Bekele Geleta

Bekele Geleta

Ask Bekele Geleta how he’s doing in his new job and he laughs. “How am I doing? Not bad – for a beginner.” Bekele is many things, but he is not a beginner. The new secretary-general of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies has more depth of experience than most of us can claim. Behind his friendly, self-effacing manner is a seasoned strategist who has spent more than 14 years travelling the globe to organise relief in the wake of famine and tsunami. He has lobbied presidents and princes to keep the aid money flowing and persuaded diverse – often competing – groups to work together.

But what makes Bekele stand out as head of the world’s largest humanitarian organisation is not so much what he has done as who he is: the highly-educated son of Ethiopian peasants; a former political prisoner; a refugee in mid-life. Like many of the people the Red Cross serves, he has known poverty and loss, hardship and rebuilding.

Bekele’s story begins in Nedjo, a small town between two rivers in western Ethiopia. Neither of his parents could read, but they encouraged Bekele and his five siblings to do their best in school and in life. The words of his mother in particular made an impression on Bekele. “My mother prayed aloud every day. She would say ‘God, give my children the wisdom to think good thoughts. Give them the ability to do good and the courage to help people in need. God, give them the patience to learn from today so they are better people tomorrow’,” says Bekele. “This has helped me always, and helps me question what I do. Is what I am thinking good? Have I really been good enough to others?”

Bekele excelled at education and his reward was a position at the Ethiopian road authority. “In a place like Ethiopia, if you are born in the countryside, you struggle your way out,” says Bekele. “Once you have made it up to higher education you are given a job. And if you do well in that job, the office itself sponsors you for more studies.”

In Bekele’s case, that meant pursuing a Masters in transport economics. His mentor at the road authority organised a British Council scholarship and a place at the University of Leeds. “I was hesitant, because I had studied political science and economics was just a minor, and I wondered if I could handle applied economics at that level,” Bekele recalls. “But he thought I could do it, and he rightly also believed that the country needed transport economists.” Bekele worked hard at Leeds, and played just as hard. “I put in three or four hours of studying every day, but I also attended all kinds of meetings – including all the Marxist, anti-establishment stuff that was fashionable – and cultural groups, people getting together talking about culture and way of life.”

In 1973, his graduate degree complete, Bekele returned to the road authority, married his girlfriend Tsehay Mulugeta and started a family. “What those studies at Leeds prepared me to do was be a realist and analyse situations and look at things carefully,” says Bekele. “I learned that there’s never just one solution – you need to look at all the options and still make decisions. I went back a much wiser guy.”

Bekele kept his job despite a 1974 coup that brought in a violent socialist dictatorship. He became general manager of the country’s railway and considered starting a PhD in transport economics. The regime had other plans for him, sending police officers to arrest him at work one day in 1978. Bekele became one of hundreds thrown in jail as part of a purge of members of his ethnic group, the Oromo. He was sent to the notorious Karcheli prison in Addis Ababa, sentenced to five years in prison with “no trial, nothing,” Bekele says. Political prisoners, thieves and murderers were crammed together into large, overcrowded cells with no furniture and no toilets aside from holes in the ground. For the first few years, a van would arrive every afternoon and call out a handful of names. “People would say goodbye, shake hands. They knew they were being executed,” says Bekele.

The grim conditions could have been Bekele’s undoing. Instead, he and several other educated prisoners formed a development committee. With Bekele as chairman, the committee set up sports clubs and formal lessons and negotiated for better medical care. “We organised everything from basic literacy classes up to postsecondary education, because there were so many graduates in prison, each field had someone who could teach it,” Bekele says. The prison soccer team defeated the national champions in exhibition matches. Graduates of the prison school were placed first in university entrance exams several years running. “In a hard place where there is cruelty, torture and killing, to be thinking of positive developments and good things for your colleagues is a gift,” says Bekele’s friend Fekadu Eba, who spent 10 years in prison, some of them in Karcheli with Bekele. “People loved him for that.”

Bekele was released in 1983, and spent time trying to decide who he wanted to be. In spite of job offers from ministers sympathetic to his case, Bekele had no interest in serving the dictatorship that had thrown him in jail. A contract working on an urban development project brought income but not challenge. In 1984, with a devastating famine killing thousands every day, the Ethiopian Red Cross got in touch. They needed someone with management and logistics experience.

On Bekele’s third day on the job, his first visit to the field took him to Bati camp in the northern region of Wollo, one of the areas most in need of help. He had never seen such devastation – everywhere he looked, people were starving. In this camp alone, 130 people were dying each day. As Bekele started taking notes, a couple approached and asked if he had three pieces of clothing to give them. “I said ‘what for?’ and they said ‘To wrap up our kids who just died’,” Bekele recalls. “I decided then and there we had to turn this thing around. We worked night and day and after a month the death rate dropped dramatically.” It was a pivotal moment, one that brought back the words of his mother’s daily prayer. “From that time forward, I became a Red Crosser. I strongly committed to spend my life making a difference in people’s lives.” He worked for the Ethiopian Red Cross Society for the next five years. Then in 1989, the same regime that jailed him 11 years earlier decided he would make a good vice-minister for transport and communications. “They didn’t ask me, they just announced it on the radio,” says Bekele. “It’s the biggest ministry in the country. You can’t say no.”

In 1991, the Derg regime collapsed, and Bekele was appointed ambassador to Japan, but he was sceptical that he could forge an independent path in the new political climate. In 1992, Bekele, Tsehay and their four sons left everything behind to settle in Ottawa, Canada, as refugees. The senior bureaucrat with the comfortable house and chauffeur driven car was suddenly unemployed and living in a drab flat with shabby second-hand furniture. His experience and connections couldn’t find Bekele a job. Their savings ran out, forcing the family onto government assistance. “It was the most difficult part of my life,” Bekele says. “Knowing that I can work, that I can earn my own living, and yet I can’t, and I’m drawing money every month as if I’ve worked for it ...” He finds it hard to finish the sentence.

And so the former secretary-general of the Ethiopian Red Cross found himself, at 50 years old, training as a clerk at a service station, selling petrol and cigarettes to suburban commuters. A few months later he finally got a contract with CARE Canada and soon after that he landed a job at the Red Cross’ Geneva secretariat. From there it was a swift ascent, from Africa desk to Asian regional office to New York delegation.

In 2007, he took a job managing international operations for the Canadian Red Cross Society, thinking it would be his last post before retirement. Then the top job in Geneva came open, and he applied. Now Bekele is in charge of 500 employees working with thousands of staff and millions of volunteers in the federation’s 186 national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies. He has some formidable challenges ahead, including completing the restructuring begun under his predecessor, to reduce staff in Geneva and boost strength in the field. His goal is to reach more of the world’s vulnerable people faster and more efficiently. “My life has taught me that challenging vulnerability is extremely important,” says Bekele. “This kind of background helps you and it gives you credibility when you talk to people who’ve been through disaster. You understand much better when they tell you what they’ve been through – you know what they’re feeling.