Issue 58 - Article 9

Dunant's dream, 150 years on: a sober celebration?

August 7, 2013
Yves Daccord
Henry Dunant (1828-1910) in 1863, at the time of the founding of the Red Cross

In February 2013, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) marked the 150th anniversary of its creation – the inspired response of a young Swiss businessman, Henry Dunant, to the horrors he witnessed on the battlefield at Solferino. Amid the carnage of dead and dying soldiers, Dunant was quick to recognise the need for organised humanitarian relief, for trained volunteers and for medical services that would treat wounded soldiers on both sides of the frontline. He also recognised the need for international cooperation to achieve this. The creation of the ICRC and subsequently of national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies saw the development of concerted and coordinated humanitarian action for war victims, on the basis of international humanitarian law. The concept of neutral, impartial and independent humanitarian action carried out by workers under the protection of a distinctive emblem lies at the heart of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.

Humanitarianism in crisis?

Today’s humanitarian environment would be unrecognisable to Dunant. Both the nature of modern warfare and the humanitarian response to it would most likely leave him bewildered. Does this mean that the fundamental principles are outdated and unrealistic notions that have no place in contemporary humanitarian action? Has humanitarian aid become just another cynical aspect of politics? Has Dunant’s noble endeavour – to uphold humanity and dignity even in the midst of armed conflict – turned into a pipedream? Have the profound changes in the humanitarian environment dashed all hopes of a concerted, coordinated response to human suffering?

A quick scan of recent or ongoing conflicts – from Syria to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to Afghanistan – might seem to justify such a gloomy prognosis. In Syria, civilians in every part of the country have been suffering the consequences of intensifying fighting, yet the response of humanitarian organisations – facing major political and security constraints – has fallen dramatically short of meeting their needs. The overt politicisation of international aid has hindered humanitarian access to people on all sides of the military and political divide. In the DRC, the blurring of the political, military and humanitarian mandates of the UN integrated mission has made the challenge of providing impartial and neutral humanitarian aid to people affected by the chronic armed conflict all the more difficult. It has also further highlighted the apparent inability of many humanitarian actors to respond in emergency phases of armed conflicts. In Afghanistan, the use of relief aid as a tool of conflict management and counter-insurgency strategies has created confusion between humanitarian agencies operating according to the fundamental principles and other actors. This has resulted in a prevailing perception that all humanitarian organisations working in the country have political objectives, whether or not they resort to using military escorts.

A changing world

Many of the numerous challenges confronting principled humanitarian action would have been unimaginable in Dunant’s day. However, these challenges are by no means insurmountable. Principled humanitarian action may be in crisis, but there are opportunities to salvage it. While the increasing complexity of major crises and their impact on affected people pose multiple challenges to humanitarian actors, perhaps the greatest challenge lies within the changing landscape of humanitarian assistance itself.

On the one hand, we are seeing a marked resurgence in state-based assertions of sovereignty, with increasing numbers of host states actively blocking, restricting or controlling humanitarian response on their territory. Non-Western host states increasingly want to be seen to deal with their own political and humanitarian crises – partly in line with their own responsibilities, and partly because they are sceptical about the effectiveness and intentions of the international humanitarian community. One outcome of this is that humanitarian response is becoming increasingly localised, with a possible weakening of the protection dimension of the overall humanitarian effort. On the other hand, an increasingly broad range of actors are responding to humanitarian emergencies, including the private sector, new NGOs and foreign military forces, often with ways of operating that differ from traditional approaches and that are not necessarily based on humanitarian principles. Overall, these changes are challenging the relevance of ‘traditional’ humanitarian action and coordination mechanisms – particularly at the international level – and further fuelling competition between actors.

The apparent inability of many humanitarian organisations to gain access to affected populations in the emergency phase of armed conflicts is striking. Yet this lack of proximity is only partly due to security constraints and host government control of aid. There is another major reason, which is the deliberate choice of most UN agencies and many large international NGOs to effectively outsource their response to local partners. As the chain from donor to UN agency to international NGO to local partner and eventually to beneficiary becomes longer and longer – and monitoring becomes increasingly problematic – this raises important questions about the efficiency and effectiveness of the overall response, especially about who has final accountability for ensuring this. It also means that a direct perspective on the real needs and resilience of beneficiaries is lost.

In various emergency contexts – Somalia, Libya and Mali to name just a few recent and ongoing examples – Muslim organisations and Red Crescent societies from countries such as Turkey and Qatar rapidly deployed on the ground while many international humanitarian organisations and agencies were still talking about coordination in regional capitals. New constellations of humanitarian actors, often with Red Cross and Red Crescent societies at the centre, will become increasingly prominent. Donors too are becoming increasingly diversified, both states and non-governmental donors. More and more ‘non-traditional’ or ‘emerging’ state donors are operating outside the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)’s Development Assistance Committee (DAC) and independently of the Good Humanitarian Donorship initiative. A noticeable trend of non-DAC donor governments is to channel funds through host states rather than humanitarian organisations, and they often favour interventions in neighbouring countries. Humanitarian financing to the Syria crisis is one example. At a UN pledging conference for Syria in January, hosted by Kuwait, donors in the Middle East – including Kuwait itself, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia – outperformed the leading global economies by a huge margin in terms of actual commitments and contributions, both inside and outside the UN funding appeals.

A final point on the acceptance and perception of humanitarian aid concerns the changing role and perception of the so-called ‘victims’, those we aim to protect and assist. The ever-increasing availability of new web-based technology means that ‘auto assessment’ by beneficiaries themselves is becoming a reality. There are many examples of this, from major natural disasters such as the Haiti earthquake to the ongoing violence and armed conflict triggered by the Arab Spring. Quite rightly, beneficiaries themselves are identifying needs and becoming more involved in formulating responses, as partners rather than passive victims. Still, we need to do much more to improve the way in which we interact with beneficiaries.

Lessons for the future

From an ICRC perspective, it is critical to draw lessons from these trends and engage accordingly. The institution clearly recognises the need to better connect with other responses, and to broaden its support base through engagement with more diverse stakeholders – and to make the most of the opportunities that such diversity brings. The ICRC’s aim is to ensure a constant, relevant operational presence that remains faithful to its fundamental principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence, while adapting to changing realties. In practice this requires an approach that is needs-based, with proximity to beneficiaries, and entails engagement with all stakeholders – thereby gaining the widest possible acceptance and respect, and through this, the widest possible humanitarian access to people in need of protection and assistance.

Different humanitarian actors confront the challenge of gaining acceptance in different ways. For the ICRC, it is of primary importance to further strengthen and develop partnerships within the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, the largest humanitarian network in the world, supported by millions of volunteers. This is particularly important at the local level in order to acquire a thorough understanding of the situation on the ground and the needs of the various communities involved. In all, the ICRC has active partnerships with over 100 National Red Cross and Red Crescent societies, each with their own legal identity and role, but all sharing the same fundamental principles. These partnerships take different forms: some are primarily operational and concentrate on emergency response, while others focus on capacity-building in specific areas such as conflict preparedness. In challenging operational contexts such as Syria, Mali, Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan and the DRC, the National Society is already a vital partner.

The ICRC’s approach to partnership and coordination is pragmatic as well as principled. It strives to work closely with those who share its vision of field-based action and relevance, and who have close proximity to people affected by armed conflict or other situations of violence. With this in mind, one international NGO with whom the ICRC works closely in various challenging contexts is Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).

The common ground between the ICRC and other humanitarian actors, regardless of their particular mandate or approach, must be the principles of humanity and impartiality, with aid prioritised and allocated strictly on the basis of humanitarian needs. There must be a genuine commitment to match the rhetoric of ‘principled humanitarian action’ with a meaningful response on the ground. This requires transparency and clarity on such fundamental issues as beneficiary numbers, access and capacities. Increasingly, flexible local coordination arrangements tailored to a specific context are becoming the norm. In this sense, strength can be found in diversity, with no one mandate or approach being the ‘correct’ one.

At the other end of the spectrum, the ICRC is also working to develop strong relationships with an increasing number of states around the world, aimed at gaining a greater understanding of their perspectives and views on humanitarian action, and then to integrate this insight into its activities and operations. At the same time, the institution stands to gain increased legal, diplomatic, operational and in some cases financial support.

Failure to reach out effectively on all these levels could have serious consequences. Lack of acceptance could endanger the security of staff in the field. Indeed, the ICRC’s 13,000 staff members are its key asset. Investing more in its own workforce – striking the right balance of diversity, developing leadership and striving for the highest professional standards – is essential to secure acceptance and support, ultimately making a real difference for people affected by war or disaster.

While the ICRC’s landmark anniversary of 150 years of humanitarian action provides an opportune moment to reflect on the various changes in the humanitarian landscape over the years – and the necessity to adapt to those changes – it is also important to bear in mind what has and must remain constant. Dunant’s vision of humane treatment for wounded and captured soldiers on both sides of the frontline – extended to providing protection and assistance to all people affected by armed conflict, on the basis of humanitarian need alone – must surely remain the bedrock of humanitarian action as much today as it was then. The desire and ambition to uphold human dignity, even in the midst of armed conflict, must be as fundamental to the humanitarian response around today’s battlefields in Syria or Mali or Afghanistan as it was at Solferino. Ultimately it is this common ground that will help humanitarian actors reconcile their differences and move forward with a genuine commitment to filling the gaps and avoiding the duplications of humanitarian aid – a genuine commitment to effective action rather than words in a turbulent world with ever-more complex needs.

Yves Daccord is director-general of the International Committee of the Red Cross.


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