired, I hosted him on his last field visit. I was then working in Southern India where the League of Red Cross Societies were running a massive construction project, that of building 233 cyclone shelters along the 2000 km of cyclone prone coastine in Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry. It was with a great sense of pride that I escorted Henrik on his last visit. As we travelled together from Madras, he asked me, "How is Anita." He had remembered her name from that snowy Geneva day when she played in his office. That was typical of Henrik Beer, he loved people and his work.

Another memory or more precisely, was a souvenir that I had for more than 20 years. In the late 1970's, the League sold off a lot of old furniture replacing it with modern stuff. I bought Henrik's coffee table and used to think of all the world's statesmen and women that had discussed the leading global humanitarian issues of the day. People like Dag Hammerskold, U Thant, Indira Gandhi, Agha Khan had sipped tea, coffee and water from that table.

In December 2009 I had a long discussion about Henrik Beer with Tadateru Konoe, President of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. Here is a post from my blog on that trip.

" How are you Bob ?" he warmly greeted me as he entered the airport terminal in Jakarta last night. With his sharp eyes he had spotted me first. Tadateru Konoe is an impressive man who engages warmly and sincerely with all he meets. His humanitarian track record is equally impressive.

I was delighted when he was recently elected President of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the largest humanitarian organisation on the world.

I was also delighted to learn that for his first overseas trip as President of the International Red Cross, he picked Indonesia.

As we travelled by car the one hour from the airport to his hotel last night, we spoke about the various times we had worked together in the past: Bangladesh, Geneva and India. But the bulk of our time was spent on recalling Henrik Beer, Secretary General of the International Red Cross from 1960 to 1982. Mr.Konoe and I worked with Henrik in 1975 when we were based in Geneva, and remained our boss for some years later as we went our different ways in the Red Cross world.

"Henrik was an outstanding leader," said Konoe last night,"and he gave strong leadership for more than twenty years." We shared for many minutes our personal reminiscences of Henrik and acknowledged Henrik's contribution to the environment.

We then had a long discussion piecing together Henrik's contribution to the environment and climate change.

In 1972, the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment was held in Stockholm, and for the first time united the representatives of multiple governments to discuss the state of the global environment. This conference led directly to the creation of government environment agencies and the UN Environment Programme.

Henrik Beer participated in the conference, and was deeply moved by predictions of the earth slowly destroying itself. He left inspired and determined to get the Red Cross Red Crescent involved in environmental programmes in order to stop the environmental degradation that he believed was worsening the plight of vulnerable people.

In 1972-73 the phrase “Climate Change” had not been coined, but Henrik Beer’s vision changed the way some Red Cross Crescent societies thought and acted, as they started undertaking environmental programmes, a shift that set the foundation for an easy understanding of the later, and insidious onset of global warming.

Mr. Konoe reminded me that Henrik encouraged Red Cross societies such as Ethiopia - suffering from drought in 73-74 - to plant trees and to get young people involved. Henrik had similar messages for flood-stricken Nepal and India. He was passionate about reforestation, he understood overgrazing and the need to protect mountain lands and water catchments.

As we drove deeper into the heart of Jakarta, I told Mr. Konoe that in 1975, when I went to Nepal as a disaster preparedness delegate, both Henrik Beer and he briefed me In Geneva and both reminded me of the need to plant trees and make the young aware of the need to care for the environment, especially the fragile Himalayan environment.

Both Henrik Beer and Tadateru Konoe (see photo of him above in 1968) had visited Nepal a number of times in the late 60s, early 70's and collectively gave a lot of guidance and material assistance. Konoe told me about an adventurous trip he had to Nepal in 1968, when he drove an ambulance donated by the Japanese Red Cross to Kathmandu, from India, across rough, and often unformed roads.

I recalled that n 1981, when I was working in India on a huge cyclone preparedness programme, Henrik Beer made his last field visit as secretary general. We were building 230 cyclone shelters and part of the programme was an integrated disaster preparedness programme where young volunteers planted trees to protect the coastline, the shelters, and drainage canals. Henrik was thrilled to see the Indian volunteers active with environmental programmes.

Mr. Konoe visited Southern India shortly after Henrik, and I had the pleasure of travelling with him and we recalled some of our impressions at that time. Today, planting trees for protection along cyclone prone coastlines is an archetypal way of addressing the increased threats posed by climate change.

As we neared the hotel we agreed that Henrik Beer was a great leader of the Red Cross and the humanitarian world at large, and kept abreast of world affairs and especially topics related to humanity and environment.

As we arrived, I told Mr. Konoe I had a fascinating paper on Red Cross and the environment, and this morning I unearthed it, and will share it with him when we meet at lunch today.

From the paper I noted the that words, spoken by Henrik Beer over three decades ago, could have been written yesterday as a rallying call for all civil society and government organisations to come together and safeguard our future:

“Can the agencies and the many INGOs each treat the world network of organizations as an administrative problem when it clearly represents an unstudied social problem? Is it not an unexplored global network of resources — of which the governmental and business worlds are an integral part – which has not yet been effectively related to the peace/population/food/development/education/environment crisis precisely because the functional relationship of all the parts to the social whole is repeatedly and systematically ignored in organizational decisions?

“It is no longer useful to concentrate on the problems of one "independent" organization or group of organizations (as though each operated as an autonomous frontier outpost surrounded by uncharted terrain). Nor is it useful to focus on a single geographical region or subject area -- it is now essential to look at the problems of the network of interdependent organizations and their inter- related concerns ," said Henrik.
Henrik Beer had a vision.

I know that Tadateru Konoe has a vision similar to Henrik Beer..

We now have a man of vision with a history of implementation at the helm of Red Cross, and I know if Henrik Beer were alive today, he would be very proud that one of his protegees, is President of the organisation he gave so much to. Henrik Beer and Tadateru Konoe have much in common: men of high integrity, men of vision who have given their lives to the Red Cross