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Annual report 2009: why making a long-term commitment matters

19-05-2010 Interview

Contemporary armed conflicts present complex challenges for the people affected by them, as well as for humanitarian organizations. The ICRC has witnessed the drawn-out suffering of civilians in places like Afghanistan, Colombia, Iraq, the Philippines, Somalia and Sudan for the past two decades or more, and has observed that fighting takes a direct and indirect toll on people’s lives, resulting in both chronic and acute needs. As the ICRC’s director of operations, Pierre Krähenbühl, explains, assisting and protecting them requires flexibility, commitment and understanding.

  ICRC annual report
  News release, 19.05.2010

  ©ICRC/J. Powell/af-e-01562    
  An ICRC doctor examines a child suffering from pneumonia at Mirwais Hospital in Kandahar, Afghanistan in August 2009.    
  The ICRC and the Palestine Red Crescent Society assess the damage caused following an Israeli military offensive in Gaza between late 2008 and early 2009, so as to help people in need.    
  An internally displaced woman and her child collect clothes and soap provided by the ICRC and food distributed by the World Food Programme in Gereida camp in Sudan.    


  More photos on Flickr   
Pierre Krähenbühl    


How has the nature of armed conflict changed in recent decades?  

To start, more and more conflicts are taking place within borders, between armed groups and military forces, rather than between nations. Secondly, we’re seeing an increasing number of wars that seem to drag on forever and don’t have a clear-cut end. Only very few of them end with an outright military victory for one side or the other. You might wind up with a ceasefire or a lull in hostilities, but contemporary conflicts are rarely resolved with a specific peace agreement that charts the way forward for a country.

 What does drawn-out fighting do to people’s lives?  

It puts unimaginable pressure on them. This might seem obvious, but the problems are more complicated than you would imagine. Take displacement, separation, hunger, thirst, injury and anxiety, then add broken-down or damaged infrastructure, criminal activity, and the potential for environmental degradation, floods, drought and disease. If in addition there is some political, ethnic or religious tension, you have all the ingredients for long-term, widespread despair and decline. 

 What does this mean for aid agencies like the ICRC?  

It's conventional wisdom that humanitarian work is essentially short-term and focused on emergencies. But these emergencies in armed conflicts almost always happen against the backdrop of prolonged crisis.

That's why we must be able to respond to a range of acute and chronic needs of people who have been both directly and indirectly affected by armed conflict. By this, I mean we have to pay attention to immediate and sometimes recurrent needs, such as medical assistance, security and water in the emergency phase, as well as long-term ones, like ensuring regular access to health care or providing those made vulnerable by armed conflict with opportunities to earn a living. It’s about saving lives and safeguarding people’s way of life and their dignity. No single humanitarian organization can do this alone.

 Can you give a specific example of a country that's seen more than its fair share of long-lasting fighting?  

Afghanistan, of course, comes immediately to mind. The ICRC has had a permanent presence there since 1987. Last year, we did a survey asking people about their experience of war. Virtually everyone (96%) said they had been affected in some way b y armed conflict – either through direct personal experience (60%) or due to wider consequences.

Large numbers said they had been forced to flee their homes, suffered damage to their property or had limited access to basic necessities, but people's “greatest fears” were often of being undermined or losing control of their lives, rather than of direct physical harm. For instance, a third or more feared economic hardship (37%) and displacement (34%), while one fifth (21%) worried about not being able to get an education or go to school. This type of data underscores just how complex the situation can be. Fighting or no fighting, life goes on, and no matter what, people want to build a better future for themselves and their children.

 How has the ICRC adapted its operations to the reality of this kind of context?  

Mirwais Hospital in Kandahar, Afghanistan, is a good practical example. It’s the main referral hospital for 3.5 million Afghans… that would be like Geneva's cantonal hospital trying to provide care for half the population of Switzerland and without the backdrop of major insecurity. Believe me, what the Afghan and ICRC surgeons, doctors and nurses do on a daily basis at Mirwais is nothing short of heroic.

We support the hospital, which winds up treating a lot of emergency cases of people injured by gunshots, bombings and explosions. But it’s not enough to just treat the war-wounded… we also see many expectant mothers and underfed children, whose access to health care is indirectly limited by the fighting. So, we try to ensure that everyone gets treatment and help, meeting both acute and chronic needs.

 Does a long-term presence have any advantages?  

Being there before, during and after a crisis means you gain a much deeper understanding of how things work on the ground and you already have the contacts you need when fighting flares up. In our case, this means talking to all sides of a conflict, as well as working with local authorities such as health and justice officials, and hospitals and prisons.

The conflict in Gaza at the start of 2009 is a prime example of why making a long-term commitment and being close to people really matter. When Israel launched its three-week military operation in Gaza just before the New Year, the humanitarian situation in the Strip went from bad to worse in a matter of hours and days. Nowhere was safe for civilians, hospitals were overwhelmed and aid agencies had a very hard time getting in or moving about safely. The ICRC and the Palestine Red Crescent Society were already working on the ground, before the strikes started, and we were able to respond immediately.

Just to put things in perspective, the ICRC has had a permanent presence in Colombia, as well as Israel and the occupied territories, for more than 40 years. We arrived in Sudan back in 1978 to assist the victims of fighting between Eritrea and Ethiopia and we've been active in Iraq, Somalia and the Philippines since the early 80s. Along the way, we've discovered that when you’re in it for the long haul, it helps foster trust.

As a member of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, we are part of a very strong network that is ready to respond as soon as a crisis happens, and that’s a major advantage too.

 A year ago, the ICRC pointed to its record expenditure in 2008 as an indicator of increasing vulnerability worldwide. You also said it would be hard to predict the exact impact of the global economic crisis on poor people already struggling to cope with the effects of war. Do you have a better idea now?  

Well, to date, and unlike the 2008 food crisis, the economic crisis does not appear to have triggered in itself immediate and large-scale armed unrest. In other words, you can't attribute a particular conflict to the world economic downfall. That said, a significant related drop in remittances from migrant workers to their families in conflict areas is likely to already have had an impact on the victims of armed conflicts. We're not in a position to quantify the impact at this stage, but I think it's safe to say that many of those who were already struggling to stay afloat before the crisis are probably facing some dire circumstances. We've noticed an increase in armed aggression, banditry and theft in some places and I suspect that's linked to the fact that more and more people are being squeezed by financial pressure. This, of course, can exacerbate an unstable situation.