Red Cross Facing Increasing Challenges Worldwide

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Leaders of the American Red Cross and the International Committee of the Red Cross talk about their mission, and how they administer relief in the United States and worldwide.

NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

It has been a bad year for disasters. The South Asian tsunami in late 2004 prompted one of the biggest humanitarian aid efforts of our times. Here at home, aid workers raced to the Gulf Coast in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, often before FEMA teams made it on the ground. Then Hurricane Rita hit a bit further west. Now a devastating earthquake in Pakistan and mudslides in Guatemala. The Red Cross is amongst the first to arrive at the front lines of disaster, delivering essentials like food, shelter and medical supplies to those who need it most. Around the world, the emblems of the Red Cross and the Islamic Red Crescent are universal symbols for emergency response.

The International Committee of the Red Cross plays a different but hardly less critical role to protect human rights and help those most in need often in the manmade disaster of war. For well over a century now, the Red Cross has established chapters around the world, ready to deploy at a moment's notice. They rely on many thousands of volunteers to do a great portion of their work, from donating and distributing blood to manning shelters and providing food to survivors.

In just a moment, we'll hear from leaders of the American Red Cross and the International Committee of the Red Cross and examine their distinct missions and how they operate. If you have questions about the role of the Red Cross here and abroad, give us a call. If you've been a Red Cross volunteer, tell us about that experience. We'd also like to hear from those of you who survived Hurricane Katrina or Rita and your experiences with the Red Cross. Our number is (800) 989-8255. That's (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address is totn@npr.org.

Joining us here in Studio 3A is Marsha Evans, president and CEO of the American Red Cross. Thanks very much. I know you're busy. We appreciate your time today.

Ms. MARSHA EVANS (President & CEO, American Red Cross): Well, I enjoy being here with you. Thank you.

CONAN: Now the destruction left by Hurricane Katrina and then subsequently Hurricane Rita, this has prompted one of the biggest relief efforts the nation has ever seen. Describe for us just the difficulties of this in terms of the scale of this disaster.

Ms. EVANS: We're talking about a disaster that covers a territory, geography the size of the country of Great Britain; in the US, if you imagined from New York to Chicago, that area being covered by a disaster, and that's what we're dealing with. Communities were totally cut off for many days. The destruction is almost unimaginable, and whereas in the case of the tsunami, which, of course had enormous destruction that was covered quite well on television, that was a wave--several waves that came through. We had not only the waves that came through, the water that flooded and took away a lot, but then we also had battering winds, hundred and fifty-plus-mile-an-hour winds for, in some places, over five hours that really exacerbated the destruction. So it was a scale and scope that I don't think many Americans, until they actually see the landscape, can appreciate.

CONAN: Have you been down there?

Ms. EVANS: I've been down there four times, and I'm going down again to check on the progress, to visit with our incredible Red Cross volunteers and staff members. We have over a hundred and eighty thousand volunteers that have mobilized. Some are down in the region, working in shelters, working in feeding sites, doing family assistance and counseling, mental health support work. But then we have Red Crossers all over the country, every single chapter, over 850 chapters have mobilized, and we actually have evacuees in all 50 states now depending on the Red Cross chapter in their location for support.

CONAN: Do you have enough distance to have some reflection on lessons learned, simply dealing with the scale for one thing?

Ms. EVANS: Well, we're always looking for the lessons learned, because in a disaster of this scale and scope, there are often opportunities to improve how we're delivering the services that we provide, to change them for the better. In the case of family emergency financial assistance, our traditional way is you sit at a table with your Red Cross family assistance counselor and you describe your losses and then we help provide some emergency family assistance for you, as well as some other community-based services. In this case, we're talking about over a million families--actually, at this point, 1.1 million families that have been assisted with that emergency financial assistance. We simply couldn't wait for everybody to sit at a table, and so we had to set up a whole system where people could talk to family assistance people over the phone and then use financial institutions to receive their emergency assistance. So we couldn't wait for the lesson learned, that it was going to be too slow.

CONAN: As you know, one of the criticisms that's been leveled at the Red Cross after this emergency has been the difficulty of getting through on that phone to people waiting for days to get through on that phone.

Ms. EVANS: Well, we had family assistance provided by a lot of different means, the old-fashioned way as well as the phone system. And, yes, I mean, we would liked to have served 1.1 million families the very first day, but we had to create the system, ramp it up, and I think people were patient with us and we're continuing to provide that assistance.

CONAN: Let's get listeners involved in the conversation. Again, if you'd like to join us, (800) 989-8255, (800) 989-TALK. E-mail is totn@npr.org.

And this is Marty. Marty calling us from Galena, Illinois.

MARTY (Caller): Hello. How are you today?

CONAN: Very well, thank you.

MARTY: Good. Ms. Evans, I'd just like to say hello. I am just back about a week now from volunteering with the American Red Cross in Biloxi, Gulfport for, once again, three weeks. And I'd just like to share with you and with the listeners the exceptional experience that I had and the personal gratitude I felt as a volunteer for the Red Cross. I did my fair share of one-on-one types of services with individuals, but my primary responsibility was with the partner services desk at the Biloxi headquarters of the Red Cross. And, Ms. Evans, I met you briefly when you were there in Biloxi that day. And, again, this is the--I've been involved with the Red Cross for four and a half years. This is the first disaster I've had the experience of being involved in, and once again, I'd just like to share my warm feelings, and I really felt that I made a difference and I'm proud to say I'm a Red Cross volunteer.

Ms. EVANS: Well, thank you so much, and it's great to hear that. You are an example of what the Red Cross is trying to do. It's to turn the compassion of America, American people, and to give them a vehicle where they can get engaged and make that passion become a reality, that compassion become a reality, and your work, to work with our partners on the job site down in Biloxi was so important because the Red Cross can't do it alone. In a disaster of this size, we have to depend on a variety of different community-based and national partners, and somebody has to pull all of those partnerships together. And so the work that you did made sure that not only Red Cross resources were on the job, but that we capitalized on partnerships such as the Southern Baptist Convention, the Salvation Army and others, to make sure we got the most help to the most people who needed it so desperately. So thank you very much and I hope your four and a half years will turn into 24 1/2 years of volunteer service.

MARTY: Well, there's no doubt about it that I will continue to be involved with the Red Cross, and I enjoyed working with local, state and federal governmental agencies while in Biloxi, and you mentioned the service centers that we pretty much put up as we landed, so to speak, because the (800) number was overwhelmed. And I was personally involved in getting several of those up and running. I'm proud to say that we were providing financial assistance, manually writing out 10,000 checks a day to those who needed it most. So thank you for your efforts and I appreciate your time and I enjoy the show.

CONAN: Marty, thanks very much for the program--for the call, rather. I do the program.

MARTY: Right.

CONAN: You make the calls. OK.

MARTY: Thank you.

CONAN: All right. Bye-bye. Appreciate it. Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. And this is Karen. Karen calling us from Los Gatos in California.

KAREN (Caller): Yes, sir. You know, I just returned quite recently from Dalil(ph), Mississippi, and we worked in a distribution center there, and unfortunately, I have to say that the Red Cross did not make a huge contribution in that community in the time that we were there.

CONAN: Did you see representatives of the Red Cross there?

KAREN: Just before we left, we did see some representatives. They came in and they set up a little first aid station across from the distribution center.

CONAN: A...

KAREN: And what they never bothered to do was determine whether or not there was anything going on in the distribution center where we, in fact, had a full-time general surgeon, two nurses and additional nurses and doctors who came in and out. So eventually, they just left and they packed up and left.

CONAN: Hmm. Well, obviously, I'm not sure you're familiar with operations in every city and town across the affected area, but a response, Marsha Evans?

Ms. EVANS: Well, you're right, I'm not familiar with the circumstances at this particular location, but I've often been asked about--by people who have been down in the area, and they say, `Well, I saw another non-profit on the scene. Where was the Red Cross?' The fact of the matter is that because the number of communities hit was so significant, that we tried to be very strategic, tried to make sure that every community was served perhaps by another NGO who was down there working, so...

CONAN: Non-governmental organization. Go ahead.

Ms. EVANS: Right. As long as there were communities that hadn't been served by any of the non-profit partners that were down on the job, then it didn't make a lot of sense to duplicate and to have two or more of us in the same place. So it was--in this particular case, in the case of this enormous disaster, it was very important to spread all the resources--Red Cross and other resources across as wide a territory as we possibly could.

CONAN: Karen, if the Red Cross wasn't there, was the kind of services that the Red Cross would provide, were they there?

KAREN: Curiously enough, they were. It was entirely a grassroots operation. One woman came in, took over the elementary school, and the trucks just started arriving with supplies. But the Red Cross didn't show up.

CONAN: Yeah. People have such trust in the Red Cross that they--you often--and I don't mean to read a lot into your words, Karen, but I detect some anger in your tone of voice, that they feel betrayed a little bit.

KAREN: You know, I'm a little disappointed, because my husband and I went uninvited because the Red Cross didn't respond to our several attempts at contacting them to volunteer, so we went uninvited. We were routed down to this community, and we worked night and day every day, and at the end of the day, we were so filthy, we threw our clothes away. The Red Cross showed up at the end of our stay. They had on these lovely white uniforms with a big red cross on the back, and they weren't even dirty. So, yes, I guess there is a little bit of frustration there.

CONAN: Yeah.

Ms. EVANS: Well, one of the reasons they may not have been dirty was they may have been volunteers that had come in just that day from some other part of the country. We have been recruiting volunteers across the country every single day. We've had over 20,000 new volunteers who have gone to our local Red Cross chapters back home, gotten some basic training, and then have joined the teams that are coming in every day, and then some people, like the previous caller, are concluding their service in the region, and they're leaving. So it's a constant change-out of people as their tours of duty complete and new people come in. So that may have been what you were seeing in the clean clothes.

CONAN: Kar...

KAREN: You know, I do hope that is what we saw, because as I said, you know, it was a bit frustrating, and frustrating to the point that we have actually now started the foundation for a new organization, not to compete with the Red Cross, but to get in and meet the need as fast as we can, and just get into a community as soon as the need arises.

CONAN: Karen, thanks very much. We appreciate it.

KAREN: Thank you.

CONAN: We are talking today about the Red Cross. Our guest is Marsha Evans, the president and chief executive officer of the American Red Cross. In a moment, we'll be joined by a representative of the International Committee of the Red Cross. If you'd like to join us: (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. And our e-mail address is totn@npr.org.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION coming to you from NPR News.

And obviously, the Red Cross is familiar to almost every American, but the International Committee of the Red Cross is somewhat less familiar. Joining us now is Pierre Kraehenbuehl, director of operations for the International Committee of the Red Cross. He's with us from a studio at the ICRC headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland.

Very good of you to take the time to be with us today, sir.

Mr. PIERRE KRAEHENBUEHL (International Committee of the Red Cross): Nice to talk to you.

CONAN: Tell us, how is the mission of the ICRC different from that of, for example, the American Red Cross?

Mr. KRAEHENBUEHL: Well, I think the one very distinctive feature is that we operate in conflict situations around the world. That is really where everything started for us over 140 years ago. We've been present in most of the big internal and international armed conflicts around the world. We have now currently 10,000 colleagues operating in approximately 80 countries which are affected by manmade disasters in that sense. That gives you a sense of the scope of the operations, the network that it represents internationally. And, indeed, these are many of the places that I think have--make it to news headlines, such as Sudan and Iraq and Afghanistan, and then many others which don't; I'm thinking of Somalia and Ethiopia, Liberia, Haiti and many other places.

And I think one of the characteristics of our way of working is, indeed, that we do not make differences between the different contacts, those that make it to headlines and those that don't. For us, it is really an issue of being present and being able to provide relief and support to people who are affected by those situations.

CONAN: The International Committee of the Red Cross can also provide some humanitarian lubricant, if you will, between belligerents in various conflicts.

Mr. KRAEHENBUEHL: Well, one of the other very specific characteristics of our approach is that, indeed, we don't become involved in the political controversies of a situation. That is the distinct neutral and independent approach that we put forward which does allow us to work on the different sides involved in a conflict. That means both interacting with the political authorities, the armed opposition groups in the hope of obtaining access to people that we would otherwise not be able to reach if we became involved in the political nature of the controversy. And I think that really is a feature that distinguishes us in our approach and has allowed us to work in places that would have been otherwise unreachable for us.

CONAN: And we want callers involved for both of our guests, of course. (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. And let's talk now with Elaine, Elaine calling from Pleasant Hill in California.

ELAINE (Caller): Yes. Do you recognize Magen David Adom as well as the red crescent? And if you do not, when will you and why do you not?

CONAN: Pierre Kraehenbuehl.

ELAINE: I beg...

Mr. KRAEHENBUEHL: That's a very import...

CONAN: I was...

Mr. KRAEHENBUEHL: Yeah, that's a...

CONAN: I was just addressing the question to our guest whose name is Pierre Kraehenbuehl. But go ahead.

Mr. KRAEHENBUEHL: This is a very important issue and I think one has to be very clear about it, that there has been a long historical injustice, the fact that the Israeli national relief society was not integrated into the broader movement. I will not now bore you with all the historic and legal reasons behind that; I'm just saying the ICRC--and there with a lot of support from the American Red Cross--is clearly committed and involved in putting a solution forward. Concrete steps have been achieved this year, and we believe we're on the right direction. It is, of course, very much also dependent on an overall climate in the Middle East in able to--in hoping to resolve this, but we are very committed to that. We believe the solution is very close and is very near at hand, and we are intent on resolving it as soon as we can.

CONAN: So the red Star of David might be as accepted as the red cross or the red crescent?

ELAINE: But why is it not now accepted?

Mr. KRAEHENBUEHL: Well, the point is--it's long and again, I'll try and give a short perspective on that. The issue has been historically that the emblem that the Israeli society has in use was not one of those recognized within the Geneva Conventions that regulate this. And these were decisions taken by the states that put together and drafted the Geneva Conventions at the time in 1949. We, therefore, need a solution that puts forward an additional emblem, an additional pos--an emblem that allows now and would make it possible for the Magen David Adom and for other national societies that have not been able to resolve this to solve it. And we are very close to a solution. We believe it'll take a lot of effort on many sides, but we are very, very engaged in it at the present stage.

CONAN: Elaine, thanks very much for the call.

We're going to have to take a short break. And when we return, we will take more of your calls for the International Committee of the Red Cross and the American Red Cross. Leaders of both those organizations have been kind enough to join us today. If you'd like to join the conversation, the number is (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address is totn@npr.org.

I'm Neal Conan. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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Today, we're discussing the Red Cross, their mission and how they define it and how they spend the millions of dollars they receive each year. Our guests are Marsha Evans, president and CEO of the American Red Cross, and Pierre Kraehenbuehl, the director of operations for the International Committee of the Red Cross. If you'd like to join us, our number is (800) 989-8255; that's (800) 989-TALK. And the e-mail address is totn@npr.org.

Let's get another caller on the line. And this is Wilmer(ph), Wilmer calling us from Ypsilanti in Michigan.

WILMER (Caller): Yes, sir.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

WILMER: Yes. I'd like to say, you know, that I appreciate all the hard work for the Red Cross. I'm originally from El Salvador, Central America, and I feel bad, you know, when I hear the--when they criticize, you know, that the help is not on time. But when I was growing up, I remember being in need, you know, we need food and shelter, and that was the Red Cross who was present there to help us. And I will say that when you are in need and somebody helps you, it's never late. So I just send my gratitude and appreciation for all what they did in El Salvador ...(unintelligible).

CONAN: This was during the civil war in El Salvador?

WILMER: Yes, sir.

CONAN: That would've been the International Committee of the Red Cross, then, Pierre Kraehenbuehl.

Mr. KRAEHENBUEHL: Well, it's also interesting, but--it's a coincidence, but that's where I spent my first mission on assignment with the ICRC. And it's true. I think everybody who has worked in Central America during the many years of conflict have been very much struck by what is characteristic of such situations, which is the human dimension of the work that we carry out, of being in touch with people who have the experience with their families affected, concerned sometimes about a missing relative, somebody who has maybe traveled across the country and hasn't come back and maybe somebody arrested, detained, that the ICRC might be able to visit in difficult circumstances.

It was also the time that my personal experience brought me for the first time to deliver what we call a Red Cross message to the mother of a daughter who had just written her for the first time in 10 years. This was the first message that was being delivered to her. She had obviously given up hope and there was a feeling for a few seconds when we read the message out to her of just simple disbelief. She could simply not come to terms with the fact that there, finally, a message had come and her daughter was in a country abroad and we had re-established a link between.

And those are things that the 10,000 colleagues of mine that I referred to earlier are carrying out every day around the world, and it gives you a sense of the human dimensions. Obviously, I'm very grateful for the comment of your caller earlier about the recollection of what that action meant for him.

CONAN: Wilmer, thanks very much for the phone call.

WILMER: Thank you, sir.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

Let's talk now with Katie, and Katie is calling us from the New Jersey Turnpike.

KATIE (Caller): Hi. I would just like to say that I love NPR. I was actually an intern with NPR last year and I really appreciate what you guys are doing.

CONAN: Thank you.

KATIE: And my question was directed for the International Committee of the Red Cross.

CONAN: Go ahead.

KATIE: And I was wondering, are there times when you just can't work in a country, like Haiti or something, where there is such corruption, where the committee just can't function? And then what do you do in those circumstances?

Mr. KRAEHENBUEHL: Well, that's important. I mean, obviously, what one has to say about that is--first of all, the case of Haiti, we are present. And it's surprising to see the number of places where, in fact, over time one does manage to operate. It takes a lot of patience, skill and, I would say, stubbornness. I mean, I can refer to a country where it took us 13 years to negotiate our way into the prisons of that country. And I think it tells you something about the fact that we simply don't take no for an answer easily. And there is a sense that drives us simply to put efforts into these attempts to get into some of the most remote corners of the world. If you think about the fact that today we operate in the North Caucasus, in most parts of the conflict zones throughout Africa where many people would give up after time and say it's simply hopeless. We don't have that luxury. We know that we have a responsibility to try and try again. And so, yes, there are moments where we feel, of course, because we are human beings like everybody else, frustrated at attempts that fail, but it's--just the sense that I want to share with you is that giving up is not part of our agenda.

CONAN: In the Caucasus in Chechnya not--just a couple of years ago, the ICRC lost--I think half a dozen of its workers were killed there. Have you been able to return to that part of the conflict zone?

Mr. KRAEHENBUEHL: Yes, indeed. We have some colleagues working in the North Caucasus, including Chechnya, day in day out. Right now we also have, of course, colleagues who operate there locally and nationally. I think that is a very important dimension. In most of these countries around the world, it is a very critical combination of national staff and international staff, of course, that make the difference. National staff, through their knowledge of local circumstances, their sensitivity to approaches that we would otherwise not perceive and understand quite in the same way. That helps us definitely to go further.

But you're right, Neal. I think there is this dimension that has to be referred to, which is the security dimension of this whole operation. You referred to something that happened in 1996 where we had also lost three other colleagues in Burundi that year, and then 2003, where we lost several colleagues in Afghanistan and Iraq. That is a dimension that is very present, the security component, the responsibilities that we take as an organization of sending people into these zones.

The point, I think, that has to be understood is we have a responsibility particular to our staff, but we also make it clear that when we analyze security parameters and when we express concern about that, that is never disconnected from the experiences and the suffering that the people who live in those countries go through. And I think it is precisely because of the often very simply appalling nature of the situations that they have to go through--men, women, children in all of these countries--that is the driving force behind our motivation to continue to try.

CONAN: Katie, thanks very much for the phone call.

KATIE: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

Marsha, let me ask you. After 9/11, the Red Cross came under a great deal of criticism in terms of its fund-raising in that the idea that it was raising funds for victims of 9/11 and actually applying at least some of those funds to other programs. This afterwards has be--come to referred to as the `transparency issue.' Are people who donate for victims of Katrina now assured that that money will go to the victims of Katrina?

Ms. EVANS: They are absolutely assured that if they designate their donation for Katrina, Rita or the combination thereof, that the funds will definitely be used for response to those incidents, those hurricanes.

Let me point out, though, that we also have a very significant need for donations to the National Disaster Relief Fund. The Red Cross responds to about 70,000 disasters a year, and they range from a house fire where a family is burned out overnight all the way to disasters of the scale and scope that we're dealing with now. So the Red Cross needs support for not only the large disasters that get excellent and continuing media coverage, we need support, we need help to provide that emergency family assistance to that family tonight in your hometown that needs help.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is Andrea(ph) (pronounced ann-dree-ah), Andrea calling from Eugene Oregon.

ANDREA (Caller): Hi, my name is Andrea (pronounced ann-dreh-ah), and I work...

CONAN: Hi.

ANDREA: ...with the immigrant rights organizations in Northern California.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

ANDREA: And we're receiving reports every day of undocumented immigrants being denied entry into Red Cross shelters throughout the South. And my question is: What are you doing to ensure that Red Cross aid reaches all people affected by the tragedy?

CONAN: Marsha Evans.

Ms. EVANS: The Red Cross provides aid and assistance without regard to race, creed, national origin or any other circumstance. We're there to help anyone who needs it. We have unfortunately had those occurrences. We are working very closely with the United States Department of Justice, with the state and the local authorities. We have made very clear the terms and conditions of our assistance to people and that is no questions asked. We harbor anyone who needs a safe refuge from the storm or needs support afterwards. And...

CONAN: When you say there have been some instances--in other words, have government officials told you not to provide aid and shelter to undocumented aliens?

Ms. EVANS: There have been some local circumstances where we have had that occur, and we have addressed every single of them as they have surfaced and basically resolved those issues. But we take very seriously our commitment to provide assistance, to provide disaster relief to anyone who needs it regardless of their circumstance.

CONAN: Andrea, is that what you're hearing?

ANDREA: Yes, we're hearing that every day from different people that are down there, firsthand accounts of 40, 50 immigrants being turned away from the doors of Red Cross shelters. And we're very concerned and looking for ways that we can ensure that that will not continue.

CONAN: OK. Thank you very much for the call, Andrea. Thank you.

ANDREA: Thank you.

CONAN: Appreciate the call.

Let me turn to you, Pierre Kraehenbuehl. The ICRC has a special responsibility in terms of prisoners of war. No one will have seen any World War II prisoner of war movie without the obligatory visit of the representative of the Red Cross from Switzerland and the Red Cross packages of food that arrive to keep the prisoners alive. In this current war on terrorism, the ICRC has been playing an important role in terms of Guantanamo and in terms of asking American authorities to improve conditions.

Mr. KRAEHENBUEHL: It is a very central part of our activities worldwide. And maybe just a global indicator, in 2004, we visited half a million prisoners in over 80 countries around the world. So just simply to, again, see the scale of that in terms of reaching the places and--you refer to Guantanamo, but if you think of many other countries, these are sometimes very remote places of detention in very abandoned facilities where people find themselves in very difficult circumstances. This is, indeed, an important work.

Now in the case of the United States, it is true. We felt very clear about the fact that we would assume our responsibility in this field of visiting prisoners in exactly the same fashion. We believe that's the approach that we use worldwide. And what is this approach, in fact? It is that we require assistance and we request assistance to places of detention. We request the possibility of meeting and having private talks with the different detainees in an effort to ascertain the conditions and treatment that these people enjoy--or respectively, in different circumstances--endure, and then report directly to the detaining authorities--in this case, to the US directly--our findings and recommendations on how things are going, what improvements we think are necessary. And that is the exact same approach that we have taken. And, yes, we believe it is an important role and it is certainly a role that the United States as a country has supported the ICRC worldwide and throughout our history.

Now on this particular instance, we have a number of issues that we've come up with and documented. And I think what we find very important is that our recommendations are being taken very seriously and that this is a very substantial dialogue that we have with the US on these matters.

CONAN: The organization has been criticized for being, in the opinion of some, excessively vocal on some of these issues. The ICRC is generally quite quiet.

Mr. KRAEHENBUEHL: Well, I can just refer to a personal experience, Neal. Last year, when, in fact, one of our reports on Abu Ghraib, which you will recall was leaked and published in The Wall Street Journal--I just take this opportunity to be very explicit and clear about the fact that it was not leaked by the ICRC, and I think this is one indication one has to have. And I had to deal with the press conference in May 2004 at which these issues were brought up, and I can tell you in all frankness, I could have done without that particular press conference because that is, indeed, not the way in which we deal with issues. We deal with these kind of issues in a direct, confidential manner with the detaining authorities. The fact that this report was then made public and leaked--again, I insist not by the ICRC--of course, then forced us to take up a number of questions that were put to us in public terms. But again, our privileged approach, because we believe and have--and this has been demonstrated to us over years and long years of experience, is that our impact is greater when we raise these issues directly.

Now you're absolutely right. That is not always understood. In fact, in most places, depending on which side you are on, people expect of us to be much more vocal. And then in other circumstances, people say we have been too vocal. So it's not an easy situation to be in a win-win on this one. We tried to and approach this in the best way possible, conscientiously, in a professional way, and we believe that's what should give us credibility over time.

CONAN: We're talking today with leaders of the International Committee of the Red Cross and the American Red Cross.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And here's another caller. This is Ross, Ross calling us from Lake Tahoe in California.

ROSS (Caller): Yeah, hi. I was wondering where the ICRC gets its money from and what its budget is.

Mr. KRAEHENBUEHL: Yes, our annual budget in these recent years has turned around 650 to 750 million US dollars in terms of field expenditures. These are in the 80 countries around the world that we work in. For instance, in 2004-2005, some of our largest operations were Sudan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel and the Palestinian territories, the Democratic Republic of Congo. The donor bases that we have is through the fact that we have been mandated specifically through the Geneva Conventions by the community of states. Our main donors are state- and government-based, and then we have national societies of the Red Cross and Red Crescent around the world that are other contributors; the American Red Cross clearly among them. The greatest--the single largest financial contribution the ICRC receives from the United States of America. This has been a solid and sustained contribution over many, many years now which we believe expresses a strong level of confidence in the organization on the part of the United States. This is a relationship that we very much are committed to maintaining because this support has given us the possibility, in our own independent and neutral approach, to reach people that otherwise would not have been reached if it had not been for the way in which the US has supported this organization.

CONAN: Ross...

ROSS: How are you not influenced by the US government, because they're the largest donor that you have?

Mr. KRAEHENBUEHL: That is obviously a question that's often put to us and it's also very understandable that that question is raised. I can tell you through my field work--through my own field work in Latin America and Afghanistan and in the Balkans, through my present position as director of operations with the responsibility of oversight of all of our operations worldwide, I do not receive phone calls from the US instructing me or giving indications of where that money should be spent. And you just have to remember that some of the places where we have been operating--be it at the time during the Balkan War in Serbia or in Yugoslavia, be it in Iraq during the period of sanctions--these were places where we were able to operate and where we made our own decisions on that. And I think that is something that the US, as every other donor, has shown great respect for over the years. So, no, I can assure that we make our own decisions in that regard.

CONAN: Ross, thanks very much for the call.

We just have a very few seconds left. I did want to ask you, Marsha Evans, has there been compassion fatigue in the aftermath of Katrina and Rita now with Pakistan and Guatemala?

Ms. EVANS: We don't believe that there's compassion fatigue. I mean, we certainly saw an extraordinary outpouring of support in the wake of the tsunami, and then now Katrina and Rita. And we're seeing contributions coming in for the Pakistan as well as Central American operations.

CONAN: Well, thank you for that. We appreciate both of your time today.

Marsha Evans, from whom you just heard, is president and chief executive officer of the American Red Cross, and she joined us here in Studio 3A. And we're hoping she'll go out and take care of those sniffles immediately.

And Pierre Kraehenbuehl joined us from the studios of the ICRC in Geneva, Switzerland. He is director of operations for the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Thank you very much for your time today, sir.

Mr. KRAEHENBUEHL: Thank you.

CONAN: I'm Neal Conan. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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