The Red Cross you might not know

10 Aug 2018 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 13 Aug 2018

As image concerns go, it's a bit different; the Red Cross is a world-famous organisation held in high esteem. However, most awareness concerns the work in the world's worst disaster zones. Their day to day is less spectacular but just as important.

Ask most people about the Red Cross, and they will think of major disasters - relief efforts visible on the Six O'Clock News. 

It is the largest humanitarian organisation in the world. comprised of around 190 national societies and it is little surprise that the name conjures images of work carried out on the global stage but that can leave their local efforts left in shadow., even when the day-to-day work for the Red Cross and its volunteers is focused on local communities. 
Nevertheless, in the public mind they are much more closely associated with their international work and being key responders against major conflicts or natural disasters - and, of course, the Red Cross is all those things, right to its foundation.

The Red Cross was established in 1863, in Geneva, by Henry Dunant and Gustave Moynier. Mr Dunant was a Swiss businessman and had been set on this path during a business trip four years prior, on which he witnessed the aftermath of the Battle of Solferino, which was part of the Second Italian War of Independence.

He witnessed 23,000 dead, dying and wounded combatants simple abandoned on the battlefield - and this changed his life. He rallied local civilians to help the soldiers, secured the release of Austrian doctors from French forces, wrote a book about his experiences (which explored the idea of a neutral organisation that provides care to wounded soldiers), and founded the Red Cross (and, a year later, established the Geneva Conventions).

The Red Cross has been an organisation focused on emergencies on the largest scale, since its inception. It can be difficult to get out from under the weight history, especially your own, even if most of your world is more mundane (if no less worthy or important).

Scope spoke recently with Sharon Sinclair, Director of Red Cross NI, about their role in Northern Ireland and how the organisation is adapting to a changing world. "It can be hard to do an elevator pitch for what is our common or key thread.

"We are a crisis response and emergency response organisation and work is divided into services for individuals who are maybe facing personal health problems or some other crisis - to either avert or respond to that crisis - and community or area emergency response, for example last year we had a major response to the flooding in Derry. The recovery phase of that is still going on."

Local mission

In Northern Ireland, the work of the Red Cross falls under five main categories: independent living, mobility aids, crisis response, refugee support and education.
Independent living helps vulnerable individuals remain independent for as long as possible by providing them with practical and emotional support - which can include helping them home from hospital sooner (including an assisted discharge project running out of the Ulster Hospital), or providing them with a volunteer for up to six weeks to help them settle at home, while another arm of this aspect includes trying to tackle loneliness and social isolation.

This branch of the organisation is also entirely in line with ongoing health reform - Transforming Your Care, Bengoa, and so on, which Ms Sinclair said was "prescient" - and, in that sense, ties in with the mobility aids, whereby short-term wheelchair loans are provided to people across Northern Ireland in a service supported by each of our five regional health trusts (not the case in the rest of the UK) as a simple, direct intervention to help people in need.

Ms Sinclair said: "That's one of our oldest services, it goes back to World War One, when the Red Cross were providing makeshift mobility aids for soldiers returning from the trenches and battlefields."

Crisis response is, as above, what the Red Cross is best known for. As well as NI issues like the Eglantine floods of last summer, local volunteers have been dispatched to incidents that have made headlines around the world, including the terror attack at Manchester Arena and the Grenfell Tower fire in West London.

Those are working examples of the mutual aid arrangements the different national Red Cross societies have with each other, which is also how the organisation makes effective use of its volunteers and other resources - the national members deal with any and all domestic incidents as best as possible but, if anything grows beyond their capacity, they request help from other members which is then provided to ensure a solid response.

Examples of smaller local incidents would include fires, while the work of the organisation, in general, is not simply in response, but also includes recovery and then resilience (in particular, against repeats of whatever incident has occurred).

Helping refugees is, of course, a key part of what Red Cross does - and a natural consequence of their internationalism - and, in NI they provide initial orientation to refugees and asylum seekers, and also destitution support to those who find themselves without access to any public funds because of systemic gaps and/or delays.

Their education programmes provide first-aid training to many across NI every year, with particular targeting aimed at vulnerable groups who are the most likely people to encounter a medical emergency - including homeless people, those with addictions, and disenfranchised youths.


The Red Cross is a lot of different things all at the same time. As well as adapting to growing need, Ms Sinclair says the organisation has been making concerted efforts in the past couple of years to build awareness of its local work.

"We have been in growth and development mode for the last nine or 10 years, trying to expand our profiled to meet a new and emerging need.

"In general, we see our work as response, recovery and resilience, and that is true whether the crisis is a personal one - for example, if someone has been disabled either temporarily or permanently, or requires support at home - or in response to a wider, area emergency.

"We didn't used to do TV advertising, and things like that, but we have used that through a period, and now have some social media campaigns."
Other people in the third sector might be incredibly envious of the standing of the Red Cross.

However, the organisation both recognises its fortune, in terms of general awareness, but at the same time would like a better perception of the work they do, in totality, and how it all ties together.

It is only natural for organisations that rely on donations to want the people who do, or potentially could, provide support to know where their money is going.

"Our brand recognition is incredibly high. I've work in the voluntary sector for a long time, and often you have to explain who you are before you explain what you do, whereas the Red Cross is something like the third most recognised brand in the world. However most people, if you ask what we do, will say 'You respond to international crises.'

"That's what I find so there are where brand advertising has really been trying to explain that we are a crisis response organisation, and every crisis is personal, and also that we have a particular domestic mandate.

"We just want people to have the correct perception about us."


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