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The future of humanitarian action: an ICRC perspective

  • Claudia McGoldrick

Abstract

The evolving global environment in which humanitarian actors operate is posing profound challenges, both in terms of the increasing complexity of major crises and their impact on affected people, and in terms of the changes within the humanitarian sector itself as it tries to respond. This article gives one perspective of what the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) considers to be some of the key challenges facing humanitarian action now and in the coming years, and how the institution aims to address these challenges while remaining faithful to its fundamental principles of impartiality, neutrality, and independence.

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1 Jane Cocking, Humanitarian Director of Oxfam, quoted among others in BBC News, ‘Pakistan: Senior UN figure criticises response’, 23 August 2010, available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-south-asia-11054958 (last visited December 2011).

2 UK Parliament, International Development Committee, Seventh Report: The Humanitarian Response to the Pakistan Floods, 10 May 2011, available at: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201012/cmselect/cmintdev/615/61502.htm#evidence (last visited December 2011). Various international non-governmental organizations and humanitarian agencies submitted written evidence to the Committee.

3 The humanitarian action of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement is specifically based on seven Fundamental Principles: humanity, impartiality, neutrality, independence, voluntary service, unity, and universality. References in this article to the ‘fundamental (humanitarian) principles’ are based on this definition. For further information, see: http://www.icrc.org/eng/resources/documents/misc/fundamental-principles-commentary-010179.htm (last visited December 2011).

4 Forsythe, David P., ‘The ICRC: a unique humanitarian protagonist’, in International Review of the Red Cross, Vol. 89, No. 865, March 2007, p. 69.

5 Rieff, David, A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2002; Mills, Kurt, ‘Neo-humanitarianism: the role of international norms and organizations in contemporary conflict’, in Global Governance: A Review of Multilateralism and International Organizations, Vol. 11, No. 2, p. 161.

6 As noted by John Borton in Future of the Humanitarian System: Impacts of Internal Changes, Feinstein Center, November 2009, available at: http://www.humanitarianfutures.org/sites/default/files/internal.pdf (last visited December 2011), a striking feature of the ‘humanitarian system’ is the lack of clarity about what precisely it consists of and where the boundaries lie. There is no universal definition: some writers preface the term with ‘international’ to distinguish it from national and local elements within affected countries, while some reject the use of the word ‘system’ altogether, on the grounds that it implies actors oriented towards common goals. Borton himself uses a working definition of the ‘multiplicity of international, national and locally-based organizations deploying financial, material and human resources to provided assistance and protection to those affected by conflict and natural disasters with the objective of saving lives, reducing suffering and aiding recovery’ (p. 5).

7 See German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU), Climate Change as a Security Risk: Flagship Report 2007, May 2007, available at: http://www.wbgu.de/en/flagship-reports/fr-2007-security/ (last visited December 2011).

8 Cited in Chhabara, Rajesh, ‘Climate change refugees seek a new international deal’, in Climate Change Corp, 27 December 2008, available at: www.climatechangecorp.com/content.asp?ContentID=5871 (last visited December 2011).

9 See ICRC News Release 11/49, ‘Somalia: malnutrition brings children to the brink of death’, 13 July 2011, http://www.icrc.org/eng/resources/documents/news-release/2011/somalia-news-2011-07-13.htm (last visited 10 December 2011); Chris Niles, ‘Amidst the region's worst drought in decades, Somali refugees crowd camps in Kenya’, UNICEF, 11 July 2011, available at: http://www.unicef.org/infobycountry/kenya_59174.html (last visited December 2011); UNHCR, ‘Crisis in Horn of Africa: a worsening humanitarian situation’, available at: http://www.unhcr.org/pages/4e1ff4b06.html (last visited March 2012).

10 For a detailed discussion of this intervention, see International Crisis Group, The Kenyan Military Intervention in Somalia, Africa Report No. 184, 15 February 2012, available at: http://www.crisisgroup.org/∼/media/Files/africa/horn-of-africa/kenya/184%20-%20The%20Kenyan%20Military%20Intervention%20in%20Somalia.pdf (last visited March 2012).

11 See ICRC, International Humanitarian Law and the Challenges of Contemporary Armed Conflicts, Report, 31st International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, 28 November–1 December 2011, available at: http://www.icrc.org/eng/assets/files/red-cross-crescent-movement/31st-international-conference/31-int-conference-ihl-challenges-report-11-5-1-2-en.pdf (last visited 10 December 2011).

12 United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, data available at: http://esa.un.org/unpd/wpp/Multiple-Figures/multiple-figures_1.htm (last visited December 2011).

13 Geneva Declaration on Armed Violence and Development, Global Burden of Armed Violence, Geneva, 2008, available at: http://www.genevadeclaration.org/measurability/global-burden-of-armed-violence/global-burden-of-armed-violence-2008.html (last visited December 2011).

14 See ICRC, above note 11, pp. 48–52.

15 See ICRC, ‘Strengthening legal protection for victims of armed conflicts’, Draft resolution and Report, 31st International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, 28 November–1 December 2011, available at: http://www.icrc.org/eng/assets/files/red-cross-crescent-movement/31st-international-conference/31-int-conference-strengthening-legal-protection-11-5-1-1-en.pdf (last visited 10 December 2011). See also the statement by Jakob Kellenberger, ‘Strengthening legal protection for victims of armed conflicts – States’ consultations and the way forward’, May 2011, available at: http://www.icrc.org/eng/resources/documents/statement/ihl-development-statement-2011-05-12.htm (last visited December 2011).

16 See ICRC, above note 11, pp. 36–40.

17 Huntington, Samuel P., ‘Clash of Civilizations?’, in Foreign Affairs, Vol. 72, No. 3, Summer 1993, pp. 2249.

18 Recent research indicates the overall decline in host government respect for humanitarian principles. See Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action (ALNAP), The State of the Humanitarian System, 2010, available at: http://www.alnap.org/pool/files/alnap-sohs-final.pdf (last visited 10 December 2011).

19 See ICRC News Release 11/68, ‘Sri Lanka: ICRC closes its offices in the north’, 25 March 2011, available at: http://www.icrc.org/eng/resources/documents/news-release/2011/sri-lanka-news-2011-03-25.htm (last visited 12 December 2011).

20 Médecins sans Frontières argues that the humanitarian community in Afghanistan has broadly lost the acceptance of the population that is necessary for the provision of humanitarian aid. See Michael Hofman and Sophie Delauney, ‘Special report – Afghanistan: a return to humanitarian action’, March 2010, available at: http://www.doctorswithoutborders.org/publications/article.cfm?id=4311&cat=special-report (last visited 10 December 2011).

21 Terry, Fiona, ‘The International Committee of the Red Cross in Afghanistan: reasserting the neutrality of humanitarian action’, in International Review of the Red Cross, Vol. 93, No. 881, March 2011, pp. 173188.

22 For a discussion on the Libyan situation and the evolution of the concept ‘Responsibility to Protect’, see Bruno Pommier, ‘The use of force to protect civilians and humanitarian action. The case of Libya and beyond’, in this edition.

23 For the ‘Good Humanitarian Donorship’ initiative, see: http://www.goodhumanitariandonorship.org/ (last visited 12 December 2011). See also Andrea Binder and Claudia Meier, ‘Opportunity knocks: why non-Western donors enter humanitarianism and how to make the best of it’, in this issue.

24 See Walker, Peter and Pepper, Kevin, ‘The state of humanitarian funding’, in Forced Migration Review, No. 29, 2007, pp. 3335.

25 Regan, Jane, ‘Haiti: humanitarian crisis or crisis of humanitarianism?’ in Huffington Post, 5 December 2010, available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jane-regan/haiti---humanitarian-cris_b_779503.html (last visited 12 December 2011).

27 Eberwein, Wolf-Dieter, ‘Quel futur de l'action humanitaire?’, in Grotius International, 3 January 2011, available online at: http://www.grotius.fr/quel-futur-de-l%E2%80%99action-humanitaire/.

28 La Liberté, 6 January and 23 May 2005. See also Paul Barbagallo, ‘Healing ways’, March 2005, available at: http://www.fundraisingsuccessmag.com/article/though-misunderstood-first-doctors-without-borders-bold-decision-stop-accepting-tsunami-relief-donation-could-help-revive-public-trust-nonprofits-32313/1 (last visited December 2011).

29 For an in-depth discussion of this topic, see Patrick Meier, ‘New information technologies and their impact on the humanitarian sector’, in this issue.

30 Financial Tracking Service, available at: http://fts.unocha.org/ (last visited 10 December 2011).

31 The Humanitarian Response Review, initiated by the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator and published in August 2005, included key recommendations aimed at reforming the collaborative response: namely strengthening the role and functions of Humanitarian Coordinators and improving the selection process, and the assignment of clear responsibilities to lead organizations at sector level. One outcome was the development of the ‘cluster system’; new financing mechanisms were another. See Humanitarian Response Review, available at: http://oneresponse.info/Coordination/ClusterApproach/Documents/Humanitarian%20Response%20Review.pdf (last visited 12 December 2011).

32 For a comprehensive analysis of humanitarian financing, see the Global Humanitarian Assistance website at: http://www.globalhumanitarianassistance.org/ (last visited 10 December 2011).

33 This question is also discussed in the joint interview by EU Commissioner Kristalina Georgieva and the ICRC's President, Dr. Jakob Kellenberger, ‘What are the future challenges for humanitarian action?’, in this issue.

34 ALNAP, above note 18, p. 7.

35 Julia Steets et al., Cluster Approach Evaluation 2 – Synthesis Report, URD and GPPi, April 2010, available at: http://www.humanitarianinfo.org/iasc/downloaddoc.aspx?docID=5269 (last visited 10 December 2011).

36 The Sphere Project: Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Disaster Response (launched in 1997 by a group of humanitarian NGOs and the Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement), http://www.sphereproject.org/.

37 IRIN, ‘Haiti: humanitarian best practice – dignity, not just digits’, 9 April 2010, available at: http://irinnews.org/Report.aspx?ReportId=88752 (last visited 12 December 2011).

38 See UK Department for International Development (DFID), ‘Multilateral aid review’, 21 November 2011, available at: http://www.dfid.gov.uk/what-we-do/how-uk-aid-is-spent/a-new-direction-for-uk-aid/multilateral-aid-review/ (last visited 10 December 2011).

39 ICRC, ‘ICRC Strategy 2011–2014’, available at: http://www.icrc.org/eng/resources/documents/publication/p4050.htm (last visited December 2011).

40 Report of the Symposium organized by the ICRC and the Institut d'Etudes de Sécurité (EU), ‘Humanitarian endeavour and armed conflict: contemporary challenges’, June 2010, available at: http://www.icrc.org/eng/resources/documents/report/belgium-report-2011-07-06.htm (last visited 10 December 2011).

41 See F. Terry, above note 21, p. 7.

42 See the website of the ‘Global Pulse’, available at: http://www.unglobalpulse.org/ (last visited 10 December 2011).

43 See, for example, ‘Untangling early recovery’, Policy Brief No. 38, Humanitarian Policy Group/Overseas Development Institute, October 2009, available at: http://www.odi.org.uk/resources/docs/5309.pdf (last visited December 2011).

44 Harroff-Tavel, Marion, ‘Do wars ever end? The work of the International Committee of the Red Cross when the guns fall silent’, in International Review of the Red Cross, Vol. 85, No. 851, September 2003, pp. 465496.

45 Duffield, Mark R., Global Governance and the New Wars: The Merging of Development and Security, Zed Books, London, 2001.

46 ‘Aid must double to respond to disasters’, The Independent, 29 March 2010, available at: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/politics/aid-must-double-to-respond-to-natural-disasters-un-warned-1929992.html (last visited 10 December 2011).

* The author would like to thank numerous colleagues at the ICRC for their input and constructive comments, in particular Pascal Daudin, head of the ICRC's Policy Unit, for his substantial and invaluable contribution.

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The future of humanitarian action: an ICRC perspective

  • Claudia McGoldrick

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