On her way from Brazil via Togo back to Finland

No, it´s not the Red Cross. It is the Blue Cross and Anne Babb is its International Secretary General. Anne is also a board member of NordAN. She lives in Finland, works in Switzerland and has a half Finnish, half British family. We decided to get to know her a bit better.

Lauri Beekmann: Anne, you are the face of the Blue Cross International today, how did you start in Blue Cross movement?

Anne Babb: After ten years of living and working in the UK I moved to Finland in November 2007. I started as a manager of an NGO called Rauman Seudun Katulähetys that is a member of Finnish Blue Ribbon. Through Finnish Blue Ribbon that is the member of International Blue Cross they connected me with IBC and I started as a consultant providing training on their multinational training programme regarding drug and alcohol treatment journey and substance abuse service management as I had 10 year experience of managing a detox, rehab and homelessness service from UK. Then on 2012 I was encouraged to apply for the job of a General Secretary and through recruitment process I was selected to the job.

To describe in short, what is Blue Cross? What makes it different?

Blue Cross movement was founded 141 years ago in Switzerland by Pastor Rochat to reach the “Wounded of Alcohol and Society” Red Cross provided humanitarian aid but there was a need to reach those with social problems. We work in policy advocacy, prevention and drive a holistic approach of health in treatment and aftercare that acknowledges a person as a psychological, social, physical and spiritual being. The Christian values encourage us to reach also those people who are most excluded due to substance abuse and prevent the harm caused by alcohol and drugs. The International Blue Cross was founded 1886 as it was reported by missionaries that alcohol is a big problem all over the world. We are different as we drive this same agenda in 40 countries with independent local organisations who are all committed to this same cause.

Your office is the whole world, in a way. Could you give me three little glimpses from your last year? Places you have seen? People you have met? Assignment you have done?

In February I had an opportunity with my colleague to train Blue Cross Brazil on substance abuse prevention and project management. I had an honour to lead a prevention seminar in Blumenau in Brazil where also the Minister Osmar Terra attended. It was a powerful experience to support the Brazilian prevention agenda forward and their new national prevention programme was actually launched about one month after my visit. I visited various municipalities and discussed with their Mayors of need for substance abuse prevention. I worked as a facilitator between Blue Cross Brazil and different cities to further develop their co-operation. In addition I visited self help groups, therapeutic communities and kids support groups and used my previous experiences to coach them forward with their already good services.

In May I was leading an organisational development and good governance workshop for the board, staff and volunteers of Blue Cross Togo in Lome. Blue Cross Togo has started in partnership with IBC a new Life Skills prevention programme this September. I supported the local leaders to do the groundwork to ensure that the organisational policies and operations meet necessary quality standards for programme management. Also, I visited Government Officials, various churches, school and NGO’s to support their local networking and took part in a press conference on prevention.

This autumn I have started to prepare the organisation for the next decade. With the board called Network Committee I kick started 2020-2028 strategy development process by intensive 6 week on-line work. This resulted with a good variety of views that we then further developed in a face to face meeting in Paris. We worked intensively to produce a draft strategy with updated vision and mission. During next year I will open the online consultation on the final draft to all 40 member organisations. In addition we constantly develop innovative ways to engage our 40 countries more with our global organisation.

How does the world, and its problems, look like from Finland, one of the safest and socially strongest places?

I have to say that it is a privilege to return home after my various travels. It is easier for a mum of two teenagers to give her time to so many countries when I know my youngsters are as safe as they can be. We have good schools, safe community and healthcare provision – and believe me with two sporty boys I truly appreciate the good health care! Also as a woman it is possible for me to choose my education, career and even this job that takes me away from home. Still, so many people even in Finland experience poverty, social exclusion and difficulties in receiving the care they need. The inequality gap has got bigger and I am concerned of this polarisation direction. There is a huge commercialisation pressure on social and health care services in Finland at the moment and the public health approach is at times lost.

I said some nice things about Finland, just a second ago, but at the same time, you have seen some troubling developments in Finnish alcohol policy. Can you explain, why this is happening?

Yes- it is one of the saddest stories in policy making I know. There was all possible evidence about protecting public health and preventing alcohol related harm and still the politicians voted that the stronger alcohol should be permitted to shops. There is a very strong push by commercial players to demolish Alko-state monopoly. I guess the 3 main grocery store chains K-Group, Lidl and S-Group would like to have the Alko’s market to themselves. I feel it is systematic lobbying and appointing key political figures to such positions that enable this process to go forward. I am all for private sector involvement but not in the topic of alcohol sales and marketing. Finland used to have a Nordic Welfare State model protecting the public health of the whole population – alcohol monopoly fitted perfectly to this model. We should see that we need the monopoly more than ever before as now the vulnerable people have to cope in the social and health care model where invividual has more choice but also more responsibilities. The protective structures are now minimal and vulnerable people are in higher risk of being invisible with their problems. We need preventative structures and alcohol monopoly would be one strong protective factor. We are still one of the highest drinking countries and alcohol as a main reason for early death for working age population. More availability will not do any good for Finnish population. The population is getting smaller and we cannot afford to loose any people due to alcohol and drugs. We need preventative policy making!

Thinking of NordAN, our Nordic-Baltic network, what do you see as our primary mission?

To bring the voice of Nordic-Baltic experiences of substance abuse and policy developments jointly to the public knowledge and to the political discussion. This region is high drinking region in Europe and the advocacy work is vital.

Currently, you are representing the Faroe Islands at the NordAN board. As Islands, they are in many ways protected from any cross-border problem, and they have a strong Nordic alcohol policy. What do you see is their primary challenge at the moment?

The Faroe Island is a unique country with a population that is similar to the town where I live. Active alcohol prevention is their key agenda. Their history has a period when alcohol was a real problem and they see it as a utmost importance to minimize the use of alcohol in the Faroe Islands. One in every four Faroese does not drink at all but still the total consumption of alcohol per capita has slightly increased during past years. Blue Cross focuses on prevention and in addition provides rehabilitation treatment.

Where will you be in 10 years? What are your goals?

In 10 years- well I have always been called to something new at the right time at the right place. I will definitely work for a Christian organisation but I am open to see what and where that will be.
Like Martin Luther says: Jesus does not need our good deeds, but our neighbour does- so I hope that still in the 10 years time I can keep going. I love my job and it is also my calling.