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Tackling tomorrow's challenges through partnerships

22-11-2007 Interview

No single organization, government or community can meet the world's humanitarian challenges alone according to the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, gathering for its international conference in Geneva from 26 to 30 November. States party to the Geneva Conventions are also attending.

Coordination and partnerships are vital to ensuring an effective and rapid response to crises, including conflicts, disasters and disease.
As representatives of the entire Movement prepare to discuss these pressing issues together with governments and international organizations, the ICRC's director of operations, Pierre Krähenbühl, offers his take on why cooperation is so valuable.

 The theme of the 30th International Conference is "together for humanity." Based on your own experience, why are partnerships vital in humanitarian work?  

 Pierre Krähenbühl: There isn't a conflict zone in the world where one actor is able to cover peoples'needs alone. We recognize the limits of what we can achieve individually and we know that we must work in cooperation with others to reach our full potential.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo is a very good example of this. It's a country roughly the size of continental Europe, so villages are very isolated. When children are separated from their families by conflict, it can take weeks or even months for the ICRC to identify them. Once the ICRC has located such a child, the Red Cross Society of the Democratic Republic of the Congo follows up until the family is reunited.

Sometimes their staff and volunteers have to travel by foot, bicycle or any available means to track down the child's family, often in remote and forbidding areas. If all this work had to be done by the ICRC alone, we wouldn't be able to manage it. What's more, the National Red Cross Society has the expertise and local knowledge needed to operate in isolated communities. They're the only ones with access to certain areas, so by pooling our resources and experience, we're able to make a real difference. To me, this is the truest expression of partnership.

 Organizations like the ICRC are facing a growing number of humanitarian challenges, from population displacement to armed violence in major cities. In what ways are the ICRC's partnerships in the Movement having a positive impact in dealing with these issues?  

More and more, civilians are deliberately targeted in conflicts. They're also very directly affected by the consequences of armed violence. For example, large-scale population displacement can have an impact in two ways: it affects the people who are fleeing and it takes a toll on the people who take them in and support them.

Afghanistan, Colombia and Somalia are good examples of countries where we work very closely with the host National Societies as our primary partners. These countries have endured years of conflict and mass displacement. If we didn't collaborate with the National Societies, our work would be far more difficult.

There are certain things that only National Societies can do and some areas in which they can go further than we can because of their proximity to the people and the way they're perceived within communities. On the other hand, there are times when an international component such as the ICRC may have better access, as it comes from outside the country and is perceived as neutral. The combination of these two approaches enables us to reach more people, together, than we could otherwise.

It's also important to recognize the value of cooperation between National Societies. For example, during t he armed conflict in Lebanon last year, the response by the Lebanese Red Cross Society was truly excellent, but there were also many partner National Societies present in the region who lent valuable support to their efforts.

Another example of positive Movement cooperation was the South Asia earthquake in 2005. The Pakistan Red Crescent Society, the International Federation, the ICRC and many National Societies took part in the emergency phase, and they are still helping to rebuild quake-affected areas today. By pooling our resources and expertise, we were able to launch an impressive response in such a remote and devastated area.

 The ICRC also works to foster relationships with stakeholders outside the Movement, such as governments and multilateral institutions. What significance do these partnerships have?  

By agreeing to international humanitarian law, States have given the ICRC a mandate to protect and assist the victims of conflict.

In operational terms, international humanitarian law serves as the ICRC's backbone. As the guardian of this body of law, the ICRC maintains an ongoing dialogue with States on how to strengthen and promote it. This type of cooperation with governments is essential to everything we do.

Historically, we've received a great deal of backing from States, including, for example, help in complicated environments and with difficult negotiations, and diplomatic support in gaining access to detainees. Of course, there is also the financial dimension. Without voluntary contributions from governments and multilateral bodies such as the European Commission, we wouldn't be able to carry out our work. We're also very grateful that our donors are prepared to contribute towards neglected and forgotten crises. The quality of funding we receive affords us a great deal of indep endence, and that's another fundamental aspect of the way we work.

 Do attempts to develop partnerships ever jeopardize the ICRC's independent stance?  

The ICRC is first and foremost an independent and neutral humanitarian organization. These two principles are at the core of what we do and are essential to having access to people affected by conflict. We simply don't take sides, ever.

When you look at places like Sudan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Somalia, Israel and the occupied territories, I think the need for an independent and impartial organization is pretty clear. The ICRC is active in some of the most dangerous and highly charged places on Earth and our presence really matters to the victims of conflict.

We do engage in partnerships with other humanitarian actors, such as MSF and UN agencies. This type of pragmatic cooperation can also really benefit people in need.

As long as our partners recognize what our neutral and independent humanitarian action entails, and they're prepared to accept the constraints arising from that, I don't think there's any difficulty in cooperating whatsoever. We always have to consider how we will be perceived by the different sides of a conflict. As long as our actions are understood, partnerships generally make us stronger.