Q&A: Incoming ICRC chief on the new humanitarian challenges

Robert Mardini, permanent observer of the ICRC to the United Nations, addresses the Security Council meeting on the situation concerning Iraq. Photo by: U.N. / Eskinder Debebe

BARCELONA — An inclusive workforce, better funding, and the removal of bureaucracy are among the top priorities for Robert Mardini, the International Committee of the Red Cross’s incoming director-general.

Mardini, who is currently ICRC’s permanent observer to the United Nations, is due to take over from Yves Daccord — who has been in the role for almost 10 years — in March. He said that while the organization faces many challenges, the biggest is in bridging the gap between the unprecedented level of humanitarian needs and humanitarian response.

To address increasing climate-related disasters and ongoing conflicts, ICRC’s budget has had to almost double over the past decade. This year marks the first time that its staff exceeded 20,000. “We have no other choice but to do more, to do better, and to do it in a more cost effective way,” Mardini said.

“13 out of the 20 countries considered the most vulnerable to the impact of climate change are also affected by an armed conflict.”

— Robert Mardini, incoming director-general, International Committee of the Red Cross

Speaking to Devex before his upcoming move from New York to Geneva, Mardini discussed his priorities for the new role, the nexus of climate change and conflict, and how to nurture an inclusive workplace. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What are your priorities as you close out your current role and prepare to take up the director-general position?

The priority is to be able to lead the ICRC into the future and to address the many challenges that we are facing day in and day out on so many different fronts.

The first ... is the growing urbanization of warfare. We see that conflict is taking place in urban areas, and this is generating big destruction, death, and human suffering because of the intensity of the conflicts and the use of explosive weapons in densely populated areas.

Then you have the challenges of new technologies and conflict playing out in cyberspace where those challenges need to be regulated. It has impacts and humanitarian consequences for civilians caught up in these dynamics. We also see fragmentation of the existing conflict — you have more and more non-international armed conflict rather than international conflict, and those are characterized by a multiplicity of armed actors with shifting alliances ... Today the ICRC has identified more than 560 different active armed groups in close to 90 different conflicts.

The ICRC delivers Salamaat messages to displaced families. Photo by: ICRC / Ibrahim Adnan Sherkhan Mohammed Al Genkw

To this you can add to the challenge of counterterrorism measures that are having a particularly chilling effect on humanitarian action. We understand the legitimate concern for states to come up with measures to guarantee the security of our citizens, but at the same time, this cannot come at the cost of helping the most vulnerable suffering and in armed conflict.

And you see more and more the overlap of armed conflict and the consequences of climate change. Imagine: 13 out of the 20 countries considered the most vulnerable to the impact of climate change are also affected by an armed conflict.

In order to advance and move the needle on those pressing humanitarian challenges, as a director-general, my role would be to ensure an inclusive workplace for those 20,000 colleagues — in the field in more than 90 countries and at our headquarters in Geneva — so that people feel entrusted to challenge the status quo and innovate. My role will be to remove the obstacles so that our workforce is really empowered to do so.

How do you plan to remove those obstacles and nurture that inclusive environment?

It's about the tone from the top. It's about empowering our structure. It's about removing bureaucracy as much as possible, and negotiating better humanitarian funds so that our people on the ground can really focus on the design of humanitarian response and not be bogged down by more bureaucracy and justifications.

“It's about removing bureaucracy as much as possible, and negotiating better humanitarian funds so that our people on the ground can really focus on the design of humanitarian response.”

— Robert Mardini, incoming director-general, International Committee of the Red Cross

It will also be important to reach gender parity and I think ICRC diversity is [about] more than just gender — it's about inclusion of people coming from different backgrounds, different ages, different ways of addressing challenges. If diversity is already a reality — because today we have more than 160 nationalities in our workforce — we're not there in terms of inclusion in the decision-making process. I think that will be an important priority for me to make sure that this actually happens, not just to be a soundbite.

How might the increasing climate-related disasters and protracted crises continue to impact ICRC’s work?

Unfortunately the magnitude and the scope of the needs are such that I think no single organization can cover the humanitarian needs stemming from a protracted conflict. So of course coordination remains a very important challenge and it needs to take place on the ground.

“We really need to get our act together to be able to offer the best possible response to people affected in real time.”

The other trend is that it’s difficult to separate between protracted conflict and natural disaster because the fact of the matter is that very often those two layers of adversity actually overlap. Communities affected by armed conflict are also affected by drought, floods, and increased frequency of those phenomenon, cyclones, and other calamities. We really need to get our act together to be able to offer the best possible response to people affected in real time.

But again, the humanitarian response will not solve political problems, and it is important that parties to the conflict and the international community get their act together to find sustainable, political solutions.

With all of this in mind, when you take up the new position of director-general in March, are there big changes you're planning to make?

Not that I know of. We are in a fast evolving world and I will not speculate now, but I think our institutional strategy is an ambitious one and implementing this strategy will be a challenge in itself. I will make sure that we are best equipped to be in a position to implement it.

What do you want people to know about you as you go into this role?

I am a person who will engage every stakeholder relevant for the response of the ICRC, internally or externally. I'm a person with determination and perseverance, and I will never take no for an answer when it comes to helping communities and when it comes to advocating for those who are caught up in conflict and violence.

About the author

  • Rebecca Root

    Rebecca Root is a Reporter and Editorial Associate at Devex producing news stories, video, and podcasts as well as partnership content. She has a background in finance, travel, and global development journalism and has written for a variety of publications while living and working in New York, London, and Barcelona.