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Bringing the Red Cross movement into the future – Part 1

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Alex Ross
October 1, 2018
February 6, 2023

This blog post was first published October 2018, by the IFRC as a contribution to the Strategy 2030 process.

50 years ago, the Fundamental Principles of the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement were developed and continue to hold astounding relevance to the very different global context within which we apply them today.  So much so, that four of the Principles: Humanity, Impartiality, Neutrality and Independence, have been adopted by the humanitarian sector more broadly.

The remaining three principles: Voluntary service, Unity and Universality, define more of the operating structure of the Movement which is also an envy of most other actors globally: A broad network of local staff and volunteers in 191 local institutions in 191 countries around the world; each National Society having its own auxiliary role with its State making it nationally mandated, with a relevant purpose among other national actors. This local network has access to support and peer exchanges from other National Societies around the world in times of crisis and in times of peace to share tools, learning and funds.  This network of 191 institutions and millions of volunteers is coordinated by a Secretariat.  In addition, the International Committee of the Red Cross, has a specific mandate to work in places of conflict and uses the globally recognised logo of the Red Cross or Red Crescent as an emblem of protection.

This structure was designed over a hundred years ago to give agency to volunteers in affected communities and to empower grass roots, local solutions through mandated roles within their state.  The World Humanitarian Summit acknowledged the role of locals as being a necessary component to building a better more sustainable and resilient world in 2016.

The issue however, is that the design of the governance to oversee the mandate, principles and structure, was built based on the power structures of the time: Western centric, hierarchical and top down.  Its structure was relatively decentralised for the times with a Federated approach and few avenues to enforce compliance among actors. It was a pioneer of the times.

The World is Moving on...

The world is moving on and the Movement is creaking under the strain.  We have an opportunity like no other organisation in the world today because of our inherent structure. If we were to adapt our Governance structures to embrace the shift of power away from the west and centre, we could: harness the local knowledge and relevance in each context and; grow the volunteer network by using technology to raise their voices; strengthen the protection of the emblem and reinforce the principles of humanity. This would result in the Movement being able to help the global efforts to meet humanitarian needs, in such a more fundamental way than ever before thought possible.

The UN Security Council and the OECD among others, are being challenged to revisit their structures to take account for the emerging global centres of power such as the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India and China). A number of International Non-Government Organisations such as Oxfam and Save the Children (while MSF continues to reflect on its Euro centric model), have restructured with Western offices focusing on advocacy and fundraising and ‘southern offices’ focusing more on the operations.

The Movement, in comparison, primarily relies on the PNS (Partner NSs from the ‘north’) paying for regional meetings and sending staff and funds to support programs in the South. Sometimes this is channelled through the centre (Secretariat) but this is reducing annually.  Some middle-income countries such as Kenya, Mexico and Pakistan or Non Western National Societies such as Qatar are entering into the world of being Partners/ donors but, due to the above mentioned structures this all still has to be premised on the old model of ‘doing to’ even if the awareness and intent is not.

We still send experts to do assessments, to report back to Geneva or other Western Capitals, on the needs and then define what should be sent and delivered to the local population.  This results in assumptions and biases, delays and is costly.

We are also hierarchical in the sense of the older generations of men being in more senior positions and having more power and decision-making authority. Although our structures ensure representation, if not power, from across the globe, our gender balance in senior roles is well behind the curve. This cohort (older males) in any organisation, tends to find it harder to conceive of a new world order or radically different ways of operating. This is challenging when such a large percentage of countries affected by crises have a growing youth population and half of the Sky are women.

Now that we have the technology that sits in 75% of the populations hands(by 2020 it is expected to be 90%) why can’t the centre, be the enabler of volunteer’s agency? In many communities today, people around the globe participate in online communities, they rate other actors, they report on issues in real time from the front line, they support each other emotionally, they raise issues to global attention and they raise funds and share resources.

Imagine a Red Cross Red Crescent Movement that puts the power in the hands of the affected populations, who can share their stories, photos, needs, evaluations and feedback in real time.

This could influence where other parts of the Movement can most efficiently provide support in the least delay. It could inform donors in an accountable way about where the greatest needs are, and who is providing ‘what is required’ in the most dignified and appropriate way to that community. Imagine if, through a more decentralised way of engaging, we were accessible to so many more volunteers, no matter where they lived. Imagine if we could engage people meaningfully on the Fundamental Principles to help build humanity and fight against extremism of any form.  Imagine if we could make people affected by crisis feel important, listened to and not alone.  This might reduce their fears in some small way. Imagine if millions stood up to strengthen the emblem so that its protection stops being eroded and challenged.  The possibilities to affect positive change are endless and so much greater than what we are able to achieve today.

This is no small feat, with data protection and equality of access only some of the smaller hurdles to navigate. But it is possible.  The need exists, the technology exists, the centre of power will move and change will happen, whether the Movement is ready for it or not.

I guess the real question is: 

Are we courageous enough to enable others to have the power we now hold, so that it can reach further and do more?
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Alex Ross
Loop Lead