ICRC chief on why relief needs to evolve — with bipartisan support

International Committee of the Red Cross President Peter Maurer. Photo by: Thierry Gassmann / ICRC

It’s not an easy time to work in humanitarian relief. A global refugee crisis has stretched resources to the limits, Western publics have recoiled against the influx of migrants to their shores, and growing needs in fragile states have often put aid workers on the frontlines of conflict.

Amid those challenges, International Committee of the Red Cross President Peter Maurer speaks in even tones about the need for good management. The humanitarian sector needs to think smarter, evolve its strategies, reach out to new partners and remain firm on fundamental principles, he told Devex on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting of the Global Future Councils in Dubai on Nov. 13.

On the heels of the U.S. election and amid growing uncertainty over global humanitarian funding, Maurer urged bipartisan support for relief work. Humanitarians, meanwhile, should make the most of limited funds to create a sustainable path out of dependency. He imagines a future in which “humanitarian assistance is designed in a way that it is also a credible contribution to self reliance,” he told Devex.

Our conversation below with Maurer is edited for length and clarity.

What’s your analysis of the recent political backlash we have seen in the West against migration and refugees — where is that coming from? Is it just a sheer question of numbers or is there something deeper going on here?

Our analysis is that the relationship between host communities and displaced communities is not an easy one, neither in internally displaced situations nor in refugee contexts in the region and beyond. What causes tensions most of the time — within countries, in neighboring countries and beyond — is insufficient management of population movements and it’s indeed an issue of numbers and how much the absorption capacity of a society is. This depends sometimes on policies, sometimes on economic situations, sometimes on other problems lingering around in society and how much it is ready to absorb additional pressure on the labor market and on the social systems.

If you suddenly find that your kid in school is a minority because there are so many refugee children then this causes tension, because parents think that their children are under attended and they don’t get potential. I think it’s a question of managing those flows, having response capacities in place, and finding more durable solutions. As long as there is a relatively steady flow, normally society can cope. More massive disruption can cause this imbalance between the response capacity and the flows. I think that’s what we’ve seen in Europe, but it’s not specific to Europe.

Does that mismatch behoove humanitarians to respond differently — for example to think more about addressing root causes of conflict, not just their aftermath?

What has probably changed the discourse and the approach of the humanitarian community is the seriousness, the depth, but also the longevity of crises. I think what we pick up as a signal is: Increasingly, donor country societies are skeptical to throw always the same kinds of assistance measures toward the same problems.

It will remain a key responsibility of humanitarian actors to carve out a neutral and impartial space for immediate emergency relief. But I think the dimension of the crisis and their longevity have clarified how important it is to find connectors between the short-term response and the more long-term and structural and systemic responses. That’s the whole issue on how you tie in a much more convincing way humanitarian relief with more developmentally oriented relief. I think humanitarian actors have to be ready to lead this discussion and see the adequate responses.

This idea of bridging the humanitarian-development divide was much discussed at the World Humanitarian Summit earlier this year. Have you seen concrete progress since then?

With regard to ICRC, we have tried to see how we can move away from just substituting ourselves for the failing social and economic systems and, while doing humanitarian work, [move toward] strengthening the capacity of people to assist and protect themselves. Wherever we can, wherever we see a space, wherever we can negotiate an environment in which this is possible, we are increasingly starting to do it. We are also happy to hand over to development agencies, if they come to these fragile contexts.

The humanitarian space is a consensual space and it’s not a political transformatory space. It’s not an absolute truth on what belongs on what side or the other side, but I think the pressure is on humanitarian organizations to expand this humanitarian space in a way that it is not just this old-fashioned and naive way of bringing emergency assistance to people. We are in fragile contexts, we have negotiate that space, we have to do neutral, impartial and independent work, and this is easily possible in many places in giving more prominence to self reliance and supporting skill development than just coming up with big assistance programs.

Although we have to be very realistic. We have situations in which you don’t have an alternative to substitution; people are just too much unrooted from the environment in which they are, they can’t sustainably cope with the situations in which they find themselves.

How do the challenges of aid worker security impact this effort to build local capacity and resilience?

I think it's a challenge, but a humanitarian space should be a consensual humanitarian space and I think doing what the community wants you to do is the best protection you have for humanitarians. We all know that there may be limits to that consensus and that’s a difficult trade off, but I think the challenge for humanitarian workers will remain to be credible, neutral, and impartial and independent and at the same time to cope with the needs — and that’s a tension.

As a humanitarian, what’s your reaction the recent elections in the United States?

In the past, humanitarian assistance by the U.S. government has been largely a bipartisan enterprise. I would hope that this remains a bipartisan enterprise — it has been one of the only bipartisan enterprises over the last couple of years. We hope that this will continue.

Second, given the exposure of the United States internationally in conflict, we hope to continue the very privileged and close cooperation that we have with the U.S. military all over the world on the relevance and interpretation of international humanitarian law.

All of these issues are issues which strategically we have had an excellent cooperation with Republican governments and Democratic governments in the United States, and in that sense I hope humanitarian aid will be something that is marginally if at all affected by a new presidency.

Amid an uncertain funding environment, there have been increasing calls from some in the humanitarian community to diversify funding — for example by including the private sector more often and more systematically. Is that something you’d like to see?

We at ICRC believe that some of the solutions we need in the humanitarian world can better be found and scaled in cooperation with the private sector. I think there are financial possibilities but also skills that the private sector has developed which can contribute to better humanitarian assistance and protection work.

One area [where the private sector can be more involved] is definitely finance — in mobilizing innovative finance tools for humanitarian activities. Another is data analytics, which would help humanitarian organizations target and direct humanitarian protection and assistance activities in a better way toward beneficiaries. And then, I think there is the whole areas of what you would call technical solutions to some of the challenges on the ground, where the private sector might have a stake an interest to buy in. One of the critical areas will be education, because it is tied to capacities and skills of workforce.

Where do you see the debate about humanitarian reform headed?

[In discussions at the WEF meeting] there was a little bit of reflection about, where is this humanitarian system moving and what can we do to support that movement. For me it’s relatively clear: The question is, can we find a strategy out of dependency where humanitarian assistance is designed in a way that it is also a credible contribution to self reliance, to capacitating people, to bring them out of dependency? And here the private sector is a great partner to think about those issues. How can humanitarian assistance be at the same time credible good humanitarian assistance but also contribute to market development and to employment creation and all you need to have a more stable environment? The private sector may have an interest to invest early on in humanitarianism because it is also in its own interest. To invest in people in crisis times so that you bring them out of the crisis.

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About the author

  • Dickenson beth full

    Elizabeth Dickinson

    Elizabeth Dickinson is a former associate editor at Devex. Based in the Middle East, she has previously served as Gulf correspondent for The National, assistant managing editor at Foreign Policy, and Nigeria correspondent at The Economist. Her writing also appeared in The New Yorker, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Politico Magazine, and Newsweek, among others.