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Measuring the Seville agreement

by Ian Piper

Promising to transform the way the Movement works together, how has the Seville agreement impacted Red Cross and Red Crescent efforts to help the most vulnerable?

The Seville agreement adopted by the Council of Delegates in 1997 was heralded at the time as a revolution in the way the Red Cross and Red Crescent would work together during international emergency operations. The preamble spoke of a "profound change in attitude" and the "adoption of a collaborative spirit", clear recognition that the 1989 agreement between the Federation and the ICRC had not worked well.

Five years have passed and the Seville agreement has been tested in a series of high-pro?le, diverse and complex Movement operations - the Balkans, India, Afghanistan, Turkey, west Africa, Central America, the Russian Federation and the Middle East.

"Difficult and challenging circumstances", as a report to the Council of Delegates put it indicating that not everything had been smooth. But then who would have expected them to be? To apply "profound change" in such circumstances was bound to bring setbacks as well as successes.

Seville was an agreement by the whole Movement, not just the Geneva institutions. The inclusion of National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies as full partners to the agreement recognized their increasing interest in international operations and their growing capacities.

A radical change

Among the most important clarifications in Seville were the concepts of "lead agency" and "lead role". In any operation one component would be the lead agency and coordinate activities of the others. But lead roles would also be recognized - the ICRC working on restoring family links in the Federation-led operation in India, for example, or Federation support for the institutional development of the Palestine Red Crescent in an ICRC-led operation. This approach was clearly in the interest of beneficiaries, recognizing their right to expect a rapid and effective response to their needs, but also reflected a growing demand for more accountability by donors.

The agreement should not be seen as a simple division of labour. It represented a major shift towards working together in a more integrated and structured way. It required a radical change in both attitudes and practices.

Seville was also a credit to the Movement's leadership. While there was no enormous pressure for change, there was a realization that the fragmented approach to operations made the Red Cross and Red Crescent vulnerable to criticism. Change was overdue.


It takes time to realize change

The Seville agreement provided a framework for better cooperation but it could not guarantee it. Actual experience of its operation has been mixed. In Sierra Leone there were "recurrent dif?culties in ?nding an acceptable solution for the organization of the international work of the Movement", as the 1999 report to the Council of Delegates put it.

Relations between the various parties were so bad, particularly when it came to organizing relief and rehabilitation activities, that senior management in Geneva had to set up a special working group to resolve the issues.

By the end of 2001 the report to the Council of Delegates was able to confirm that "a clear division of labour had been established" and "cooperation and coordination were substantially improved".

The crisis in Sierra Leone tested the agreement and the commitment of the various Red Cross and Red Crescent parties involved. It was an uncomfortable experience and threatened the credibility of the operation. The losers would have been the victims of the Sierra Leone conflict. But the solutions came and the Seville agreement passed its first serious hurdle.

A different sort of challenge came in Russia. As the 2001 report put it, "the size of the Russian Federation and the diversity of humanitarian needs in the country required a tailor-made approach, departing from the strict application of the agreement but respecting its main concepts and objectives." The result was a Letter of Understanding between the Russian Red Cross, the ICRC and the Federation.

This showed the Seville agreement to be flexible. A single lead agency approach would have ignored the realities. Working closely with the Russian Red Cross, both the Federation and the ICRC remain operational in the country since the agreement was signed.

Lessons from the Balkans

If anything was going to test the Seville agreement it was the Balkans, the largest integrated operation ever undertaken by the Movement. A rigorous external evaluation recognized that the decision to have a joint management structure to deal with the regional dimension of the crisis, did improve the response to humanitarian needs.

The main problems during the Balkans operation stemmed from differences in interpretation of responsibilities and incompatible systems in areas such as logistics, accounting and technical communications.

The lessons learned reinforced the belief that Seville provided a good framework to resolve such problems. Very tangible progress has since been made in harmonization, especially in logistics, but in areas such as information technology, the costs and complexities mean that change will be slow. It may be that in some fields harmonization is neither possible nor necessary.




New focus on the role of local National Societies

The ICRC and the Federation have always worked closely with the National Society in any emergency. But Seville specifically included the National Societies in an operational agreement for the first time. Psychologically that was important since it created a better balance between the various roles and encouraged those involved to recognize the capacities of others. In the view of some National Society leaders and the Federation's president, there should be greater emphasis on the practical inclusion of societies in operations conducted under the umbrella of the Seville agreement.

In Russia and in the Federation-led operations in Turkey and India, the importance of effective three-way cooperation and support between the local National Society, the ICRC and the Federation was clearly demonstrated.

Not all National Societies have been happy with the way Seville has worked. But even where problems have arisen, Seville has been seen as the framework within which to resolve them.

Five years of progress?

The overwhelming answer to this question is yes. There has been a significant change in attitudes, reflecting the success of training and information given to staff and delegates on the implications of the new agreement.

The Balkans operation in particular showed that commitment and motivation by staff from all parts of the Movement could make the agreement work even if there were problems with systems, working practices between the ICRC and the Federation, and difficulties on some occasions in getting National Societies to work within the Seville structure.

Participating National Societies still have to work out how to integrate their activities more effectively within the Seville framework.

There is still more clarification needed on when, why and how does one component hand over to another. And in some cases the National Societies, such as in Sierra Leone or Colombia, felt they had a more important role to play. Competition for visibility and funds has also to be addressed in the interests of global credibility.

Seville has also had a very positive impact on cooperation not directly linked to a particular operation, the most obvious examples being in the area of communication and in coordinated positioning of the Movement in the United Nations and other forums.

And the future?

There is little pressure in the Movement to update the Seville agreement at present. It has proved flexible enough so far to deal with most situations. The Movement also adopted a global strategy in 2001 reinforcing the spirit of Seville.

The new culture of cooperation and mutual recognition and respect has, for the most part, settled the operational and organizational issues that dogged the Movement since the Tansley report tried to tackle them over 25 years ago. Tansley's efforts to define anew working relationship and clearer future for the Movement led to no major overhaul of operations.

Seville was more modest in its aims and has not resolved all the issues facing the Movement. Nevertheless there is general recognition that the Seville agreement provides the guidance necessary to deal with the future. The new spirit of cooperation, which has also affected areas not covered by the agreement, is eloquently expressed in the preamble. It is worth reading and rereading. For a Movement somewhat prone to mundane language it is inspirational stuff. Tansley would certainly have been happy with it, and that, for many in the Movement with long institutional memories, is praise indeed.

Ian Piper
Ian Piper is former Federation dirctior of communicatins and now works in the ICRC communications department

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