The changing face of humanitarian action

Publié: 11 novembre 2013

Speaking on "Conflict, Disruption and Displacement -The changing face of humanitarian action," IFRC Secretary General Bekele Geleta addressed the Humanitarian Forum that preceded the 2013 Red Cross Red Crescent Statutory Meetings in Sydney, Australia.

Your Excellencies, distinguished panellists, ladies and gentlemen.

Our theme – Conflict, Disruption and Displacement -The changing face of humanitarian action – is well chosen. I am sure we all agree that it would resonate through everything we are here in Sydney to discuss.

Throughout history, humanity has suffered the consequences of natural disasters, health epidemics and pandemics, conflicts, economic crises or societal breakdowns. All have caused huge disruptions in people’s lives and livelihoods, causing loses of lives and dislocations. People suffered the humanitarian consequences and did everything possible to assist one another through their own community affiliations in parallel to what governments were capable of providing.

Humanitarian challenges have always been part and parcel of human life, and they have often brought out the best of humanity and the most ingenious solutions. These have included the chance creation of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement by a travelling businessman who came across a horrifying battlefield in Solferino, Italy, around the middle of the 19th Century.

The creation of the Red Cross Red Crescent heralded a revolution in humanitarian assistance. So much has happened in one hundred and fifty years. A global corporate organization in ICRC and National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies were created right from the beginning. 

The National Societies formed their global network - the IFRC - almost a century ago. This led to the establishment of the rules of wars through the Geneva Conventions and International Humanitarian Law. It introduced universal humanitarian principles and standards in humanitarian operations. It promoted the red cross and red crescent emblems or brand that have gained global recognition and acceptance. And it ensured the growth of capacities of the National Societies that are now one of the most important civil society members in more than one hundred and eighty seven countries.

Given our fast-changing world, the Red Cross Red Crescent has to critically look at how best to remain an important player within its mandate. The global needs remain immense. Natural disasters show no sign of slowing down. Dissatisfaction in governance and the demand for change is increasing almost everywhere, often leading to uprisings. Countless people across the world have been affected by the on-going economic crisis. Millions are displaced by conflict, political upheaval, violence and disasters aggravated by climate change and environmental degradation, at times even by governments in favour of development projects.

So far the Red Cross Red Crescent has served humanity for more than 150 years with admirable success. But that is no guarantee of success in the future. Apart from problems internal to the Movement, two major global challenges may relegate us into irrelevance if we do not understand and adjust to them well.

These challenges are:
•           Managing global change that is becoming transformative, and
•           Internal and external competition.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The world is in a stage of what I may call transitional turmoil. People want change. They want to take part in the decisions that affect their lives. Technology has facilitated the spread of information and knowledge to almost all corners of the world, and this has empowered people to strive for greater equality and demand not patronage but mutual partnership relations.

People have lost confidence in established Governance. Power centres have eroded at political, economic and social and even at family level. The transitional turmoil seems to have engulfed the whole world in a more silent mode in many parts, but has been openly confrontational in others. This explains the Occupy Movement, the Arab Spring, Syria, and Yemen among others.

Transitional turmoil has a goal – a world that is open, transparent and equitable in offering opportunity and justice to all. What it may lack is organization, leadership and a platform of action that allows the participation of the people in decisions about their future. This has bred a humanitarian disaster for millions, for example in Syria, leading to terrible loss of lives and livelihoods, internal and cross border displacement and migration. Extremists may add to it by attempting to turn it to chaos for their own ends - but I am certain the world will soon have many “Malalas” to stop them.

When considering the external marketplace, meaning the private sector, we must remember that our purpose is that the best service – in terms of both reach and quality - be provided to the most vulnerable people.

As we must not attempt to avoid competition therefore we need to work on optimising our strategic advantage for greater efficiency and effectiveness - professionalize our fifteen million plus volunteers, promote our humanitarian principles and values widely, strengthen our legal presence and acceptability, and ensure adherence to our systems of accountability.

With Governments, which have huge capacities built for yesterday’s wars, the Red Cross Red Crescent may have to proactively negotiate pre-agreements to use existing Government logistics, transport, engineering, technology etc. strictly in compliance with our Fundamental Principles.

The nature of competition from public and corporate giving is an evolving one. People in Diaspora and other individuals as well as corporate organizations have shown an interest in directly funding beneficiaries through civil society or even through individual intermediaries. Advances in technology would certainly facilitate the growth of such direct channels in the future.

On the subject of competition within the humanitarian industry, I will say that it is intense. This, however, must never be allowed to overshadow the shared goals – giving the best services and support to vulnerable people.

Ladies and gentlemen,

What are the implications of these global humanitarian trends for the Red Cross Red Crescent? The following suggestions may help to take our work to a new level of responsiveness, effectiveness, transparency and efficiency in this changing and competitive world.

One, the Fundamental Principles should be strongly promoted and strictly underlined, and be adhered to by all partners and under all circumstances.

Two, the auxiliary roles of National Societies should be promoted and enhanced to convince governments - both donor and recipient - to allow unrestricted access to vulnerable people, participation in decision-making on humanitarian and development issues, and allow resources to go through the network.

Three, establish the rules of the game in mutually beneficial joint decision-making on resource allocation in its totality. Our National Societies – and the people they serve – have grown in their capacities, their assertiveness and in their expectations. They want to be full partners in their own lives and futures. Recipient National Societies own the business and partner with donors, so mutually beneficial joint decision-making should be a precondition at all levels if we are to grow our business for the benefit of all.

Four, work on the development of a system of linking with one another using modern technology, meaning the development and use of a common custom-designed software system. This would allow the Red Cross Red Crescent network to communicate and share information in real time, to improve our accountability and share our systems and data, and also act as a humanitarian social network where our young Red Cross and Red Crescent leaders, staff, volunteers and supporters enter into dialogue on the determinants of global changes to build a better world for their future.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Our world is full of opportunities but it is also full of dangers. These dangers must be fully considered if they are to be contained. If they are not contained, today’s transitional turmoil will not lead to positive global transformation. It will lead to disruption and chaos.

We have seen how conflicts and disasters have torn communities and countries apart. Syria is a clear example of what can happen when the life of an entire country – its people, its economy and its infrastructure – is destroyed while the rest of the world watches.

I believe that it is time for radical change in how we work and live together, and how we address our world’s vulnerabilities, and its aspirations. Can the Red Cross Red Crescent and civil society help to reduce the risk of another humanitarian catastrophe like Syria ever happening again? I believe that we can. We created the Geneva Conventions, global treaties, the code of conduct and disaster laws.

Our humanitarian revolution can continue long into the future if it is based on proactive and principled thought leadership, to help shape a better and more peaceful world. We will have many opportunities to discuss these issues and propose solutions at this forum, and during our Statutory Meetings. I look forward to working with you all.

Thank you very much.