ePolitix.com speaks to Sir Nicholas Young, chief executive of the British Red Cross, about World Aids Day and the work of the Red Cross.
Question: Tell us about the work of the Red Cross.
Sir Nicholas Young:The Red Cross is the world's largest voluntary response organisation and that's what we do - not only in this country but in 186 countries around the world there is a national Red Cross or Red Crest society.
We are all emergency response organisations, which means responding to emergencies in our own countries and indeed overseas as well. It also means helping to ensure everybody has the basic skill they need to save a life.
Question: World Aids Day is coming up on December 1 - what is the Red Cross doing to mark this day?
Sir Nicholas Young:In the UK, we're launching a campaign looking at the attitudes of young people to HIV and Aids. We're focusing on 15 to 25-year-olds, how they know about Aids and how they respond to issues around Aids, particularly about discrimination and stigma.
We're releasing a MORI survey looking at youngsters in this country, Ethiopia, South Africa, and Kyrgyzstan just to see how their attitudes change from country to country, what they know and understand about the illness. I think it's incredibly important we do that, as 50 per cent of new HIV infections are young people in that age group.
It is important to help young people know and understand how to avoid infection in the first place, help them know how to support people who are living with HIV, and then deal with this whole stigma issue which is such a big aspect of HIV infection, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa where the problem is so huge, a really big issue.
So it's going to be a really interesting campaign. We're publishing the results of the survey and we're doing a lot of work on Bebo and YouTube, such as a mini soap that we're going to publish online.
Question: What does the global Red Cross Red Crescent alliance on HIV and Aids, launched on World Aids Day last year, hope to achieve?
Sir Nicholas Young:Again, it's a big scaling up in our work on HIV worldwide. The Red Cross is already heavily engaged in prevention and home-based care. I have seen a grandmother in a very small township shack in South Africa looking after her son's very little children because both the son and his wife are dying of Aids and you realise that the children are going to grow up without parents and, in her old age, the grandma is going to struggle to look after them. It’s a huge problem for old and young alike.
Question: What is the Red Cross's longer-term focus for combating Aids?
Sir Nicholas Young:Helping to achieve the millennium development goals of halting and even beginning to reverse the spread of HIV by 2015.
The Red Cross is one of the world's leading aid and health and social care agencies, we do have a network that is enormous and by focusing that network on something like HIV, I think we have a big contribution to make.
Question: With issues such as HIV and Aids, will you work closely with governments?
Sir Nicholas Young:Yes, indeed. The Red Cross has a special position vis à vis governments. Although we're independent of governments, we do have an understood and accepted role as an auxiliary to governments. We believe in working very closely with governments.
I think that's an important feature of the Red Cross, that sense of responsible advocacy rather than head-on campaigns.
Question: Moving on to look at your disaster relief work, in the summer, Britain saw its worst floods. How did you get involved in the flood relief effort?
Sir Nicholas Young:I was out and about in South Yorkshire and Gloucestershire particularly, and was literally up to the knees in flood waters there. It was very moving actually; many of us haven't ever seen serious flooding.
I drove down in what we call a Unimog, a great big four-wheel vehicle which has huge wheels and can get through three to four feet of flood water. We drove through the suburbs of Gloucestershire fairly easily; these were beautiful places where the water was lapping at people's windowsills, horrible dirty water.
Carpets, furniture and valuable possessions were just ruined and you see that for street after street after street, and you suddenly realise what a terrible thing a flood is.
One of the tasks we undertook in Gloucestershire was delivering fresh water to people, particularly to vulnerable communities, residential and nursing homes for example, who didn't have access to fresh water for many days.
I remember driving down this cul-de-sac of 20 to 30 houses mainly older people, and they cried "oh it's the Red Cross, you saved us in the war!"
There was a great sense of recognition, people thought yes of course the Red Cross is here, that's what the Red Cross does, they are there to help us when there is a disaster.
We did great work with supplying fresh food and water, we helped run rest centres for people who had been evacuated and indeed we were doing that just last week in East Anglia when there was fear of flooding along the East Coast.
We launched a big appeal which raised getting on for £5m which is now being distributed to local authorities and local voluntary organisations to help with the task of recovery after the flooding.
It's amazing. We never thought that we would be seeing quite this level of disruption, from Lincolnshire to South Yorkshire, then the West Country and back to East Anglia.
It is something that may be a result of global warming, and clearly something we are all going to have to plan for, get more prepared for, do more training for, and help to ensure local communities are ready for it.
Question: Do you think that because of all the work the British Red Cross does internationally, we don't actually realise what you do on the ground in Britain?
Sir Nicholas Young:In all the serious emergencies that have happened in the UK: the London bombings, major fires, train crashes for example, the Red Cross has had a role to play in support of the statutory authorities.
We work very closely with our colleagues in the local authorities, with the National Health Service, the police, and the fire services. Because there aren't so many disasters here in the UK, perhaps the Red Cross profile isn't as high here as it is internationally.
Question: You deal with a lot of disasters. Do you find one-size-fits-all for relief or do you come across different challenges in different political and religious environments?
Sir Nicholas Young:As an expert disaster response organisation, you always know roughly what you're going to need in any given situation - tents, fresh water, communication equipment, vehicles that can cope with the terrain and so on.
You can guess the basics, but every community is different, you have different political environments to cope with, different statutory systems to deal with.
Here in the UK, you expect the emergency services to deal with a large part of the work. That isn't the case in many parts of the world where the emergency services don't exist or don't have the coverage. You have to fit in with that and you have to fit in with local communities. Some are resilient and well equipped, some are not. You have to go softly-softly on the ground otherwise you end up delivering relief that isn't needed or is completely inappropriate in the circumstances.
And you have to be adaptable. In Indonesia after the Tsunami, having got the initial relief sorted out, we realised we had to embark on a real long-term and large-scale rebuilding program. The first issue that we had to deal with is all the boundaries had been washed away and nobody knew who owned what, so we had to redraw the legal map of each community so we had everybody with an identified and identifiable plot of land.
Now that would have been difficult here but we have things that make it easier. There was nothing in Indonesia so that was very difficult.
Question: Did you have to work with local people in that process?
Sir Nicholas Young:It is very important to involve them, it's a real principle of the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement that we involve beneficiaries and users in the whole planning process, and it's therapeutic.
The communities could deal with their grief and loss by working together on a rebuilding project. It is very important not to just go in and say we'll do it all for you but to help communities rebuild themselves.
Question: The Red Cross doesn't only deliver disaster relief but also health and social care, is that correct?
Sir Nicholas Young:A strong part of what we do in this country is working in support of the NHS and its social services with a whole range of community care programmes, such as our 'home from hospital' service.
In dozens of hospitals in the UK we help the NHS to unblock beds by arranging for volunteers to visit people who go home alone from hospital in the three to four weeks after they leave.
The volunteers make sure they have hot food, that the dog is fed and the neighbours are aware of the situation, the basic things that make sure people can leave hospital safely. We also loan out medical equipment, such as wheelchairs, so that people can remain independent in their own homes for as long as possible.
Question: Do you see yourselves growing in that area?
Sir Nicholas Young:Yes. We do a lot of this work on a purely voluntary basis but we also have a lot of contracts from local health authorities, 204 contracts around the country in fact.
We feel that as a major voluntary organisation with thousands of volunteers around the country we can do a lot to help to deliver those community services.
People feel they get a really great service from someone who is a volunteer, who is part of that local community, and who knows what the situation is that they're facing and feels a great sense of trust in an organisation like the Red Cross.
Question: Can you tell me about the work you do around first aid training and the importance of that work?
Sir Nicholas Young:To me, the ultimate humanitarian act is to be able to save somebody's life; knowing what to do is vital. And it is very easy to learn.There are three or four things we can all learn to help keep somebody alive and we are very keen to ensure as many people as possible learn those skills.
We train hundreds of thousands of people each year, and we have a campaign, which has been partially successful, to persuade the government to increase the input of first aid into the driving test so that every driver has to learn basic first aid skills.
We are also really pleased that first aid has been made part of the curriculum in schools in England and Wales. This will help ensure that young people see first aid as a really important and relevant life skill that isn't just about looking good on their CV but will actually put them in a position to save somebody's life when the need arises.
The staggering statistic that gets to me is that 70 per cent of the occasions when somebody needs to administer first aid it is to a member of their family or a close friend, it isn't to a stranger on the street. Just think how awful you would feel if you couldn't do something to help - that is really our message on first aid.
Question: Is this something businesses could encourage too?
Sir Nicholas Young:Absolutely, businesses have an obligation to have a certain number of first aiders on the premises but actually we could all learn these skills, we don't need to leave it to somebody else. You can learn the basics in an afternoon quite happily.
Question: Does the Red Cross run first aid courses?
Sir Nicholas Young:Yes we do. If you contact your local Red Cross centre, we can organise a first aid course for you.
Question: We have touched on the fact you're a politically neutral organisation. It must be quite a hard balance to maintain. How would you sum up you relationship with government?
Sir Nicholas Young:The Red Cross has a great duty to advocate on behalf of people in need. Part of what we do is to identify vulnerable groups of people and then meet the needs of those people ourselves, or to explain those needs to government and make sure they are prepared to do something about it.
Examples include our work with refugees and asylum seekers, which has grown in recent years with an increase in the numbers of people coming here. We've played an important role not only in helping them to survive but also by making sure the government is aware of the needs they have. And hopefully to ameliorate and soften some of the policies that have been adopted, to help to ensure that we treat people in a civilised way, whatever their legal situation.
Question: Did you welcome the DfID spending settlement?
Sir Nicholas Young:Yes, fantastic! An 11 per cent rise in the budget, a fantastic amount of money. I'm delighted the government is so committed towards reaching its target of committing 0.7 per cent of Gross National Income by 2013.
I always want to see more but I think this government is now the second largest donor government around the world, which is great. We should be; Britain has a long history of involvement and engagement overseas and it is absolutely right that history shouldn't be forgotten.
Question: Do you have any final messages for ePolitix.com readers?
Nicholas Young:Clearly politicians have responsibilities to understand the issues around HIV and Aids even in this country where the numbers are in the thousands rather than millions. They have a real responsibility to help to ensure that young people understand the risks and the issues and are prepared to either play a direct part themselves or are prepared to simply support the organisations who are doing a good job on the ground.
I think we would look to the readers of ePolitix.com to recognise that the Red Cross is a great organisation that is making a great contribution around the world, but we don't get vast sums of money from governments.
So any MPs out there I would be delighted to receive your donations! Finally, I would urge readers to support our campaign for World Aids Day by checking out our campaign website at