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ICRC 2011 budget: new needs require new kinds of response

02-12-2010 Interview

This week, the ICRC presents its field budget for 2011. Pierre Krähenbühl, the organization's director of operations, explains why the cost of its humanitarian activities has risen.

Pierre Krähenbühl

As no major new armed conflict has broken out, how do you explain the record field budget presented for 2011?

The budget reflects the fact that we have been able to improve our access to people in need and developed a more comprehensive response to humanitarian problems in situations of armed conflict worldwide. Several of the ICRC's main operations have experienced important developments over the past few years. This is the case in Afghanistan and Iraq, for example, where the ICRC has expanded its physical presence on the ground and remains one of the few humanitarian organizations able to reach people in various parts of the country.

Many of today's conflicts take place over extended periods of time. Most of the ICRC's operations now under way are in countries where the organization has been present for two, three or even four decades. The Democratic Republic of the Congo and Somalia are two examples. Frequently, contemporary conflicts involve struggles for access to key natural resources such as minerals or land. They fluctuate between phases of high and low intensity, without any real perspective of lasting peace. The drawn-out fighting puts unimaginable pressure on peoples' lives. They suffer from the cumulative effects of the lack of security, physical abuse, psychological pressure, displacement, etc.

Each of these situations requires an analysis that takes into account the specific circumstances of the person or community that the ICRC seeks to assist and protect. A tailor-made response is called for to address those needs and to strengthen people's coping mechanisms. However, while those directly affected by fighting – such as war casualties, endangered civilians, displaced people escaping from a battle zone, and detainees at risk of ill-treatment or disappearance – receive the most attention, we have seen over time that it is indispensable that we also address the indirect effects of conflict or other armed violence.

What are some of these indirect effects and how do you deal with them?

Examples include a lack of food security, which can result from prolonged restrictions on movement imposed for security reasons, the steady deterioration of health and sanitation conditions for people in and around conflict zones, and a lack of access, or insufficient access, to safe water, arable land and basic services.

We have enhanced our understanding of such indirect needs, and are improving our response to them. Taking steps to support people's livelihoods and to make sure that they have access to health care and clean water has become an important part of our work over the past few years. In Afghanistan, for example, the ICRC not only supports two large referral hospitals (Mirwais and Shiberghan), but also pays taxi drivers to take sick people, women and children in particular, to a hospital or first-aid station. It not only organizes large-scale distributions of aid, but also trains farmers in animal health, reproduction and feeding.

Psychological problems are another indirect effect of armed violence. Families of persons who have gone missing as a result of conflict, for example, often suffer from depression, anxiety and psychosomatic symptoms. This frequently has a devastating impact on their daily lives, making it extremely difficult or even impossible to carry out daily chores. Historically, both the wider humanitarian community and the ICRC have concentrated on physical needs and have not sufficiently addressed the mental or psychological consequences of armed conflict. Today, however, we are better at responding to a wider range of problems, for example by supporting families of persons unaccounted for as a result of conflict in their efforts to find the mortal remains of their loved ones, as we do in Peru, or by offering counselling to victims of sexual violence, as we do in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The ICRC is increasingly taking action in so-called "other situations of violence," such as those involving State repression, inter-communal strife or violence in urban settings. Does that mean you are abandoning your traditional focus on armed conflicts?

Over 80 per cent of our budget is spent to help victims of armed conflicts. But as you point out, we are also addressing peoples' needs caused by other forms of organized armed violence. While these instances of violence are not covered by international humanitarian law – or the law of armed conflict, as it is also known – they often have considerable humanitarian consequences.

Some characteristics of contemporary armed conflicts, like the proliferation of various armed groups that live off the population, are also present in these situations of violence. The aggression and brutality is sometimes every bit as bad as in traditional armed conflict and may be a sign of things to come: entire regions, urban or rural, that are effectively lawless and fall beyond the control of the State. As in conflict zones, people are killed or wounded, displaced, or deprived of access to the land they need to cultivate. Ultimately this can lead to the destruction of their very livelihoods.

Take the example of Kyrgyzstan, where violent clashes caused the displacement of tens of thousands of people around the southern city of Osh in June of this year. The ICRC took action as soon as the violence started, providing care for the sick and wounded, food and water for more than 300,000 people, and seeking access to people arrested in connection with the events.

An example of violence taking place in an urban environment is Rio de Janeiro, where the ICRC, in partnership with the Brazilian Red Cross and other local State and non-State institutions, conducts health-awareness campaigns, provides psychological support for people traumatized by the violence, and assists adolescent mothers and their children in the slums. At the same time, the ICRC is trying to enhance respect for people's dignity through dialogue with all those involved in the violence.

It has become extremely difficult for humanitarian organizations to work in many areas of the world. Aid workers are abducted or otherwise deliberately targeted. And yet you say that the ICRC's access to people who need your help has improved. How do you manage to ensure that you can do your work?

Our ability to work in conflict areas is based on building acceptance from all those involved, especially those who carry arms. The ICRC is determined to engage in dialogue with all parties. We also want to demonstrate that our operations make a real difference to people. And we have to be very strict and rigorous about not taking sides. The ICRC's neutrality and independence have been its trademark. We believe that this approach has enabled us to reach many people we would otherwise not have reached, and to work in often highly polarized conflict zones.

Partnerships with National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies or with local entities are often crucial to our efforts to reach the people who need our help, in particular in delicate security environments. In Somalia or Yemen, for example, it is cooperation with the respective National Red Crescent Societies that has enabled us to provide much-needed medical and livelihood support.

Achieving progress in a sensitive environment ultimately depends on understanding the context, showing curiosity and creativity in the search for solutions, avoiding any inclination to be judgmental, and engaging in open – and, when needed, critical – dialogue with parties to the conflict.