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Bringing the Red Cross movement into the future – Part 2

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Alex Ross
January 31, 2019
February 6, 2023

First published in January 2019, by the IFRC, sharing global contributions to the Strategy 2030 Process.

There is a plethora of reports, articles and think pieces making the case that the humanitarian system is failing and needs to make changes (Voices to Choices – IARAN, Civil Society Futures – PACT, World Disaster Report – IFRC). The Red Cross Movement (RCM) being the largest humanitarian organisation in the world and the guardian of the Fundamental Principles, is also going to need to adapt to remain relevant and continue to deliver support to people around the world.

How people come together to support each other has changed due to globalisation, advances in technology and increased connectivity. This has resulted in a heightened sense of agency to support others but also to demand appropriate services in a crisis. This agency very much echoes the motivation that drove Henry Dunant to establish a Movement built on volunteerism 150 years ago.

How the humanitarian ecosystem will adapt or be disrupted is still to be seen. I would like to argue that the RCM is at a significant advantage and should play an important role in how to harness these changes so that more people affected by crisis can be helped and help themselves, around the world in a principled yet efficient, empowering and accountable manner.

Building on the hypothesis outlined in an earlier paper, that the Seven Fundamental Principles and structure of the Red Cross Movement continues to be an excellent design to deliver humanitarian services in the 21st century and beyond. Yet observing that the Governance architecture and role of the Secretariat and Host National Societies needs to be modernised and rethought, so as to harness the possibilities of our time: large youth population; global connectivity through technology; increased role of those affected including women and marginalised communities; greater need for transparency and accountability as well as a participation revolution. This paper will go on to explain some of the changes in Governance that would be required, outline some suggestions on what that modernisation could look like, followed by some of the risks and possible next steps.

Old Power

The current governance structures of the Movement, designed over a hundred years ago, is built on the Old Power model of Institutions, formal processes, hierarchy, discretion, expertise, specialisation and long term loyalty and affiliation. It worked in its day, resulting in an incredible proliferation of National Societies and a truly local to global Movement.

The RCM processes, and in fact most organisations today, are based on control of what we know or own and asking our volunteers, members and sadly the people we are here to serve, ‘our beneficiaries’, to comply with our systems and approaches and consume what we have to offer.

Finally, we see in many National Societies that it is quite complex to become a volunteer or a member. You may need to: pay an annual fee; do trainings; attend board meetings, AGMs or other such formal structured events that might not fulfil the reason why they joined in the first place. All of this is based on old systems and processes which no longer meets the demands of the modern volunteer culture and needs to be radically reorganised to better harness more dynamic ways of helping people in need.

New Power

Timms and Heimann’s, research presented in the highly acclaimed book New Power, explains that in contrast New power is based on: networked governance; self-organisation; rewarding those who share; building on and shaping existing ideas collectively; opt-in decision making; as well as collaboration, transparency, participation and a ‘do it ourselves ethic’. 

All of this plays in favour of the inherent role and structure of the RCM: the largest humanitarian network, built on volunteerism. The RCM has never been best placed as a highly technical specialised organisation. We are also not a UN agency. Our unique and valuable role in the humanitarian ecosystem is the last mile, first responder through the millions of volunteers and branches around the globe, giving us community reach and engagement. We have been a mammoth network and need to adapt to continue to play a role in networking for humanitarian outcomes.

As such, I would like to suggest that the RCM, possibly more than any other actor, needs to adapt the governance structures and culture to make the most of the new world, the new opportunities and New Power. In the true spirit of Henry Dunant, the centre needs to empower and enable volunteers who are:

'Born of a desire to bring assistance without discrimination… to prevent and alleviate human suffering wherever it may be found’. As ‘a world-wide institution in which all Societies have equal status and share equal responsibilities and duties in helping each other’ and which is ‘open to all’.

The volunteers and staff in every country are our crowd, they embody our principles and can help to spread and share them through action. We have legitimacy and a brand that we can harness and a very strong core. We need to collectively design ways to help all NSs enable easier, meaningful and accessible participation – or as some might put it have ‘minimal viable bureaucracy’ to engage and participate.

So What Might It Look Like?

To ensure the Movement stays relevant and the Principles are lived and strengthened, we want as many people as possible sharing and feeling affiliated with the Principles in a way that is meaningful and relevant to them. Could the Secretariat’s role be to set up and enable a global Movement based on our fundamental principles allowing people/ soon to be volunteers and members, to identify need and respond through action or donations. Could they act as enablers of volunteers and communities and advocate for this complete shift in power through role modelling change in the Movement? The Secretariat could link up with the tech sector and design a system for communities to, for example:

1) Report on issues in real time

Through real time data gathering from people affected by crisis such as analysing photos and sharing updates of the context and needs

2) Establish communities to support each other emotionally through online networks and communities

Promoting peer connections with people you care about or share values with resulting in a network effect that spreads ideas further. Something similar to platforms like PatientsLikeMe, who create networks for people to share and support each other, to get feedback, make suggestions and to feel heard and understood. Imagine if people around the world, or even across a context could share experiences, ideas, fears and feel understood and less isolated all in the spirit of ‘bringing assistance without discrimination’. What if a mother in Syria, wondering what else she can do to keep her family alive, could talk with Syrian refugees in Lebanon or in the UK for emotional support, updates on the context or compare stories with a Palestinian mother facing a similar situation for two decades now.

3) Crowd source funds, time, talent and resources at a local and branch level up to internationally

Would it be possible for branches or national societies to crowd fund for specific activities or items (computers for branches, seeds for communities etc), using something similar to GoFundMe or GiveDirectly. We can’t rely on crowd funding for everything but it could provide a lot of resources and build the capacity and infrastructure so that Program funds could reach further. It would also build the movement and connect volunteers with every project.

Some organisations are also crowd sourcing solutions to problems and sharing approaches across the network. Is there a way that the Secretariat can provide a platform for that to happen more organically?  Missing Maps is an open source example of this already happening in one form, with people volunteering their time to help plot maps in key areas.

4) Have an accountability and rating system for users

Imagine if we were able to have a rating system of the services we provide to communities, by communities, in an open and transparent manner. Something similar to AirBnB or Uber, where both the users and the owners of the accommodation/ drivers are rated. This rating has enormous power and influence on their future work/ role and is highly transparent and delivered in real time (not after the project has finished and an end line evaluation has been done and only shared with the donor).

5) Provide online training, ideas, guidance and resources to ensure good understanding of and adherence to the Principles

We already have some versions of this but it could go further, a TedX type spreading of quality ideas in relation to the fundamental principles, humanitarian principles, types of approaches which work by people who have been affected etc.

6) Spread the principles of inclusion and acceptance wide and far based on the Fundamental Principles

Movements like #metoo, have swept the world, with no owner of the movement. It was used across the globe and across different professions in different ways that were relevant and meaningful to each group. People who had felt alone and too small to speak up were emboldened and felt safe to speak up and that their voice had the power to influence change. Could we do something similar with the Fundamental Principles? Or at least the Humanitarian Principles? Using solidarity to reinvigorate the principles of unity, impartiality, neutrality. Let people who feel judged, isolated, left out of the system have the confidence to speak up under the banner of the Principles so that together it can result in much needed change, in the UK and USA as much as anywhere else?

A group of women at a protest march hold a sign that says 'C'est assez'



These are just a novices thoughts, as a starter for ten, to promote new ways of thinking and possibilities for hardened humanitarian workers familiar with well used structures and approaches. It’s hard to think of how or where such an approach would take us and what the RCM could look like but if we are driven by humanitarian impact then this should be an exciting vision, if we have faith to let go. This would involve letting go of knowing what the outcome would be and transferring decision making power to volunteers, and letting go of our silo and finding ways to work more with other humanitarian actors (old and new generation). The technology to do all of this is available, it’s about linking up the dots in a safe and meaningful way.

Not everything the RCM wants to achieve will be done through New Power models of participation. The massive international responses, field hospitals, search and rescue and many other core response activities need to remain the foundation of who we are, be centralised and professional. But we could also be so much more to so many more people if we embraced the new models. Finding ways to blend the new approaches with our strong response capacity is the only viable solution for an enduring Red Cross Movement.

Clearly there are also many risks: managing people’s data; ensuring the emblem maintains and even grows its relevance; maintaining independence and impartiality; ensuring respect for the role of the Movement in contexts of conflict, including access; ensuring the voices of those not connected to the net are heard and supported etc. However the risks of not investing in this journey are possibly much greater.

The Role of the Secretariat

I am not proposing that the Secretariat continues everything it is currently doing and also designs a couple of apps to roll out. I am proposing a wholesale rethink about the underlying role of the Secretariat from an implementer to the role of an enabler. Enabling member national societies and communities to mobilise to support and learn from each other.

This would involve designing, possibly through crowdsourcing, platforms and apps to enable National Societies and communities to engage and network with their communities (locally or globally) in ways which are relevant and meaningful to them.

It would involve a smaller Head office with core Emergency Response functions, some technology design and diplomatic functions. It would need to be more agile to support requests as they come in from the membership and keeping an eye on learning and successes and helping to spread these to other parts of the network.

Taking it further a reconceptualization of the governance structure of National Societies with Branches and Boards and Presidents elected at AGMs, could all be re thought, modernised and adapted to be more agile, more accessible and give more power to the people.

How this blended new and old power would look would need some experimentation and would evolve over time but it is clear that we need to find a way to enable more people to be positive agents of change under the banner and within the framework of the RCM.

Some practical suggestions to further consider this model would be:

  1. As part of the Strategy 2030 process commit to a core role of the Secretariat to crowd source solutions and ideas to create decentralised communities to engage with each context in a meaningful way
  2. As part of the strategy 2030 process clarify the role of the Secretariat as opposed to NSs more broadly and if there is appetite, do a scoping of blended models of large global institutions.
  3. Consider the current Governance structures and see if changes to this can be made to ensure people who engage with and participate in the New Power systems are represented and can educate others by bringing ideas, evidence and solutions on a regular basis.
  4. Consider the appetite to experiment with the rewriting of constitutions and governance structures of a few National Societies.

In Summary

The humanitarian (and development) ecosystem is changing because people have a heightened sense of agency and our current approach is not doing well enough for people in need.

The RCM as a key part of the system has an opportunity to play an important role in this change in a way that 1) feeds this sense of agency and grows the Movement and 2) protects the fundamental principles in the process, resulting in more people having better quality services and support.

The RCM is well placed to do this due to our existing global volunteer network, guardian of the principles, our role in the ecosystem of being the last mile first responder and being able to mobilise nationwide community engagement.

It will require the Secretariat to blend new and old power models and radically rethink their role and enabling function. Are we up for the challenge?

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Alex Ross
Loop Lead