The International Committee of the Red Cross has officially opened a new training centre which gives its humanitarian workers the specialised skills they require to carry out their duties.This content was published on May 14, 2001 - 07:48
The recent deaths of six ICRC workers in the Democratic Republic of Congo and a pilot in Sudan have highlighted the growing risks that humanitarian workers face, and the need for them to be prepared for any eventuality.
The Ecogia centre is in a protected 18th century building near Versoix, deep in the Geneva countryside.
Once an orphanage, it is now a state-of-the-art training centre. But it is not a luxury. For the ICRC, it's a means of not only giving its employees the tools to carry out their onerous tasks, but also of giving them the best chance of survival.
The name Ecogia will no doubt become as well known as Cartigny, the ICRC's previous training centre, where 250 people were initiated every year into the organisation's activities.
"Humanitarian activities are becoming more and more professional," says Yves Etienne, head of the Ecogia project and former head of ICRC training.
"Increasingly, we need specialised places where specific tools can be used to train the humanitarian professional," he told swissinfo. It is hoped that Ecogia, furnished with SFr2 million worth of equipment, will meet all the ICRC's training needs for many years to come. Nothing, it seems, has been overlooked.
There is internet access almost everywhere, including in the cybercafe and all 42 bedrooms. There are 13 classrooms with sophisticated conferencing facilities and "intelligent" heating and lighting systems, and a radio transmission station capable of reaching anywhere in the world.
A number of years ago, the ICRC decided to conduct some of its training in the field to make it accessible to its 8,000 national employees. At the same time, it was felt that the training in Geneva had become too dispersed, the organisation having outgrown Cartigny.
"As soon as you decentralise training, you need a central reference point, and that's what we've tried to create here in Ecogia," Etienne says.
Ecogia therefore coordinates the work of the other ICRC training centres around the world: in Bogota, Nairobi, Amman and Colombo. But delegates in the field also have the opportunity to train themselves, as Ecogia's resource centre is accessible from anywhere in the world.
The four-week residential integration courses for newcomers, once synonymous with Cartigny, will be one of Ecogia's principle functions, as will continuing training for those returning from the field.
Unlike at Cartigny, these newcomers and veterans will have the opportunity to mix. The ICRC training chiefs make much of the fact that Ecogia is a comfortable, welcoming place, conducive to reflection.
"It doesn't show the reality of what it's like living and working in the field. Training is a special time, when people can be together and exchange ideas," says the head of the Ecogia centre, Christiane Amici-Raboud.
"Training is all about getting an idea of how you should do things in a given situation. People who've returned from a mission can pass on their experience to new delegates who haven't yet been in the field. These moments of exchange are very important," she told swissinfo.
Etienne agrees: "The source of any training is experience. Training is essential for effective humanitarian work, but that training has to stem from experience in the field."
The new centre is not just for ICRC employees. It is envisaged that Ecogia will become a place where different organisations can exchange ideas, perhaps through seminars addressing specific problems encountered by humanitarian workers.
The new centre has already hosted courses for a new International Diploma in Humanitarian Action (IDHA), involving universities in New York, Dublin and Geneva and a number of humanitarian organisations. It also helped to organise, along with the World Health Organisation and Geneva University, a course entitled Health Emergencies in Large Populations (HELP).
"Ecogia is an ideal place to organise common training programmes", Amici-Raboud says.
Ecogia takes account of the fact that the modern humanitarian worker needs to have a wide range of skills, from coping with a conflict situation to media relations, from medical training to operating radio transmitters.
"Radio, at least HF Radio, is a basic tool for humanitarian activities in the field. In man-made disasters, communications are often one of the first things destroyed," explains Etienne. "Delegates in the field have to know how to use the equipment properly, because this is the key equipment for their security."
Ecogia also benefits from the proximity of a cantonal civil protection base, where ICRC recruits can conduct more realistic field operations. There is also a decidedly low-tech concrete cell in the building, to allow delegates-to-be to practice the art of prison visits.
Perhaps most importantly, the finances of the organisation, which are needed for vital humanitarian work, have not been dented by this investment. A special federal fund for the buildings of international organisations paid the SFr 9.6 million needed for the refurbishment, while 15 private sponsors contributed the SFr2 million for the equipment.
by Roy Probert
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