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
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
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
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.