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The value of diversity

01-02-2006 Statement

Keynote Address by Mr. Angelo Gnaedinger, Director General, International Committee of the Red Cross, ICVA Conference, Geneva, February 1, 2006

Dear friends

It is a great pleasure to be talking to you today. Indeed, the topic you chose for this Conference is very timely and needs a great deal of debate. With your permission I would like to emphasise three points: first I shall outline just how divers our humanitarian community is and identify the basic implications of that diversity; second I would like to briefly mention what IHL has to say about the organisation of the so-called humanitarian space and finally make a proposal as to how we can improve the communication between the different humanitarian actors and thus become more effective collectively.

Preparing for our meeting today, I took the time to have a closer look at the ICVA membership and the mission statements of each of the members. I was stunned by the diversity I found.

Just looking at the areas in which various organisations work: it goes all the way from humanitarian relief, mine action and health, to human rights, conflict resolution, democracy and legal aid, and over to development, agriculture, trade, education, gender, environment, and even telecommunications.

The list of populations to be cared for is also interesting: children, women, elderly, disabled, refugees/IDP/Asylum seekers, all-victims, and even animals.

The list of denominations is quite long as well: Christian, Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Jesuit, Lutheran, Anglican, Islamic or Ecumenical. And then there are those that strongly believe in secularism.

The methods employed to achieve set goals stretch from protection and assistance, empowerment and capacity building, to témoignage and witnessing, campaigning and advocacy, policy and research, as well a s prayers.

Comparing the size and personnel composition of all these organisations we find those which dispose of multi-million budgets and employ thousands of staff, while others function with a hand full of committed people; some have staff mainly comprised of expatriates, others employ mainly local staff, or work through local partners.

A look at funding mechanisms, not surprisingly reveals a variety of possible sources: organisations are funded by the public, by their members, by foreign governments, by their own government, by other (bigger) NGOs, by UN agencies, by zakat, or by money collected in churches or mosques. In many cases, funding consists of a combination of the above sources.

If we want to grasp the complexity of the humanitarian community, we need indeed to introduce the element of donor diversity, more precisely donor government diversity: there are governments that provide bi-lateral funds whilst others favour multilateral approaches; some donors are present in the field and implement part of the programmes themselves; there are donors that entirely tie humanitarian aid to their foreign policy interests; whilst others strive to apply a non-conditional and needs based approach.

If we look at the other components of the humanitarian community, we come across the more than 180 national societies of the Red Cross and Red Crescent which display an equally impressive array of different activities and approaches while the diversity of the UN family certainly merits a seminar of its own.

To complete the picture we need to add the military which in recent times have been mandated by their political masters with manifold humanitarian tasks. They too display a great diversity: it does indeed make a difference whether the troops conducting activities relating to the humanitarian sphere are part of the host government military, are a properly mandated UN Peace-Keeping Force or represent the military might of an occupying p ower.

All of this amounts to stating the obvious: the space for humanitarian action has become increasingly complex, and one of its main characteristics is the great diversity of humanitarian actors. This must be taken as a given, more so even, as a constitutive element at the base of any effort to make our humanitarian community more effective. It is not realistic to expect these differences in shape, scope, identity, history, goals, and approaches to diminish. It is therefore not conceivable that this community be united under a single command, under one authority which, in addition, would be controlling the purse. That many actors with such different missions and mandates cannot speak with one voice, and no one can speak in the name of all of the others without being properly mandated by them. Indeed, when we say “us” or “we”, we do not always mean the same group of actors. At times, we mean the non-governmental organizations, at other times we are referring to all the humanitarian actors, including the UN and governmental actors, but excluding development and human rights actors, at yet other times, “we” stands for “our specific organisation” or a very small group of “like-minded ones”. “We”, at the ICRC, do indeed jealously insist on our corporate identity as an organisation, whilst proudly affirming to be a founding member of the global Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and displaying our ambition to play a proactive and constructive role in the wider humanitarian community.

Of course it would be nice if “we” could all share the same views on what the world should look like; agree on a shared analysis, concur on where the priorities lie, and the funding must go. But let’s face it: in the real world even common needs assessments in a crisis situation are a challenge and subject to differing interpretation and analysis. Common action plans quite often reflect the mere ambitions of the participating organisations rather than the consolidated result of an all inclusive consul tative planning process.

As a consequence of all of this, we can either move into staunch competition and discord or see diversity as an asset and cherish complementarity. Diversity is valued in every other sphere of life, why is the humanitarian sector supposed to be different? We at the ICRC definitely see diversity as an asset because the conflicts and emergency situations are quite divers in nature, intensity, and magnitude. Each of them produces a distinct mix of humanitarian needs and brings along its specific constraints. In the face if this enormous variety of humanitarian calls, the diversity of actors greatly enhances the flexibility and the appropriateness of the response. There in no " one size fits all " . This is why we strongly believe in complementarity and collaboration, although we recognise it is a challenge to make it happen. Let me come back to this.

In contexts of armed conflict, we can look to IHL for guidance. According to the 1949 Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols, the primary responsibility for the survival of the population lies with the authorities or, in the case of open warfare or occupation, with the fighting forces or occupying power respectively. If the responsible authorities cannot fully provide what the civilian population needs for survival, they are legally bound to permit the free passage of relief consignments. Relief action – which is humanitarian and impartial in character and conducted without any adverse distinction – may be undertaken. You will note that IHL does not request relief action to be exclusively civilian, non-religious, neutral, or independent: the only expectation is that it be exclusively humanitarian and impartial . In my view, IHL too, takes diversity as a given. 

Lookin g at ICRC’s specific mandate we see that the drafters of the Geneva Conventions, and the states that endorsed them, had an additional concern. They recognised the need for a neutral and independent organisation, which could, when needed, act as an intermediary to help sort out humanitarian issues between the parties, an organisation that would be accepted by all belligerents, and recognised as having a specific role apart from any political project or military goal. As it was not expected that all humanitarian actors would be neutral and thus able to move from one side of the conflict to the other, this function was, and still is, specifically expected of the ICRC.

We do recognize that other organizations cherish other values (faith-based), have other motivations and mission statements (Development, Human Rights), or other modus operandi (advocacy).

For those reasons we defend today the concept of a " diversified " – a pluralistic humanitarian space wherein a range of actors provide a range of services to a range of populations in line with a range of motivations and according to a range of modus operandi. As a minimum we all need to act impartially, that is: not to refuse our help because of nationality, race, religion, class or political opinions; nothing could ever justify withholding our help for those reasons. Another basic requirement is that nobody shall " disguise " as humanitarians when they have in fact other (e.g. military) goals.

However, such a diversified humanitarian space needs to articulate a) the relationship among humanitarian actors, and b) more specifically the relationship between those who have a right to intervene by offering their help and those who have an obligation to provide for the civilian population; that is the governments and, in case of conflict, their armed forces.

For the latter, I would like to emphasise one specific aspect. In times of conflict, particularly, the ICRC " protection " work must be understood as reminding authorities (governments and military) of their legal responsibility to protect and assist the populations under their control (whether under IHL or other bodies of law). The definition commonly used today - inspired in many aspects by the ICRC - holds that “protection” is an effort aimed at ensuring full respect for the rights of the individual in accordance with the letter and the spirit of the relevant bodies of international law, i.e. human rights law, international humanitarian law and refugee law as well as national legislation. And this we do first of all by holding the appropriate authorities to their responsibilities. That is why it is important to distinguish between those actors who have a legal obligation to assist and protect and those who have a right to do so.

It flows therefrom that beyond advising the local authorities about what actions they are expected to take, we will also stand ready to support them to meet basic needs of particularly vulnerable groups such as prisoners, wounded and sick, IDP's or other exposed groups of civilians. It is only when the authorities and the military are ineffective in attending the basic necessities for survival in dignity that it is up to us to substitute for them with our own relief action.

In my view this distinction between public authorities (including the military) which have to act in the humanitarian space on the basis of legal obligations and the non-governmental humanitarian actors which act on a voluntary basis also comes to bear in the international sphere. Thus, we see it as a remarkable development that the community of States is giving practical political relevance to common Article 1 of the Geneva Conventions of 1949 by committing themselves at the UN summit meeting in autumn last year to a shared responsibility to protect populations at risk every where in the world.

It will be up to us to discuss with the political an d military actors, including the United Nations system itself, the operational implications of this key responsibility that they are hopefully shouldering now.

But let me now, before closing my remarks, turn to the issue of how we can improve the cooperation between the humanitarian actors and make us more effective collectively.

I would like to lay out a few parameters which, in my view, would enhance collaboration and mutual respect within the NGO community and with all the other actors who undertake to bring help and hope to communities in distress. In general, given the degree of diversity among all these actors, ICRC supports a collaborative approach. As you know, the collaborative approach was initiated by the Interagency Standing Committee which recognised that an effective and comprehensive response to the needs of IDPs is beyond the capacity of any single agency. The collaborative approach was then characterised as a response in which a " broad range of UN and non-UN, governmental and non-governmental actors (including humanitarian, human rights and development actors) work together in a transparent and cooperative manner to respond to the needs of IDPs on the basis of their individual mandates and expertise " Is this way of thinking not a quite explicit recognition of the diversity of the humanitarian community? The ICRC indeed favours this collaborative approach, and we propose to give it a new life. We are ready to work with like-minded organisations to revitalize it and to give it effective relevance on the ground.

Still, there are some preconditions for a successful and transparent collaboration, " on the basis of individual mandates and expertise " as the UN rightly puts it. I see at least three manners that would help us benefit from diversity instead of suffering its downsides.

First, we need to talk reality. Collaboration must focus on real things like numbers of trucks and number people affected and the specific nature and intensity of their needs. We have to make sure we do not reinforce the bias of some media which turn a blind eye on certain " forgotten " crisis situations while inflating the tragedy of others. Furthermore, our discussions should be based on our effective expertise and capacities as they are operational on the ground. There is, frankly speaking, often a tendency to get lost in conjectures and wishful thinking. Only reality-based and field-oriented coordination and collaboration is likely to result in an improved response to emergency situations. The good news is that in the field, when it really matters, such pragmatic cooperation is often working well. 

Secondly, we must keep our promises. If coordination is to be effective, those involved need to be realistic and commit their organisation only if they have a) the authority and b) the capacity to act on their promises. Do not promise to provide food if your pipeline is empty, if you only have a plan but no funding, or if your organisation has other priorities. Too often we have experienced coordination meetings that opened more gaps than they closed because of plans that were not going to be implemented.

Thirdly, and maybe most importantly, we need a new culture of dialogue. There needs to be more “honest discussions based on mutual respect and appreciation”. Beth Ferris, from whom I borrowed this quote, and who is, as you well know, the ICVA Chair, has put forward concrete proposals for a renewed dialogue between the United Nations and the non-UN agencies that would go beyond the present set-up and processing of the Interagency Standing Committee. In discussing the present reform process, some of us have indeed, as individual agencies, as well as collectively through the NGO consortia that are part of the IASC, insisted that NGO “buy-in” not be an empty word. Despite UN efforts to reach out to the non-UN community, despite numerous consultations, and although some of our contributions, opi nions, and concerns have been taken into account, I have the impression that the NGO community, and the Red Cross movement for that matter, are not playing a significant role in the present UN humanitarian reform process. That is basically not a problem, if the reform process is to be UN centred, aiming at improving the coherence and the effectiveness of the UN response to humanitarian calls. As a matter of fact this is how we were looking at the process so far. However, the Emergency Relief Coordinator clearly tells us that he holds the ambition to have the whole humanitarian community – UN, Red Cross and Red Crescent, NGO, and donors alike – to be part of this reform process, and that the IASC should be the key instrument to move this forward. The IASC process is an essential tool for cooperation among various actors, but it is also seen - and handled –as a UN tool. I wonder therefore whether the time has not come to rethink the IASC architecture so as to allow for renewed strategic dialogue among divers but equally valuable partners. This can happen by opening up the existing structure of the IASC or by creating new fora able to grasp the full potential of all of us. I am hopeful that today's meeting will come up with new and promising ideas to that end. It is in the interest of all of us, and more importantly, in the interest of those we seek to serve that we find more effective ways to interact and collaborate. 

Diversity is an asset! We need to make the most of it.

Thank you.