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The changing humanitarian landscape – reflections by Yves Daccord

12-12-2012 Feature

A world of chronic conflict, assertive States and faltering coordination between humanitarian organizations is leaving more of those who need assistance unable to receive it, according to the director-general of the ICRC.

Yves Daccord, in the inaugural annual lecture at the Humanitarian Policy Group within London's Overseas Development Institute, gave a stark summary of the challenges facing bodies trying to help the victims of emergencies and organized violence.

"The gap between the needs of people and our ability to respond is growing," said Mr Daccord. The gap was not new but it did appear to be entrenched, he noted, with the global economic crisis undermining the ability and willingness of traditional donor States to fund assistance to those in peril.

Many organizations "are less and less in direct contact with people" they are seeking to help, noted Mr Daccord, in what he said was the second major challenge that organizations must address if they were to stay relevant and effective. "We are losing ground," he said, partly because of security challenges, but also because governments "know how to control aid, for good and bad reasons."

Nation States pressure those who wish to assist to do so on host governments' terms. In response, some relief organizations have "outsourced" activity to local partners. "They don't do direct response anymore," suggested Mr Daccord. "But then you are less and less in direct contact with the people affected," he said. "If the ICRC were not able to take risks and be close [to people], we would very quickly lose our edge."

A third challenge to an efficient response is the fraying of coordination mechanisms within the humanitarian sector. "Our coordination model is obsolete. It does not produce results," said Mr Daccord, who has been director-general since 2010. Ambitious National Societies from the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement and charities from emerging powers do not feel beholden to traditional cooperation models, he observed.

Mr Daccord asked how coordination might work better. He maintained that the emergence of new humanitarian organizations brought welcome diversity, and meant the old model of centralized control from Western cities like Geneva had to be abandoned. In its place coordination would be established on a case by case basis, with partnerships formed on the basis of mutual interests and the ability not just to state bold intentions but also to make concrete plans and take real action.

Mr Daccord stated that some values could not be sacrificed in this new diversified environment. He suggested it was time to move beyond reciting the principles of humanitarian action as if they were a mantra, and rediscover what they really meant in practice. According to the director-general, one core principle for the ICRC when considering partnerships was whether an organization could work impartially. "Impartiality is our backbone and is what helps distinguish between organizations that are humanitarian and organizations that do relief."

The ICRC recently launched its annual emergency appeal, seeking 1.17 billion Swiss francs to cover its humanitarian activities in 2013. For more detail on the ICRC’s global response to increasingly complex armed conflicts, see The ICRC’s priorities for 2013.


ICRC director-general Yves Daccord speaks on humanitarian challenges at the Overseas Development Institute. 

London, United Kingdom.
ICRC director-general Yves Daccord speaks on humanitarian challenges at the Overseas Development Institute.
© ICRC / R. Hodgson / v-p-gb-e-00006