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The ICRC's longstanding roots in Geneva are vitally important

13-09-2013 Interview

Since it was founded 150 years ago, the world's oldest humanitarian organization has not stood still. Ever faithful to its core principles and its birthplace, the ICRC has not lost sight of the need to internationalize its workforce, diversify its sources of funding, and innovate and adapt to new technologies. Director-General Yves Daccord explains the current state of affairs.

What are the main structural challenges facing the ICRC today?

There are many challenges, but the main one is the need to adapt to a changing world while staying true to our roots.

For instance, if we are to expand the scope of our activities and work more closely with the people on the ground who need our help, we must forge ahead with the internationalization of our workforce. Today, more than 130 nationalities are represented in our 13,000 staff members worldwide.

We must also explore new ways of pursuing our humanitarian vocation, innovating in our practices and partnerships, and harnessing new technologies to achieve a swifter and more effective response to our beneficiaries' needs. Lastly, we must consolidate and expand our funding base while optimizing how we use it.

Of course, we have to do all this while preserving the neutrality and independence that are the ICRC's hallmark.

What is the current state of the ICRC's finances?

It is still a little too early to say for sure, but 2013 should close with a balanced budget. The sheer scale of humanitarian needs has driven up field spending, but this has been covered by a rise in contributions.  

However, it is true that our circumstances have been complicated for several years now, particularly in connection with the economic crisis, whose effects are still being felt by some of our traditional donors. Like many other humanitarian organizations, we are operating in an unpredictable funding environment.

Some of our donors (such as Switzerland, the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany and Kuwait) have increased their donations recently. Others have been known to make last-minute cuts to their contributions. This is why we review our detailed forecasts several times during the year as expenditure and income projections evolve.

In order to achieve long-term budgetary stability, we are looking at the best way to operate and to use our donors' funds, both in the field and at headquarters. Striving for efficiency is a constant concern.

Is it true that the ICRC's activities in Syria are a burden on the budget?

No. The crisis in Syria is very much in the spotlight and donors are giving generously to this cause. It is not a lack of funds that is preventing us from meeting the large-scale humanitarian needs there; it is the obstacles to reaching the civilians cut off by the fighting. But some of our operations are harder to finance than others, such as in Iraq, the occupied territories and Colombia.

What measures are you taking?

Our goal is to both increase donations (from States, the general public and the private sector) and rationalize spending. We want to make sure that as much as possible goes directly to field activities that help people affected by humanitarian crises, such as in Syria, Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It is about being accountable to our beneficiaries and donors.

After 10 years of uninterrupted growth in headquarters operating costs, our aim is to reduce them by 1.5 to 2.5% per year (i.e. between 3 and 5 million Swiss francs) between 2014 and 2018. To do so, one of the measures we are looking into is offshoring some of our support services – in particular logistics, IT and administrative services – to other countries.

This way of thinking is nothing new and is part of an ongoing process. Some of our accounting functions have been carried out in the Philippines for nearly two decades, and some of the reports prepared for our donors have been produced there for the past two years. We have more than 50 staff members in Manila. Other communication and training services are based in Argentina, Egypt, Kenya, Thailand and Russia.

How do you see the ICRC's place in Geneva in the future?

ICRC headquarters will remain in Geneva, with a structure and workforce capable of responding to today's challenges.

The expected savings in the coming years will free up funds to invest in new priority areas. For instance, we want to step up our work on health care and tackle sexual violence in conflict and other armed violence. Strategic planning and support for that will largely be focused at headquarters.

In recent years we have made major investments in the Geneva area. We have just this week inaugurated a new visitors and conference facility, which will cement Geneva's status as the international hub for humanitarian issues and action. In 2011 we opened a new logistics centre in Satigny. We could have chosen another site, such as Dubai, but we wanted to keep it close to home.

Do these changes have support within the organization, and how are managers and staff involved in the processes?

The discussions under way about optimizing our services involve the managers of the teams in question. The decisions will be taken and implemented with them. Staff are regularly updated on this work, and we are in regular dialogue with the staff association concerning these issues and all others affecting the life and future of our organization.

In the event that certain support services are moved away from Geneva in the future, it will be done gradually and sensitively. I understand that people are nervous and worried by these changes. Rest assured, there is no plan to move the whole headquarters; the ICRC's longstanding roots in Geneva are vitally important for its future.