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The impulse to help


150 years of
humanitarian action


1870: Britain’s National Society for Aid to the Sick and Wounded in War sends aid to both sides in the Franco-Prussian war, just one example of efforts by early National Societies to begin relief work abroad. During the siege of Paris by the Prussians, Henry Dunant works with volunteers under fire to distribute food and clothing. Meanwhile, the Prussians use hospital trains for the first time.      


July 1870: The Basel Agency is set up to provide first-ever tracing services and other aid for sick and wounded soldiers.


1875: Gustave Moynier speaks of four basic working ‘principles’ which the Movement’s Societies must observe: “Foresight, which means that preparations should be made in advance, in peacetime, to provide assistance should war break out; solidarity, whereby the Societies undertake to establish mutual ties and to help each other; centralization, which implies that there is only one Society in each country, but whose activities extend throughout the entire national territory; and mutuality, in the sense that care is given to all the wounded and the sick irrespective of their nationality.”

Gustave Moynier
Photo: ©ICRC archives


1875: The International Committee sends its first operational mission. The mission to Montenegro marked the first time that the ICRC assisted displaced populations and also helped establish a National Society.


1876: During its conflict with Russia, the Ottoman Empire relief society adopts the red crescent as emblem for first-aid workers, sets up field hospitals and converts ferries to hospital ships.


1880s: National Societies begin to expand peacetime actions in response to disasters: the Japanese Red Cross Society to the slopes of Mount Bandai after its eruption in 1888; the American Red Cross to forest fires, cyclones and floods; the French Red Cross to floods in Paris and cholera in Marseilles.


1901: The first Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Henry Dunant and Frédéric Passy, honouring two different aspects of the struggle against war: the endeavour to limit the suffering of war victims through humanitarian action; and the fight against war itself, or pacifism.


Fast forward
Today, there are more than 13 million volunteers worldwide and many National Societies themselves are important international humanitarian actors.

Photo: ©ICRC archives


Click here to continue
the timeline

Nicolas Lambert (centre)
Photo: ©Nick Danziger

SINCE THE MOVEMENT’S EARLIEST DAYS, the impulse to help others has led ICRC, IFRC and National Society delegates to head off, often by themselves, to struggle in complex and sometimes dangerous situations.

Today, humanitarians have an advantage over their pioneering colleagues of earlier eras: the red cross and red crescent emblems are now widely known and respected, the rules of war at least nominally protect humanitarian action, delegates receive formalized professional training before heading to the field and humanitarianism has evolved into a profession. At the same time, local staff with impressive humanitarian credentials offer a mix of local knowledge and technical expertise that greatly improves the effectiveness, safety and reach of operations.

Still, like early delegates such as Van de Velde, Appia and Ferrière, today’s aid workers still deal with many unknowns, dangers and new frontiers. The ICRC’s head of office in Kunduz, northern Afghanistan, Nicolas Lambert, for example, had a long history of working in conflict zones prior to joining the ICRC. But that doesn’t make the job any more predictable.

“The intensity, duration and organization of [actions by] armed groups fluctuates and it’s not easy to keep up with the shifting alliances,” says Lambert. “The needs are there but potential operations are hampered by the security situation. Even if we have good contacts with an armed opposition group and receive the green light [to go ahead with an operation], there are so many groups, one commander cannot often speak for the others.”

“We should be optimistic”

Sayed Sarajuddin Sadat is an Afghan local staff member at the Kunduz office, where he runs economic security programmes. He began working with the ICRC in the 1990s and has extensive experience with a variety of agencies. “National staff have the skills to work in this environment, but even with increased responsibilities we need expatriates for credibility,” he says.

The proliferation of armed groups means working more “indirectly”, he says, with local partners such as the Afghanistan Red Crescent or community groups in water and sanitation projects, for example.

“The ICRC continues to solidify its reputation even if we have limited access. We should be optimistic.”

Sayed Sarajuddin Sadat, ICRC staff member in Kunduz, Afghanistan

Despite the changes in humanitarian access over the years, Sarajuddin says the ICRC’s commitment to enduring principles means it has maintained its effectiveness and credibility. “There have been many changes [in Afghanistan] over the years, especially political, but ICRC policies haven’t changed. Its neutrality, independence and impartiality are accepted by the majority, even the Taliban. I would say the ICRC continues to solidify its reputation even if we have limited access. We should be optimistic.”

For Lambert, the long days of work far from home are well worth it. “The work is rewarding, I always wanted to travel, discover new countries, but then I wanted to give something back to the communities I visited, so it’s become my chosen career, my passion. Even though I am far from my family and my girlfriend, here we can really have an impact.”

Frédéric Ferrière 1870
Photo: ©ICRC archives

“To set off alone, or almost alone, without any technical knowledge and not knowing the German language, or at least speaking it very badly, to lay myself, fresh from the family hearth, open to all the hazards of camp life and to do it of my own free will was madness.”
22-year-old medical student Frédéric Ferrière writing about his mission to the Franco-Prussian war in 1870. There, working in horrendous circumstances, he is treated with suspicion, taken prisoner and accused of being a spy. He also narrowly escapes execution. Many years later, he becomes vice president of the ICRC.


Clich here to continue with the
Focus on Afghanistan series.



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