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A thin red line


New director general Yves Daccord says the ICRC needs to focus on core principles while adapting to change

As the former communications director for the ICRC, Yves Daccord revels in a tough question and a complex challenge. That’s a good thing because there’s nothing simple and straightforward about the times in which Daccord takes the post of director general of the ICRC. Humanitarianism is being used by some governments to win hearts and minds and to build nations. The aid industry is proliferating and, at the same time, key principles of neutrality and independence are under attack. Red Cross Red Crescent magazine asked the former journalist how the ICRC will chart its course during these times of crisis, change and opportunity.

Yves Daccord: I’m extremely honoured to be director general of the ICRC. It’s a great organization with a fantastic mission; it’s in really good health with key competencies in many areas which will guarantee continuity. It’s critical to keep ourselves focused on the essentials, helping those who need us most.

This said, we live in a world where there is a lot of change so we also need to adapt and sometimes more quickly than we would like. When it comes to the scope of our action, the ICRC will continue to focus first and foremost on situations of violence: war and armed conflicts.

It’s more and more difficult to draw a fine line between what is armed conflict and what is not. What is more striking is that if you look at our ten largest operations, you realize that we have been involved in most of them for more than a decade. We are confronted today with many acute needs but also lingering and chronic ones. We are also confronted with people who have to cope with a combination of pressures — whether war-related, climate change-related or even migration-related. Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen are good examples of protracted armed conflicts.

Some of the questions we ask ourselves regularly are: “What kind of support should we offer? What needs should we address?” For us, there is a need to really look at the scope of our actions, to be clearer and invest more time and energy in what we call ‘other situations of violence’ [chronic urban violence and gang-related or tribal conflicts as examples]. Our ambition is not to intervene everywhere at all times. But to intervene where we can make a difference and develop clear and meaningful action that will improve the lives of people on the ground.

Is this where partnership comes in? You’ve spoken of the need for ICRC to increase its ability to partner.

We are an organization that does a lot by itself. That’s great. But to increase the impact of our humanitarian response, we will have to partner more. Here, I’m really speaking about partnership with local Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. The ICRC will have to develop a vision that is more long term, not year-by-year, because partners want to know what you can bring in. We as ICRC will have to find the right balance between our focus on emergency operations and how to work with partners in the mid to long run.

Why aren’t there more partnerships?

There are more partnerships than you might think. Almost one-third of our activities are carried out with a Red Cross or Red Crescent partner. So it’s already getting better. I think that in the past, ICRC felt that it could do it alone. Today, when you face a complex emergency, people expect you to think about relevance and speed — but they also expect you to think very quickly about sustainability. We don’t want the ICRC to become a development agency but we want it to be able to bridge the gap between emergency and development phases. And to achieve that, it is important to work with local partners who understand local realities.

What’s the difference between an emergency response based on that awareness and one that isn’t?

When you start a humanitarian action, you immediately think from day one that you’re not just there for a day or a month. From day one, you will also start to think about, for example, the problems of those who have gone missing or the contamination of weapons. In the past, that was something you thought about when the conflict was over.

We know now that when a war goes on for 20 years, these problems have to be addressed from the very beginning. Look at Afghanistan or Israel–Palestine. When does the emergency start or end? OK, there are moments of emergency. Take Gaza for example. There is a war and for one month, it’s an extreme emergency. But what do you call ‘before the war’ and ‘after the war’ in Gaza? People are blocked there like in a prison, faced with a lot of mental health problems, a lot of health problems and basic security is not assured. How do we respond to that?

That is what I want people to be more aware of, to be more aware of the needs of the people. We as humanitarians are inclined to look at problems through the lenses of our competencies. We say: “I’m good at water so do you need water?” But maybe the main problem is displacement. Maybe your kids don’t have access to their family on the other side of the bridge.

There has been a proliferation of humanitarian groups and agendas. Humanitarian action is being used by governments to win ‘hearts and minds’ and build nations. How should the ICRC and the Movement define themselves is this context?

We need to have a sense of where we want to be relevant and how we can influence the terms of the debate. Of course the ICRC will have to take the lead very strongly on international humanitarian law issues.

But I also see us having a strong lead on the Fundamental Principles in action. It’s really time to rediscover some of our core principles. It’s also part of the IFRC’s Strategy 2020. For me, impartiality is a principle that I think we really need to push. Not so much in terms of teaching about it, but in terms of acting. To show these principles in our actions. And here I am not only talking about the ICRC but also about National Red Cross or Red Crescent Societies.

If we look at where the humanitarian sector might go, I’m not sure that impartiality will be easy, with states being more and more involved in humanitarian action, and especially if they are supporting one faction over another. It will be difficult to have an impartial view of the needs and we should be leading in how to develop impartial needs assessments.

I’m also expecting us to lead the debate on health and medical issues as well as on the combined effects that problems such as climate change, migration and pandemics have on people. There are a lot of agencies that are very good at dealing with particular issues. But I think within the Red Cross Red Crescent, we have a unique and very strong understanding of the combination of pressures that all these issues have on specific populations.

©Thierry Gassman/ICRC










“For me, impartiality
is a principle that
we really need to
push. Not so much
in terms of teaching
about it, but in terms
of acting. To show
these principles in our
actions. And here I am
not only talking about
the ICRC but also
about National Red
Cross or Red Crescent











Five quick questions for Yves Daccord

1 Who has most influenced or inspired you?
Nelson Mandela and, on a daily basis, my wife and my three daughters.

2 Which book or books that you have read recently that you found enjoyable or interesting?
The Road by Cormac McCarthy and The Italian Shoes by Henning Mankell. The Road is the kind of book that almost has a physical impact on you. It’s an incredibly powerful story about a father and son trying to survive in a devastated world. The Italian Shoes portrays great characters who have a very original way of acting, thinking and reflecting about their lives.

3 What quote, poem, song or phrase particularly inspires you?
Hallelujah sung by Jeff Buckley. A very relevant quote for me is: “I prefer to be broadly right than precisely wrong.”

4 Is there a blog or writer that you find particularly interesting?
TED [a non-profit dedicated to ‘ideas worth spreading’], 10x10 [an internet news site], the Sartorialist [a blog dedicated to everyday fashion] and Paul Krugman’s blog [on economic and social issues].

5 If you could ask a question of one person, who would it be and what would the question be?
To Nelson Mandela: where did you find the force to forgive?


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