Humanitarian Networks and Partnership Week

Published: 2 February 2016

Humanitarian Networks and Partnership Week

1-4 February 2016

Keynote Speech

Dr Jemilah Mahmood, USG Partnerships, IFRC

1 February 2016 – Checked against delivery


Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am delighted to be here this afternoon in my very new role at the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and thank OCHA for the privilege and honour to speak to you on this very important topic of partnerships.

The Tale of Three Cities

Allow me to begin with a tale of three cities.

On 25 April 2015, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit Nepal rocking its capital Kathmandu and its vicinity, killing more than 8,500 people and destroying or damaging nearly a million homes.  It was the largest quake in the area since 1934 – and, indeed, one of the people assisted by the local Red Cross was an 87-year-old man who had survived the 1934 earthquake.

In total, the disaster affected 5.6 million people – that’s more than the population of Denmark. No single government or agency could possibly meet the needs of the survivors on its own. Partnerships were key.

From those first terrible hours after the quake, as local people and Nepal Red Cross Society volunteers began to pull their family members, friends and neighbours from the rubble - people just had to work together. They were joined by local government workers. Search and rescue groups. National disaster response specialists. The military. The United Nations, International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and INGOs deployed their local resources while mobilizing their international capacities. Airbus corporation provided logistics support to IFRC, allowing supplies and personnel to support operations and deliver assistance.

The Red Cross and Red Crescent worked in partnership and coordination with the government, United Nations and other agencies to identify the people and households in most need, regardless of their religious or political affiliations or caste. In the process, our investigations uncovered many unmet needs, particularly among marginalized groups such as transgender communities and people living with disabilities. We could not have done that alone.

Let's look at city number two, a different context and a different country, Aleppo and the crisis in Syria. We are all aware of the scale of this humanitarian catastrophe that has spanned six years, so I will not go into details beyond a few figures – an estimated 13.5 million people in need, 6 million of them children. At least four and a half million of the people affected are living in areas where it is difficult, and sometimes impossible, for humanitarians to gain access, including Madaya where people have literally starved to death.

Perhaps more than any other event, the Syria crisis shows the importance of respectful partnerships between international agencies and the local actors on the ground.

The Syrian Arab Red Crescent Society is the single largest provider of humanitarian aid in the country, and it is leading the global response. When relief goods and equipment are sent in by the Red Cross movement, UN, INGOs and other NGOs registered in Syria, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent delivers it on the ground, in many of the conflict areas, and in besieged and hard-to-reach communities. They are the sole distributor of more than 80 per cent of the UN’s relief. And they are helping more than 4.5 million people each month.  While the Syrian Arab Red Crescent is doing magnificent work under challenging circumstances, it continues to pay a tragic price for its principled humanitarian action. Forty-eight of its volunteers and staff have been killed on duty since the start of the conflict, highlighting the reality that majority of humanitarian workers who perish delivering humanitarian assistance are indeed locals.

Another group of actors – the diaspora – emerged as important contributors to response. While diaspora are increasingly involved in humanitarian action, the Syria crisis presented this group as important resources of knowledge and understanding of local context, finance and volunteers for example through the Syria Arab Medical Society and the U.K. Based charity Hand in Hand for Syria.

Let's now turn to city number three – Monrovia ( or Freetown for that matter). During the West Africa Ebola outbreak, more than 10,000 Red Cross volunteers helped to treat, contain and prevent Ebola as part of an IFRC emergency response operation that reached more than 23 million people in the three affected countries.

Throughout the Ebola crisis, the Red Cross response was organized across five pillars of support: community engagement, case management and treatment; safe and dignified burials and disinfection; surveillance and contact tracing, and psychosocial support.

In this way, volunteers were able to simultaneously educate communities; isolate Ebola patients; trace and monitor anyone who had come into contact with an infected person, and provide safe and dignified burial to those killed by the disease. Many volunteers risked their lives in the front-line response and faced violence and discrimination within their communities.

It was the local knowledge and the bravery of the local people, who persuaded bereaved families to abandon their traditional burial customs that ultimately led to the chain of transmission to be broken. However, their work was accompanied and supported by the critically important efforts by international and regional partners to contain, map and investigate the disease. Data specialists from NGOs and Red Cross working closely with the local volunteers, government and UN were critically important in understanding the spread and eventual containment of the disease. The  West Africa Ebola outbreak was contained through such partnerships, and work to prevent another outbreak continues.

As I speak today, we are confronted with the Zika virus outbreak in South America, which not only threatens populations today but also impacts future generations. The same degree of partnership is required to fight the scourge.

These are just a few examples of the power of partnerships and the value of meaningful cooperation between international and national actors. In each case, the cooperation was based on a common understanding of principled humanitarian action, shared adherence to industry standards and practices, and a commitment to shared value of each partner.

To put it simply, the ABC’s of meaningful and successful partnerships are when partners are able to:

A – acknowledge that their cultures are different – from “business practices”, motivation and indeed understanding of situations. Acknowledging that there are risks in new partnerships and finding ways to build a basis of trust. I speak for the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement, which until more recently, has been reluctant to partner with external actors but over the past few years is more open to do so. How?

B – understanding boundaries and agreeing to set clear parameters on how we work, with humanitarian principles being fundamental. Setting boundaries clearly and early on clarifies expectations and paves the way for eventual trust.

C – co-creation.  By this, different actors build and leverage on specific strengths and more than ever today, encouraging a culture of innovation in practice. This means the willingness to test new modalities of partnerships that result in shared value – where both parties create impact in the communities they serve and to themselves.

Holding each other to account – by whom? For whom?

At the heart of this is accountability.  Now, we speak a lot about accountability, and we are perhaps too comfortable speaking about accountability among ourselves. If we are to be fully accountable, we will need to listen to the affected communities. Their representatives should be in the room with us when we make decisions about their lives. We should plan and implement our strategies with the full involvement of the people we support – and we should also have the courage to let them take the lead in some circumstances.

What we also lack in the humanitarian sector is a robust regulatory mechanism to hold us accountable for our work.  The humanitarian sector is one of the sectors that deals with life and death situations, yet is unregulated.  As a physician by training, I battle with this each day but with the widespread use of mobile telephones and open platforms for sharing information including through social media, I know the day will come when communities will demand this.  I applaud INSARAG for leading on a process for verification and certification of USAR teams, it’s a good beginning, but equally important is the accompaniment and peer support from other USAR teams for each other to gain certification.

More critically is how do we equip communities with the basic knowledge for search and rescue, first aid and live saving skills.

What lessons can the Movement share?

The Red Cross and Red Crescent often operates as a series of internal partnerships – between the IFRC and National Societies, among regional groups of National Societies, the ICRC and the IFRC etc. As in any global and multi-cultural network, coordination and cooperation is not always easy. So we have created a number of mechanisms to ensure that our partnership work is efficient, and that we are accountable for it.

Our  principles and rules for humanitarian assistance identify clear roles and responsibilities for each Red Cross or Red Crescent component active in an international response effort. And the rules recognise the importance of strengthening the organisational and delivery capacities of National Societies so that they are ready to respond before, during, and after a crisis.

We also encourage other actors to pave the way for more effective partnerships. Our pioneering Disaster Law programme encourages governments to remove or reduce the legal gaps that can prevent or complicate international assistance after a major disaster. Our experience has shown us that without appropriate legal instruments to deal with disaster response, authorities can be overwhelmed by relief operations and vital aid can be delayed – putting lives at risk, slowing recovery, and wasting resources.

Ladies and gentlemen,

In our work this week, I want us to consider the humanitarian environment, how it is changing, and think about the new partners we can and should be working with.

One shameful truth is that currently we estimate that 125 million people across the world need humanitarian assistance in a world that has never been more wealthy and never been so rich in its access to knowledge and resources. As mentioned by ASG (Assistant Secretary General) Khan, 20 billion US dollars was requested to deliver this live saving assistance and disaster response.

But earlier on, I highlighted the vital role of national and local actors, the global research estimates that only 1.6 per cent of this world humanitarian finance is directed to local frontline organisations. There could not be a clearer example of the gulf between the rhetoric of localising aid, and its reality on the ground.

If we are to respond to the crises of today and prevent the crises of tomorrow, a shift from international dominance to national and local action is key.  

The High-Level Panel on Humanitarian Financing has called for more investment in both the capacity and the involvement of local organisations, and an improvement in UN-pooled funds at the country level to provide direct support to national organisations. But a glaring gap in my opinion is also how we deal with and support capacities of local government agencies who, in a number of crises, may be divorced from central funding and processes. Additionally, how do we better look at regional mechanisms that may in fact be more efficient, and acceptable in several contexts? I feel we have not quite cracked that nut yet, with some regions being more advanced than others. How do we better harness regional assets and encourage greater solidarity from regional organisations?

In trying to encourage greater leadership and ownership at more local levels, many INGOs and civil society organisations have already signed up to the Charter for Change, and I hope that many more will follow. The charter’s vision is compelling and I encourage everyone to familiarize themselves with it.  This includes amongst others:

  • to increase direct funding to humanitarian organisations in the Global South
  • reaffirming the Principles of Partnership, which are Equality, Transparency, Results-Oriented Approach, Responsibility and Complementarity

Momentum is growing around this initiative, and with good reason. The Charter inspires us to turn rhetoric into reality. To stop talking about the localization of aid, and start giving our national and local partners the means to deliver.

It is now time for the UN and other international organizations to simply sign up to this charter.

Ladies and gentlemen,

During our discussions this week, I hope that we will identify ways in which we can make our relationships with national and local partners more balanced if not equal. And for the IFRC, this means a network of 190 national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies, more than 160,000 branches across the world and 17 million volunteers. 

Local organizations are often only in a contractual relationship as implementing partners of larger agencies or INGOs, and this has to change. As international players, our national partnerships must be rooted in equity and empowerment, or else they will contribute to the problems we believe - sometimes arrogantly believe – that we can solve.  Ensuring a fair share of overheads, and heeding the calls for greater transparency from the UN and INGOs, would be good starting points to this process.  From a practical perspective, this also means investing in, and partnering with, the organisations that are already present in vulnerable communities. These groups – local NGOs, civil society organisations, the local authorities, National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies – are the first to respond to new crises, and they already have an understanding of the risks and vulnerabilities that communities face by being part of these communities themselves. So we really should start re-looking at the dynamics of our relationships with local actors.

We at the IFRC are taking a serious look at how we improve our efforts to strengthen and accompany National Societies.  I use the term accompany for good reason.  It's time to stop talking about building capacity as this is only one part of the solution and can also reflect a power imbalance. Paul Farmer eloquently explains to us this phenomenon of accompaniment during the speech he delivered at the Harvard University commencement:


“Here, then, are three things learned and relearned over the past few years. All of them turn about the notion of accompaniment. It's an elastic term: it means just what you'd imagine, and more. To accompany someone is to go somewhere with him or her, to break bread together, to be present on a journey with a beginning and an end… There's an element of mystery, of openness, in accompaniment: I'll go with you and support you on your journey wherever it leads. I'll keep you company and share your fate for a while. And by "a while," I don't mean a little while. Accompaniment is much more often about sticking with a task until it's deemed completed by the person or people being accompanied, rather than by the accompagnateur... Even the erstwhile accompagnateurs need accompaniment. There's no one-size-fits-all approach, but there are surely basic principles of accompaniment.”

When it comes down to it, the success or failures of humanitarian action depend on the work that is done at the local level, in support of people in need. Baseball legend Casey Stengel once said, “Gettin' good players is easy. Gettin' 'em to play together is the hard part.” If we as international actors are to provide meaningful support to communities in need, we will need to interact with national organizations, corporate bodies, governmental agencies and communities as equal partners. Our commitment to placing people and communities at the centre of our focus from planning to implementation, and to make decisions that are informed by first-hand experience and knowledge, must be sincere.

Ladies and gentlemen,

We live in a Networked Age

How can we ensure that our networks are inclusive? Perhaps we can improve by placing the emphasis on building resilience, on supporting vulnerable communities to better prepare for, withstand, and overcome the challenges that we know they will face. This is our commitment and should be the foundation of the diverse and inclusive partnerships that we now need to build.

We should also make a firm commitment to gender equality, by funding and delivering programmes that not only demonstrate a strong commitment to women and girls, but also empower them to lead. The lives and futures of young people must be safeguarded, particularly the need to protect their safety and their right to education, no matter whatever their situation could be.  How do we better engage and use the power of young people who are often disenfranchised, when they in fact could be real agents of change?

Will traditional humanitarian actors remain relevant in the next century?

The rapid uptake of technology by local groups and vulnerable communities is causing a shift in people’s reliance on humanitarian actors. The truest innovations are coming from disaster- and crisis-affected communities, who are using communications technology to meet daily needs, join global networks, transfer money, restore and maintain family links, and transform their daily lives. They are creating entirely new models of disaster response and bringing in major new actors, particularly the private sector and diaspora networks.

With a plethora of new players in the humanitarian arena, where should our partnership energies be focused? How can we harness the skills and resources we need to get the best possible results? And what are the operational possibilities that exist when we stop talking and get in on the ground?

The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement knows that the transfer of knowledge and skills is one of the best ways to strengthen local partnerships and  local capacities. This is a two-way-process, where local Red Cross and Red Crescent branches facilitate the training of local partners in practical skills for contingency planning, needs assessment, and participatory planning approaches. In return, local partners bring the knowledge and networks that are indispensable for timely humanitarian action.

I’ll share an example. In Bangladesh, local Red Crescent volunteers are at the heart of the local early warning system – going door-to-door to alert vulnerable communities when a cyclone is imminent, and working with the local authorities and community organizations to get people into cyclone shelters and provide for their immediate basic needs.  

The Movement also finds local operational solutions for the recovery work we do after a disaster. Homes and infrastructure are rebuilt or repaired using cash grants and local suppliers and builders. Our owner-driven housing approaches use local partners to strengthen construction skills and knowledge, and to deliver shelter that both meets appropriate standards and also supports the local economy.

We know that things need to be done differently, and that we don’t quite have the recipe yet. We have all understood the shifting nature of crisis and how protracted conflicts and vulnerabilities challenge us to change how we organize and understand our work.

When a disaster is not short term – we get stuck

When a community has been affected by conflict for two, three,  four or even more years, the standard short-term approach of providing relief is entirely inadequate. It cannot meet the complex needs. We need to recognize that the ways we traditionally defined crises are no longer always applicable. How do we approach new and emerging threats or when crises collide and a natural disaster occurs in an environment of conflict or civil unrest or is preceded or followed by technological catastrophes?  These are not impossible and we have all witnessed these situations in recent times. Do we have all the tools, actors and I daresay shift in mind-sets required to deal with these complexities? I dare say we have some way to go.

This means that we need to strengthen how we work together, expanding and strengthening partnerships. The organizations providing disaster risk reduction initiatives and crisis response are increasingly diverse and often exist outside traditional humanitarian systems. What role should developmental actors now play when crises are prolonged? How do other, civil society groups, including, faith-based networks and diaspora who play important roles be more incorporated into formal UN and INGO structures which don’t often engage them?

Local actors delivering protection and assistance to affected communities are often new to this work, and may not be aligned with core humanitarian principles. But they can learn what the principles are, and how to apply them. This is what is happening on Lesvos in Greece, where local responders are being trained by staff and volunteers from the Hellenic and Danish Red Cross societies.

At the international level, global technology companies have joined the ranks, alongside other private sector innovators and service providers. This coincides with the rise of huge private foundations whose annual budgets may not only match but actually surpass those of individual countries.

Flexible new frameworks must be mapped to ensure international agencies can adapt to coordinate with this broadening category of responders. And we will have to do this before the next major disaster happens.

In many cases, partnerships between traditional and non-traditional humanitarians are forged in the immediate aftermath of a major disaster, and their modalities established in the midst of the chaos and crisis, because the scale of the event has overwhelmed the traditional mechanisms.

Here, I will use the example of the Philippines. Typhoons Washi and Bopha, in 2011 and 2012 respectively, both hit areas of the country putting immense pressure on  the national and local disaster management systems.. As a result, the response to the crisis had to be both collaborative and creative, and it was carried out by a diverse group of actors alongside the traditional humanitarian responders with faith based organizations, local and small medium enterprises, national and multi national corporations working together. In addition, as the affected areas had also been the site of political unrest, the military was also present and could contribute to the response.

In my previous work at King’s College London, we conducted research into how these non-traditional actors have contributed to disaster management in the double typhoons and the findings indicate that there is great untapped potential for the integration of non-traditional humanitarian capacities into international, regional and national disaster management frameworks, and that these capacities can also be used to build resilience through disaster risk reduction and adaptation measures. The military, for example, had many capacities that could be leveraged in a humanitarian response under certain carefully managed circumstances, such as after a huge natural disaster.

This of course has implications for many of us. It has particular implications for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, as our neutrality and independence have been enshrined in international law for more than one-hundred and fifty years.

But if these partnerships can increase the number of people we reach, and improve the quality of the services we provide – and the research indicates that they can – then traditional humanitarian actors should not completely ignore them. Careful planning, clear roles and responsibilities, civil-military collaboration and cooperation and robust accountability measures can help us to avoid any pitfalls. We have guidelines and tools to help us and need to carefully select the best partners for the best results for people affected by crises.

Ladies and gentlemen,

During this week, I hope that we will also pay attention to the strengths and capacities of our own individual networks, and take a critical look at the value they bring.

The added value is in ensuring our discussions and recommendations reflect the critical importance of communities as active partners in their own development. It is also in the need to direct resources down to communities, to empower them, to help them become more resilient, and to do this we need to be much more coherent in our planning and donors need to commit to multi-year financing, i.e. more flexible.

The IFRC’s commitment to achieving resilient communities, and to partnerships, is encapsulated in its One Billion Coalition for Resilience. This is a transformative initiative to strengthen individual and community capacity by encouraging at least one billion people around the world to actively reduce their risks and become safer, healthier, and more prosperous.

We want to build a truly global coalition of individuals, communities, companies, international organizations and governments, all working towards the common goal of strengthening individual and community resilience.

The target of one billion people may seem ambitious. But that is the scale of change that is needed in a world where vulnerabilities are increasing, and hazards are multiplying. Humanitarian action alone cannot solve political problems. But we can reduce risks and build resilience through cross-sectorial partnerships.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Earlier this month, the High-Level Panel on Humanitarian Financing reminded the world that: “receiving life-saving humanitarian aid is a right, and that providing it is a duty”.  The world is facing unprecedented challenges and needs,  and I fear we are at risk of being immune to the images of death, starvation and immense suffering that fills our news portals and social media.  Climate change and global warming is real and we should accept that we have lost the battle of the two degrees Celsius. We face serious gaps in financial needs to address these challenges yet the global spend on ice cream is three times the humanitarian appeal in 2015. We need to change the way we work. Reduce needs through political commitment and an end to conflict, increase efficiency through smarter partnerships and innovation, reduce risks through greater investment in disaster risk reduction, and greater links from humanitarian, development and climate change adaptation. 

OXFAM calls for us to turn the system on its head and to do that we will need a clearer understanding of the role of local and non-traditional actors, the power and reach of the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement and a strong commitment to building and maintaining meaningful partnerships. We have heard these calls repeatedly through the world humanitarian summit process. We have a tremendous opportunity now to work in partnerships with renewed vigour and commitment. And we all need to demonstrate that by being at the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul, at the highest levels of our governments and agencies, to commit to do things differently and better through strong partnerships.

I hope that we can achieve this beginning with dynamic open dialogue here this week, and then turn our words into concrete action.  I wish you a very productive week ahead.

Thank you very much.