The Latvian Red Cross in times of crisis

  • 2011-10-20
  • Interview by Emi Pastor

The head of International Cooperation and the International Humanitarian Law program for the Latvian Red Cross (LRC) is Eva Ikauniece. As the coordinator of efforts, she keeps in touch with 28 LRC branches, organizes training at different levels in schools or universities, and coordinates projects in Latvia and, from time to time, also with international partners. Another one of her tasks is to push activities with volunteers of the Latvia Red Cross, comprising about 1,500 people, according to the Annual Report for 2010. In this interview with The Baltic Times, Ikauniece says that she has recognized that, on the one hand, her daily routine is quite active and means doing many tasks at the same time. On the other hand, she says that this is the job that she likes, and that “it is the most perfect position” that she can imagine for herself. Ikauniece started her trajectory in this organization six years ago as Youth director before taking charge of the departments of International Humanitarian Law and International Cooperation. She talks about the activities of the Red Cross here, about its necessities and donations in a time of economic crisis, and about the importance of humanitarian values and cooperation.

What it is the main project at the moment for the Latvia Red Cross?
The main programs are First Aid and Disaster preparedness, Social Support, Health Promotion, Youth, International Humanitarian Law… But I think that if we watch the LRC activity from this perspective among the major ones, I would mention the distribution of food parcels for the most deprived persons in the community, which is in a European Commission supported program. With this, about 129,000 people are receiving food parcels each month and it is very well received and needed by the local society in Latvia. In Latvia, we have about 300 points of distribution around the country. This program has been going on for the last years, but the next will decrease by about 80 percent.

Is the economic situation the reason for this decrease?
The main reason is the decision by the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Agriculture and Rural Development, and planned changes in the administration of the program.

How many countries carry out this program?
I can’t tell you exactly how many countries, but I know that it is in Poland, in Lithuania and in many other European countries. In the parcels of food there are milk, oats, flour and these types of products. Each family member who is recognized as poor by the municipalities can receive one parcel of food in a month. There are about ten organizations here distributing food packets, though LRC is doing about 90 percent of the task.

In Latvia, is there hunger? Are there poor people?
As we feel it, yes, even though sometimes people are not considered poor, and they haven’t this poor person’s status as fixed by the municipalities. But in our local units and branches of LRC, there are many people coming, especially families with several children, asking for food parcels, second hand clothes, school books, etc. There are many people in Latvia who cannot afford to buy enough food, clothes, pay for health care services, etc.

How has the bad economic situation affected them?
The economic downturn in the last couple of years has affected the situation in Latvia very strongly. Many people are struggling to survive and maintain self respect. Besides, a lot of family members have gone to work abroad and they are sending money back home to their kids or grandparents, who are taking care of the children here. But there are a lot of problems with children when parents are not home - sometimes children grow up by themselves, don’t attend school. The Latvian Red Cross is trying to provide support to the most vulnerable people in Latvia. Among other services, LRC is gathering clothes, which people don’t need any more, and then distributes clothes to people in need. During the last year LRC distributed humanitarian aid to about 85,000 inhabitants in Latvia.

Besides that, is Latvia receiving help from abroad?
Yes, we are also receiving humanitarian aid from the United States and also from Norway and Sweden, because we can’t gather enough clothes here and sometimes, unfortunately, things are not in good condition. However, we provide information, and in the last years the quality of donated clothing has been getting better. I do not know if it is the result of the global economic downturn, but people in Latvia are thinking a little bit more about people who might need their support

In similar terms, is there any plan for tending to the homeless during the winter?
We have a night shelter in Riga which is very close to the Central Market. There are about 80 places where people can sleep over during the night. In summer time there about 40 people each night. The LRC night shelter is the only night shelter in Riga which accepts people in a drunken state. Usually homeless people know that they are welcome there, and also the police sometimes are taking people in a drunken state to this service so as to avoid their freezing in the street. In very cold weather we sometimes have up to 125 persons overnight there. We don’t send anybody away; we accept everybody and we put mattresses on the floor to provide them a place for the night. And on the third floor of the same building we have a simple hostel (1.5 lats for a bed per night) for people who have lost their living space for some reason.

Where does the budget for the LRC come from?
The LRC does not receive international funding or government subsidies. Basically, funding for the LRC comes from income, from the programs and services which we run, and projects. And, of course, we are very thankful for the donations from people and enterprises. Although the donating tradition isn’t very well developed in Latvia, it’s becoming better lately. .

Do you mean that for the Latvians, in general, donations aren’t a common tradition?
Yes, I think so, but I am not sure why. But it may be connected with our Soviet past, when people were so much dependent on the state, and no civil society initiatives were expected, even the contrary.

Have the donations decreased during the crisis?
Yes, [they are] decreasing. Before the economic crises the LRC received more donations from companies. However, now we are receiving more donations in kind - bread from bakeries, vitamins, books, coffee, etc. It is a difficult task sometimes to deliver these things to the most vulnerable people, but we manage it through our branches. There are also 38 LRC health promotion centers in Latvia, where we provide consultations for free, measure blood pressure, sugar level, distribute vitamins. There are many people who are not going to general hospitals, because they can’t afford to cover the costs, and too many patients arrive in hospitals in very acute conditions. So we offer the possibility to receive consultations in the Red Cross Health Promotion Centers for free. In these centers we can’t provide specific consultations, but we can provide advice on what would be the best solution in the situation.

Do you think that here, there is really an awareness about these sorts of problems, inside and outside of the country?
I think that awareness and knowledge about what is going on in the world is also related with our past. [This is] because Latvia was part of the Soviet Union for long time and people didn’t know much about what was happening abroad and were not able to travel to certain countries. There was news mainly about the Soviet Union and “system friendly countries.” People generally were not so much informed about what was going on in Asia or Africa. But now we have the Internet, a free press and people are receiving more information on what is going on in the world and are gaining a better understanding of how closely all the processes around the world are interlinked. I think that concern about development countries is in the development process here in Latvia.

Let’s talk about the participation of the LRC abroad.
The reality is that the LRC has been just developing its capacity over the last twenty years in Latvia and we are not having missions abroad yet. But we have had certain development cooperation with, for example, the Georgian Red Cross Society and the Belarusian Red Cross. If we had more funding and income, we would have been able to provide more support in different crisis situations, which are happening every day all over the world. But for now our main focus is on providing good social support and promoting health in local communities. The LRC have started to collaborate with the Belarusian Red Cross in sharing our knowledge - how we have been developing our national society over the last twenty years – that’s what we are doing already now. Apart from that, we are organizing campaigns for gathering donations, for victims of natural disasters or man-made catastrophes, like the earthquake in Japan in March this year: we organized a campaign for gathering donations for the support of people who suffered in the Japanese earthquake, tsunami and the accident in the nuclear plant of Fukushima.

The Latvian Red Cross transferred donations to the Japanese Red Cross, which was providing assistance on the ground. We gathered about 10,000 lats (14,280 euros) here in Latvia. A part of this amount was gathered in a charity auction organized together with Gallery Wheels and Pictures. And the Latvian government donated 100,000 lats. So, in total, we transferred more than 110,000 lats.

Normally people are very receptive in these sorts of emergencies, but what happens one year later?
On this occasion, the Japanese Red Cross is still working there and doing their activities, providing psychological assistance and also physical support to people to move back to their community, move into new houses, clean debris to start a new life. But, of course, as the information about Japan is not in the media so much anymore, people are starting to forget the tragedy. In September we transferred our last donation to Japan, but in case there will be interest and we will receive more donations later, we will transfer all the donations to the Japanese Red Cross. There are many people in Japan who are still living in temporary housing, because their homes were damaged by the tsunami: the situation there is still quite difficult.

You are also the responsible for the International Humanitarian Law for the LRC. Could you explain what it is in “easy terms”?
International Humanitarian Law stipulates how to act during armed conflict. Basically, these are war rules. Of course, Latvia is not in an active war situation at the moment; however, International Humanitarian Law implementation and its development are very basic tasks of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. Therefore, we are training young people and providing information about this subject. And of course Latvian troops are taking part in international missions now in Afghanistan, and in Kosovo some years ago, and they are coming across these rules in their daily tasks. The International  Committee of the Red Cross is working to develop rules of International Humanitarian Law, promote their implementation in countries all over the world and promote peace for making the world, how to say, more human.

But sometimes this work is done so slowly…
However, there is remarkable development. Many people each day are working towards a better future and have made significant progress. This is what I always try to keep in mind in my work – to not give up in difficult situations and always go further, even though it sometimes seems that the progress is too slow and results are too insignificant. Usually, it’s worth it!