Red Cross chief: Humanitarian groups must 'rethink totally our people management'

Yves Daccord, director-general of the International Committee of the Red Cross. Photo by: Oliver O'Hanlon / CC BY-NC-SA

WASHINGTON — Humanitarian organizations have a limited window of time to show that partnerships and early investment in fragile and conflict-affected states can yield results, according to the Director-General of the International Committee of the Red Cross Yves Daccord.

Read part one: Red Cross chief: 'Our job is always to push the limits of the possible'

Devex spoke to Yves Daccord, director-general of the International Committee of the Red Cross, about humanitarian access to Syria's besieged communities, the need for development investment in the midst of conflict, and the breakdown of international consensus. This is part one of a two-part interview.

As the international humanitarian system looks at how it can reform to respond to the new face of crisis — in which people displaced by conflict are likely to remain away from home for years — earlier development investments must be part of the picture, Daccord told Devex.

This is the second part of an interview with Daccord. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What is the connection between early development investment during conflict and the ICRC’s interest in exploring new financial mechanisms?

Investing or intervening during conflict is truly complex, and it's truly risky. A lot of governments are equipped to do that, and a few humanitarian actors are equipped to do that, but they do that with very specific rules and regulations. Development actors are not at all equipped for that, nor is the private sector. The big private sector players don't intervene when they see war. They opt out. Here, because of the focus — and let's be clear the focus is on the Middle East and migration — it suddenly creates an interest to think differently. People start to realize they need to invest and they want to invest not to repair it, but to guarantee a minimum of services for people to survive and to stay in their country — to choose to stay.

What we can do as a humanitarian organization is two things: First, to understand where these development actors could or should be able to intervene. If we tell them, “please go into Syria,” they will never do it. It's too risky. But we can be specific, and say, “here is where you can help, because we have a good understanding of where the vulnerabilities are, and the choices.” What we're trying to do with the World Bank is to design a financial instrument, which could be very specifically a famine early-action mechanism that could release money and resources when we start to see that the indicators become very clear in this very specific environment — then having ICRC or other actors being able to intervene on the ground.

International Committee of the Red Cross Director-General Yves Daccord discusses organizational growth, partnership, and investing early in unstable environments.

Second is interventions on systems — not all the systems, but water and sanitation, which are totally underestimated. You want the people to choose to stay in the country? If there's no water? You want them to survive? Water is not just about one or two trucks ... It's about systems, especially in the Middle East. You have to think about how you intervene, and intervention is not just the classical intervention where you bring a new pump. It's also negotiating with the warring parties that they don't hit this pump. It's very complicated. It's about thinking, how do you mobilize local authorities so that they provide you with human resources? It's about thinking about the energy model. It's complicated, but it's something that we as an organization have a good understanding, and I think possibly we can do.

We have to be specific because otherwise these discussions on the humanitarian-development “nexus” are very painful.

That sounds like it does require humanitarian organizations and development organizations to understand each other's capabilities well enough to know what the other should be doing.

In the ideal, you have a model where you would look at gaps, and you would really coordinate around gaps. Where are the gaps? Who is doing what? I don't think we have right now an infrastructure globally, which will allow us to do that. We're not mature — I'm talking collectively. I think Option B is then you work on partnerships much more closely. Partnership is — you agree to suffer together. You agree to adapt to each other. Tomorrow, I'm participating in a Somalia lessons-learned exercise with the World Bank. It will be a tough one. We have different perspective on what is important and what's not. But it's exactly what you do.

So I think — as long as you don't have a perfect ecosystem — it’s Option B. You focus on partnering, and then you are really learning.

Typically, one of the big issues for us is multiyear programming. It sounds basic. As a humanitarian organization you really focus on short term — yearly is really our planning system, our performance system, our financing. Suddenly, you realize if you want to think about systems, you have to look at two, three, four, five years. I can tell you donors don't know how to do that at all. How do you learn that? This is one of the reasons why we are ready to do pilots.

The famous humanitarian impact bond we did was also because it's five years. We're learning with a group of partners, social investors, outcome funders, governments. We are learning a five-year process. Some of the governments that joined us had to change legislation. I think it's great to have, and I think we should have ambition. At the same time, we do these very concrete partnerships, where you really work on concrete issues.

So you don't see the individual partnerships as a replacement for efforts to affect broader systemic change, but perhaps the more tangible outcome so far?

It will complement broader change, but what we need is also some concrete examples. What we need are key actors, and in that case the World Bank and others, to start to be able to say, “OK we've intervened and, you know what, it worked.”

It's not just governments. Nonstate armed groups are looking very carefully at what we do. Al Shabaab is also watching what we do or not in Somalia, very carefully. It's a complex dynamic, so what you do is you contextualize. You're trying to find solutions which make sense for the people, but you're also very, very conscious about the environment in which you operate. My concern is the window of opportunity is not very big to allow ourselves to do these kinds of tests. The risk is that after quite a while people, governments find it too risky.

Why do you think that?

Because it's tough to say that protracted crisis and conflict is a focus after a while — politicians, governments do not like a failure. A bit is OK, but not too much.

So you have to demonstrate some success.

You have to, and that's a real risk. That's why it's important now to show that we're willing. That's why you see us all over the place in Washington, D.C., because we have an interest.

Partnering with an organization obviously brings other interests into your operating environment. How do you maintain the ICRC's independence and also work in concert with other organizations?

First of all, we are used to this kind of dilemma. Our main donors are governments. Most of these governments have very strong political agendas, sometimes secret agendas, which makes things a little bit complex. We are navigating in this environment. What we've always been very careful about is that we are able to have clarity in the way we are living our principles, which allows people and our stakeholders to judge us based on that. If they judge us just based on the governments supporting us, or a partner, we have no chance. Zero.

“I don't want to be an implementing partner. I don't want that as an organization. I don't want a partner, or a government, or donor who says, ‘finance these people because I think they are the one to finance.’”

— Yves Daccord, director-general of the ICRC

We are intervening in very difficult places around the world, very polarized, where people have very different perspective about a lot of things. I think what we've shown is that we are able to be financed or to partner with people, but then we always maintain a clear decision-making independence, and clear area of our engagement. That's why, for us, impartiality is absolutely critical. We want to be able to say, “this is where we think vulnerability is.”

To do that, we have to be able to do our own assessment. I don't want to be an implementing partner. I don't want that as an organization. I don't want a partner, or a government, or donor who says, ‘finance these people because I think they are the one to finance.’ It’s very risky in this world, and that's complex.

We constantly get feedback in Somalia, or in Yemen, or in Afghanistan about what we do somewhere else. Constantly. It's very interesting — not just by people, but also by armed groups. They are always watching. They say, “oh, but we've seen you doing that.” So I think people are measuring us more and more about what we do, how we operate. Today it's constant.

So if you're partnering with the World Bank, or a private sector company, regardless of where they want to invest, you'll always go with the more vulnerable?

Yes. Because we have the luxury. Our funding mechanism is not based on projects. I'm not funding a project and have to convince you. We partner on competence, on a number of questions, but not on specifics. I don't partner with you to do a new project in the Philippines. I don't do that, which gives us some traction.

I've heard the World Bank's entrance into the humanitarian sphere and on issues like refugee hosting lauded by a number of groups. What do you attribute that emergence of the World Bank into this sector to?

I think at the senior level there is a recognition, including at the board level, that if they want to be true to their mandate and mission, which is about poverty and extreme poverty first, evidence has shown clearly that extreme poverty now is growing rapidly into very fragile and conflict settings.

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The good news with the World Bank is they are rather evidence based. Today, I think the figures are that 18-20 percent of extreme poverty is in conflict settings. In 10 years’ time, in 2030, it will be 50 percent. We have to recognize that you have at the helm of the World Bank President Jim Yong Kim. Now he has brought in Chief Executive Officer Kristalina Georgieva. These are people who are rather clear about what they want. They think the added value of the bank is to intervene on questions which are related to fragility and conflict. That's clear. So, I think they are ready to challenge the old assumptions of the World Bank.

Today, you have an environment which is very different, which — for different agendas by the way, the migration agenda is one, security agenda another one, instability — makes that possible. Five years ago, they would have not been able to do that.

The way we have structured and think about the world today is shifting, and I think all boxes are changing quickly. Here it's a very interesting attempt to move in the right direction. My feeling is that things will move even quicker than what we think when it comes to this kind of environment and what it means. So again, partnership is critical because that allows you to take the journey together.

Do you mean in terms of the categories of actors that need to be involved?

Category of actors, people affected. The mobile phone is everywhere. It changes the behavior of warring parties, of communities of people. It's a time where I see women being again pushed into their homes. At the same time, they are all on their mobile phones. So the way you would normally structure and think about people’s behavior — it's difficult to grasp but there is something happening in the world. We've seen also fragmentation. If you look at our indicators on armed groups, in six years there are more emerging armed groups in the world than in the previous 60 years. Amazing. There is something happening here. That's what I'm saying. So it's possible that things will go even quicker than what we think when we think about development, about investment.

We might find ourselves in a situation in years to come where people will come with their own solutions. Maybe in Syria, nobody has the figures, but most likely the majority of aid is not coming from the formal sector. It's coming from communities, through remittances, through gangs, whatever — not principled because it goes only to “my community.” 80 percent of the budget of Somalia is in fact informal, coming from remittances. Interesting. We work on something specific — humanitarian, development — but at the same time there is something bigger.

Have you drawn any conclusions about what that sort of fragmentation means for leadership of a global humanitarian organization?

“If we want to be serious we have to rethink totally our people management.”

We do, but I'm not sure we are managing that. It means two things: A radical change when you think about your people management. Humanitarian organizations and development actors had a very classical view about how to organize their human resources. Their starting point was human resources are coming to work with us, because there is the passion, there is the purpose, and we don't care so much about career and retention and talent management and all that. This time is gone. If we want to be serious, we have to rethink totally our people management. 

I would argue in the humanitarian sector people management is really poor. If you want to be serious about accompanying fragmentation, you have to have the right people in the right place, you have to devolve power. That's why the United Nations will be such a challenge because their power, the way they are structured on critical issues is very centralized.

Do you think that some of those issues of human resources and organizational structure are partly to blame for this current reckoning that the humanitarian and development organizations are facing in terms of abuse and lack of reporting abuse?

It's a complex issue. I don't think any human sector is immune from those kind of questions, especially when it comes to power abuse and harassment. Though I think the humanitarian sector, as such, has a lot to learn, and I think possibly the fact that it was taken for granted that people would just work based on their missions and the purpose without really checking a little bit more is possibly one of the reasons — not the only one — why you find some gaps. No follow up, no real performance appraisal follow up. If you would follow your people more closely, this is the kind of thing — you can't see everything, but normally if you do well, you can prevent repetition.

About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.