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“Let’s not be a bystander. Let’s actually do something”: In conversation with British Red Cross CEO, Michael Adamson CBE

Freddie Evans interviews the CEO of the British Red Cross, Michael Adamson, about his time with the British Red Cross, responding to emergencies, supporting refugees and asylum seekers, and his views on the UK's Illegal Migration Bill, and how they helped people through coronavirus and those impacted by the Ukraine conflict through their partnerships

Mike Adamson is Chief Executive Officer at the British Red Cross. He will step down later this year having served for over eight years as CEO and four years as managing director. Mike was appointed CEO in 2014 and has led the organisation during multiple humanitarian responses including the terrible Grenfell Tower fire, UK terrorist incidents, the coronavirus pandemic and the Ukraine conflict. Mike has an MPhil in Economics from the University of Oxford. He first worked as a management consultant, then in a variety of roles for the NHS and in the charity sector for the Royal National Institute for Deaf People and the British Red Cross.

Evans: What inspired you to apply to lead the British Red Cross

Adamson: The Red Cross is a movement. Every country in the world has a Red Cross or Red Crescent Society. They all sign up to a set of principles around humanity, impartiality and neutrality, inspired by the actions of someone we would now call a social entrepreneur, Henri Dunant, from the horrors he saw at the Battle of Solferino in 1859. After seeing the carnage on the battlefield, Henri Dunant said two things: ‘Wouldn’t it be amazing if in every country in the world, there were neutral, impartial volunteers ready to provide help, to whoever needs it, whichever side of the battle, whatever their gender, whatever their ethnicity, whatever their religion.’ and ‘When people go to war there should be some rules.’ Henri Dunant advocated for what became the Geneva Conventions. They are still as relevant today as they were 150 years ago. That was what inspired me. It was the opportunity with one of the biggest brands in the world to be able to make a difference in a way that is both local and global. It is an incredible privilege to play a part in the organisation and then to lead it. 

Evans: What have been the highlights of his time with the British Red Cross?

Adamson: When I see the work, we do on the ground. Three weeks ago I was in Turkey seeing the response to the earthquake in Turkey and Syria. I’m incredibly proud of the fact that we mobilised an appeal within a couple of hours of the earthquake through which we raised £35 million. Our partner the Turkish Red Crescent is doing an incredible job. They are feeding 1.5 million people a day. It is just on an extraordinary scale. They are providing psycho-social support to people traumatised by the loss of loved ones, the loss of their homes, and their livelihoods. To be able to play a part in that is just fantastic. That sense of the movement, and then to work on the issues that are so pertinent today. Our strategy is based around three big causes: people in emergencies, people who are displaced and people who fall between the gaps in the health and social care system. 

You look at the challenges that we face as a nation. The whole attitude to for example migration, refugees and asylum seekers. People coming across the Channel on boats. We have a really important role to play both in providing practical support to people in these defining moments at their lowest ebb but also in putting the case for a much more human approach to policy. It means that people start from a position of kindness, being inclusive, being tolerant, and wanting to help people. We do things, but we stand for something more in terms of our values and that is why we call ourselves a movement. The highlights are being able to be a part of that and to speak up when you know things could be so much better if we told the story differently.

Evans: Could you explain the fundamental principles of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement?

Adamson: There are seven fundamental principles: Humanity, Impartiality, Neutrality, Independence, Voluntary Service, Unity and Universality. All seven are important. I think the most important are:

Humanity: We are here to help people without judging them, we support them because they are in need.  We do not make any judgment about how they got there but we do try and learn from it.

Impartiality: Just as I’ve described on the battlefield, we help whomever you are, whatever side of a cause you are on, whatever your gender, religion, or nationality.

Neutrality and independence: We will not get involved in political controversies where they affect our ability to provide support to people. For example, when the Red Cross is providing support to people in Syria, we won’t criticise the Syrian regime. We have to be neutral in order to cross the front line. Both sides of a conflict have to trust us. That is very difficult. When the International Red Cross visit prisoners of war in shocking conditions. We provide practical assistance, food parcels, and medication. We will not comment publicly on the conditions in prison. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International do a really important job, they will tell the world about the conditions in those prisons. That’s not our job. The most important thing we do is to provide a report to the authorities. Our neutrality is what then allows us to go back and provide help the second, the third time. Our neutrality means that we can return to very difficult situations because we haven’t commented publicly on them. That can play out in the UK as well, where in our work with refugees and asylum seekers we will comment on how policy is making people more or less vulnerable, but we won’t do personal attacks on the Home Secretary or ministers or the government. We just present the evidence, and we bear witness to what we see. For us the humanitarian imperative is critical. We walk a tightrope between our neutrality and our independence.

These principles we live by. What is incredibly inspiring to me is that I can go all over the world and meet volunteers in Sierra Leone or northern Syria, and they will be talking about the fundamental principles and what they mean to them. Extraordinary.

Evans: How does the British Red Cross uphold the principle of Impartiality when it comes to controversial issues for instance the UK government’s Illegal Migration Bill?

Adamson: We will bear witness to what we see on the ground, and we will offer opinions on how government policy could be improved. There is a big difference between operating in the UK as a 24/7 democracy, however flawed, and Syria… In Syria, you stay silent, at least in public, because it would be dangerous to do anything else and might jeopardise our ability to provide assistance. You just try to provide humanitarian assistance. In the UK we have made it clear and presented evidence why we don’t think the ‘stop the boats’ policy will work. It misses a bigger picture of what’s happening in the world. There’s so much confusion both in government and amongst the public about who these people are. 70% or 80% of the people who come across in boats are coming from Eritrea, Sudan, Syria and Afghanistan. 80%+ of them make successful asylum claims. That’s not because we’re so warm and welcoming but it is just that they have a case.

Evans: I was keen to find out whether the British Red Cross’s assistance for refugees and asylum seekers is mainly for those coming to the UK or if substantial resources are allocated abroad.

Adamson: It is both. We are the largest independent provider of support to refugees and asylum seekers in the UK. We are bigger than any of the specialist agencies because we can mobilise more funding. Internationally we are often supporting people who are displaced as a result of conflict or climate change across Africa and the Middle East in particular but also in places like Bangladesh. Sadly, what determines how much we can do is dependent upon how much money we have raised. In Ukraine, we have managed to raise a considerable sum of money to support the people who are displaced both in the country and in neighbouring countries. In Bangladesh when the initial crossing of people across the border from Myanmar happened, again we were able to raise a lot of money. That money has tailed off and some of our support has had to tail off as a result. The tragedy of these situations is that it is not a level playing field. Arguably, the biggest crisis in the world right now is the food crisis in East Africa, Somalia, parts of Kenya and Ethiopia and yet we have not been able to raise the profile of that emergency and raise large amounts of money for it and we have not been able to provide as much support as we would have liked.

A Ugandan Red Cross volunteer. Image credit: IFRC/Corrie Butler

Evans: A really significant development on your watch has been the British Red Cross partnerships including with the NHS and the Voluntary and Community Sector Emergency Partnership (VCS EP). Could you talk in more detail about these initiatives?

Adamson: Partnerships are critical to us. They come in different shapes and forms. Our partnership with the NHS is around the interface between hospital and home. A significant proportion of people in hospital (sometimes up to 30%), are actually people that are medically fit to go home. Furthermore, some of the people who go to an A&E department don’t need an A&E doctor, they need support to help them with their mental health issues, drug and alcohol problems or a chaotic home situation. We get alongside those people and help them to return home safely, support them and foster a sense of agency in their life. This also helps the NHS because it means resources can be focused on the patients who need clinical support.

Another kind of partnership came out of the learning from the Grenfell Tower fire, where we responded, in the rest centre that was set up as part of the local resilience plan. However, local mosques, churches and youth centres also opened up in the early hours of that terrible Wednesday morning – and they would never have seen themselves as emergency responders in normal circumstances. It made us realise that we needed partnerships with a whole range of community organisations, as well as with local authorities and others. Now we host, and I co-chair, the VCS Emergency Partnership, which has more than 250 member organisations, 70% of which are local, who have signed up to work together to be better prepared for future emergencies. We have a programme to develop training and skills and build relationships for when an emergency takes place so you are not trying to work out who your partners are at the height of the emergency. When you look at the combination of the impact of climate change, terror attacks, and other kinds of emergencies, it is more likely there will be UK emergencies in the future, the risks have gone up, and the risk of pandemics has gone up significantly. We all need to get better prepared. We are working closely with the government in that space to strengthen the nation’s resilience strategies.

Evans: How did the British Red Cross help people affected by the coronavirus pandemic?

Adamson: We did huge amounts of work both in the UK and around the world. From food distribution and private food parcels here in the UK to providing cash. We were able to mobilise funds from our corporate and individual donors to create a cash fund that we could then get to people who had no income, no savings and no recourse to public funds. Refugees, asylum seekers, people in the gig economy, women fleeing domestic violence at home. We were providing support for people to get cash through a network of more than 200 referral partners so that they could buy a SIM card for their phone or food. We also ran a national support line. We were doing vaccination support. We ran some really innovative and award-winning campaigns around vaccine hesitancy. We grew our presence on TikTok. Also reaching out to some groups who were not coming forward. For example, people with uncertain migration status didn’t want to come forward for vaccination because they were worried that they would then be on official records which might leave them more vulnerable. We did so much in terms of helping connect people to the vaccination centres. Internationally it was similar, with the economic support of cash and then helping people to get vaccinated. It was one of the most challenging periods in my time as CEO.

Evans: What assistance is the British Red Cross providing to those impacted by the Ukraine conflict?

Adamson: We have raised over £180 million through the generosity of the British public, corporates and trusts. We have been working very closely with the Ukraine Red Cross since 24 February 2022 when the conflict started, to provide food, psychosocial support and cash since the Ukrainian economy has collapsed. In the conflict areas in the east of Ukraine, we are involved through the International Red Cross in the rehabilitation of water and electricity supplies. We have just supported the Winterization Programme because it gets incredibly cold in Ukraine and people lost their electricity and gas supplies. We are supporting the neighbouring countries in Poland, Romania and Moldova where the Red Cross in each of those countries is also supporting people. When Ukrainian refugees arrive here in the UK, we meet them at airports to welcome and help guide them through the Home Office systems or local authorities and provide cash support to help get them started. We are doing an enormous amount.

Evans: What advice would Mike give to Oxford students who want to support the British Red Cross?

Adamson: We would love it if students at Oxford wanted to come together and form a Red Cross group. The Red Cross is a movement that enables people to show their humanity and their solidarity. The principles and practical work of the Red Cross in helping people have never been more needed. Telling the story is really, really important. We support people at some of the defining moments in their lives when all seems lost. Sadly, I think there are going to be more people who are more vulnerable in the years to come. It is important that we remember our kindness to one another and our mutuality and that we act on that. Let’s not be a bystander – let’s actually do something.

For more information about the British Red Cross, go to https://www.redcross.org.uk

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