Archived page: may contain outdated information!
  • Send page
  • Print page

The role of the ICRC in emergency assistance


 1. Introduction  

Tension, conflict and war threaten progress in increasingly large areas of the world. War undermines economic, agricultural and social development. It destroys infrastructure that was already damaged or weakened, shuts down market systems and stops the supply of services.

In traditional societies, particularly in rural areas, when individuals feel threatened, they turn to their families, their clans or their villages. The more highly developed a society becomes, however, the more these small social groups give up the role of helping people face up to danger and uncertainty. Risk management is gradually transferred to larger social units, such as the town administration, the regional or national government, and private systems that provide social security, insurance and pension schemes.

War, of course, damages all these structures, making it difficult or impossible for them to function. Armed conflict scatters families, empties villages, obstructs administration, and breaks down economic and social security systems. In some cases, though, when people depend on their families or their villages, these smaller structures survive, because they are less affected by terrible ordeals. The more a society's survival depends on superstructure - functioning industry, energy supply, health services, trade, banking and so on - the greater the impact a war has on people, and the less they tend to develop individual coping strategies.

 2. Emergency assistance: ICRC policy  

Emergency assistance can provide support and mitigate the worst consequences of war by giving people enough clean water, food, and temporary shelter to meet their immediate, vital needs. It does not, however, consider how these people can return to self-sufficiency in the long term. They need help in finding both short- and long-term solutions: not only emergency aid for their survival, but also rehabilitation so that they are able to meet their own needs, to some extent at least, as they did before the conflict. This will also allow them to be less vulnerable in the future.

A humanitarian emergency requires providing medical aid, food and material assistance to save lives. However, if food is distributed in large quantities over a long period of time, dependency can develop. People who feel dependent tend to suffer a loss of dignity, and this leads to a reduced sense of initiative. Large-scale distributions can also interfere with the dynamics of recovery. If needs are incorrectly assessed, people may exchange distributed food for more urgently required goods. The food may end up for sale on the market and compete with local products, which can harm local producers.

To avoid these pitfalls, the ICRC assesses what each group needs in the context of its own environment. Careful assessments lead to sensitive and realistic objectives that can provide efficient and lasting aid. No two contexts are identical; every situation calls for a solution tail or-made to its unique circumstances.

The ICRC makes commitments to provide assistance for as short a time as is reasonable, retaining a high level of flexibility so it can adjust to change. Different phases of an emergency call for varying levels of aid. By continually re-assessing needs, monitoring and re-evaluating objectives, the ICRC adapts its approach to try and provide optimal assistance over a period of time. Short-term commitment means that the action it takes has to be not only effective but also efficient, as help is often urgently needed elsewhere.

 3. Procedures  

First of all, the ICRC always tries to ensure that the authorities allow individuals and communities access to all essential resources and services, and supply whatever assistance is required. Failing this, however, the ICRC stands ready to intervene, to protect people endangered by armed conflict and to alleviate suffering caused by injury, disease or hunger.

Assistance can be offered in several areas, all equally important. The ICRC shares its expertise in public health services, logistics and emergency assistance; gives support (in particular through the local Red Cross/Red Crescent) involving local people as active participants to help restore basic services; and acts as a neutral institution when necessary. All these areas are closely linked. Assistance can be an important vector for other activities to protect people's lives and health. Priority is given to troubled regions and to vulnerable people or groups who, even if they are no longer involved in the hostilities, are still in a hostile environment.

 4. Criteria and conditions for taking action  

International humanitarian law gives great importance to assistance: bringing material a id to victims of conflict is an integral part of " protection " , as defined by the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols. The ICRC will take action if certain criteria are fulfilled.

 4.1 There are urgent needs  

Generally, the ICRC provides aid to cover urgent needs. The degree of urgency depends on its cause, most clearly in situations that are marked by a crisis of great magnitude or gravity, are of recent origin or are clearly deteriorating. Circumstances may not be life-threatening initially - this can happen in countries with advanced economies - but early assistance may be crucial anyway, to prevent conditions worsening to the point where they become critical.

Urgent action is required for as long as the fundamental needs of vulnerable people, clearly identified, have not been met. To restore the conditions required for people to survive and live with dignity, those giving aid must seek comprehensive solutions and design programmes to provide, simultaneously, shelter from the elements, sufficient food and water, adequate hygiene, medical care, and protection against attacks or threats to physical and mental well-being.

It is important to position the various stages of assistance, from emergency aid to sustained recovery. Emergency aid must not block the road to development. The ICRC includes rehabilitation projects in the emergency phase, but these projects must lead into development programmes that others will carry out. Giving people the specific things they lack allows them to provide for their own needs again, directly mitigating the harm caused by conflict - for example, distributing, at the right time and in the right places, seed and tools for agriculture or equipment for fishing, or providing treatment or vaccinations for nomads'herds. In advanced economies, it may not necessary to distribute food or other basic products if people are given, instead, what they need to revive their own means of production, food processing or manufacturing.

Enabling people to regain their self-sufficiency helps them maintain their dignity and return to as normal a life as possible. In addition, it significantly reduces the quantity of resources that would otherwise have to be brought in to sustain their lives and health.

 4.2 The ICRC maintains complete supervision and control of its programmes  

The ICRC considers an assistance operation feasible only if it can maintain its independence throughout each and every phase. Independence means retaining autonomy to determine beneficiaries, programmes, implementation systems, monitoring processes, and control mechanisms... but it does not mean working in isolation. As far as possible, activities are coordinated with local authorities or with other relief agencies. At the same time, the ICRC must never make any commitments that might compel it to act in any way contrary to its fundamental principles. It must remain free to make its own decisions, which are always reached in consultation with the victims of the conflict.

Every assistance operation involves assessing needs, selecting priorities, determining who will receive aid, choosing specific projects, and then transporting and distributing relief supplies. As a rule, the ICRC must be in a position to supervise all these stages of an operation. Given that people on various sides of the conflict have opposing interests, the strict and continuous supervision of all activities is often difficult and sometimes impossible. In such cases, the ICRC must carefully weigh the (sometimes conflicting) humanitarian interests at stake in order to decide what course to take. For example, it may plan to distribute food to a group of people in desperate circumstances. G oods are transported to a distribution point, but it then turns out that - because of lack of access to the beneficiaries or security problems - ICRC delegates are unable to supervise the distribution. Failing to insist on such supervision (to provide aid at all costs) would undermine the ICRC's credibility and the trust it needs from people on all sides of the conflict. On the other hand, making supervision a sine qua non, to the detriment of people who are suffering or whose very lives are at risk, runs counter to the principle of humanity, which must always guide the ICRC's work.

 4.3 The ICRC has access to the victims of the conflict  

The ICRC must be allowed access to the people requiring aid (to observe their situation and assess their needs) and must be certain that its action is in conformity with its criteria of neutrality, independence and impartiality. It also seeks authorization to return and evaluate the impact of its work on the condition of those receiving assistance - their state of health, food supply, clothing, hygiene, shelter, and so on.

Governing authorities do not always automatically grant access to people in need, despite treaties in force or commitments to respect fundamental humanitarian principles. Some legal authorities, rebels, armed groups or individuals delay or deny access in order to exert political and/or military pressure. When food is withheld as a weapon of war, or when ethnic cleansing is part of the political strategy, the ICRC's mandate and ability to provide assistance will directly oppose the goals of the warring factions.

 4.4 Assistance must have a positive impact  

The principle of humanity means that helping the victims of conflict always comes first. The ICRC takes into account local traditi ons and social structures, but refrains from acting against its principles. For example, distributions in any one group will never favour one gender, regardless of what local custom might be.

The ICRC takes care to ensure that it does no harm. In particular:

  • Assistance must not create resentment. The ICRC must not provide direct victims of a conflict (displaced people, for example) with living conditions better than those of other people in the same region. In some cases, it will give appropriate support to the local population as well.

  • The natural environment must be respected and preserved. The ICRC must consider the impact of its actions on the environment. For instance, setting up a transit camp without suitable fuel for cooking and heating could result in deforestation of the surrounding area. 

  • Assistance must not adversely affect the local economy. The ICRC must carefully determine how its operation could affect the local market, as this might, in turn, have detrimental consequences on the cost and availability of goods for the population. 

  • Aid must not contribute to the displacement of people. In tough economic times, distributions can have a " pull " effect. People may feel encouraged to abandon their own coping strategies and rely solely on external support. In addition, maintaining distributions when they are no longer necessary can induce people to remain displaced and so obtain assistance easily. ICRC emergency aid must not cause dependency: in addition to immediate survival, its operatio ns must promote the rehabilitation of self-sustaining production cycles.

 5. Influencing factors  

 5.1 Other organizations and agencies  

The ICRC is usually the only intervening agency when visiting detainees or reuniting families separated by armed conflict. This is not the case, however, for assistance operations. A wide variety of non-governmental relief organizations have come forth to provide aid in recent years. The expanded role of the United Nations has led many UN agencies to increase their presence in the field, as well. As a result, the ICRC may not always be the first to provide assistance.

Before taking action, the ICRC determines whether other organizations or agencies are present and operational, and if so, it studies their plans, working criteria and implementation methods. The benefits of early coordination are evident, to share information and avoid the duplication of efforts and resources spent. However, the ICRC must assess whether plans put forward by others are feasible, rather than simply take them at face value. While a conflict is front-page news, fund-raising potential can be high, and some organizations and agencies may base their plans on the funds they expect to obtain. If media interest dies down, these funding objectives might not be met and programmes may not proceed as planned.

 5.2 Cooperation, not competition  

When armed conflict disrupts people's lives, the gap between their predicament and a " normal lifestyle " is too wide to be closed by international humanitarian aid. The ICRC attempts to narrow this gap by restoring essential resources and services to the levels considered normal before the conflict began. The work of other impartial and competent organizations and agencies can only come as a positive contribution to this objective, and a spirit of cooperation is vital to maximize benefits for the victims. ICRC distributions may eventually be taken over by other organizations. The ICRC must therefore conduct an early analysis of these potential opportunities, given the importance of assistance as a vector for protection and the need to maintain a " balance " , i.e., work on both sides.

ICRC assistance is usually phased out when other agencies, essentially those with development objectives, become fully operational again. Some of its emergency rehabilitation programmes may then be transferred to the local National Society, providing, for example, medical assistance to hospitals or other social welfare. With this in mind, the ICRC cooperates closely with the Federation to strengthen the operational capacity of National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, thereby contributing to the development of their countries.

Some programmes - orthopaedic, agricultural or veterinary assistance, for example - cannot be handed over to the operating National Society, as they do not fall within its mandate. So as not to break the continuum from emergency assistance and rehabilitation to development, the ICRC may involve other, " participating " National Societies in such assistance, through project-delegation or bilateral-project arrangements. When a conflict is over, ICRC representatives transfer responsibility for these projects to appropriate local authorities or to development organizations and agen cies. This is done to ensure continuity and so help people return to normal life.

People in war zones, or anywhere where conflict brings destruction and disorder, need different kinds of help, and various organizations belonging to the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement take part in operations to assist them. The ICRC is responsible for the general direction of such operations, and also in circumstances that require a specifically neutral and independent institution. Clearly defining respective tasks is essential to avoid duplication of effort, and also to make sure that - in contexts where tension is running high - only one entity within the Movement is in contact with the de facto or de jure authorities. An agreement on the organization of the international activities of the ICRC, the National Red Cro ss and Red Crescent Societies and their Federation was signed in November 1997, and replaces the 1989 agreement on the roles of the different components of the Movement.

 6. Timing  

The aim is always to provide urgently needed assistance as quickly as possible. A speedy response to a difficult situation helps the ICRC gain credibility on all sides of the conflict, with the belligerents and with their victims. Giving aid can facilitate other, less popular activities that are also aimed at helping vulnerable people. 

Today's conflicts tend to be highly volatile - the humanitarian situation changing rapidly with the formation of new alliances, the alteration of military strategies, cease-fire agreements, the initiation of peace talks, and so on. In conducting its relief operations, the ICRC must constantly evaluate these changes and adjust its programmes accordingly. 

If other impartial, competent a id-providers can safely assume responsibility for necessary but routine ICRC distributions, the ICRC will adapt its operation to allow for a smooth transition. This usually means gradually reducing ICRC assistance, to make sure that the replacing organization or agency is able to take over.

There is no telling how a conflict will evolve, however. The ICRC makes certain that it is always able to respond quickly to any new urgent need, generally keeping emergency stocks and a logistic infrastructure close at hand so that it can supply essential aid at short notice. It thus stands ready at all times to fulfil its special role as a neutral, impartial and independent institution.


Related sections