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Q&A: Ignacio Packer on the possibilities and pitfalls of using your power for change 

‘I wanted to show that people with privilege and power can step down in a planned way.’

This is a composite image. At the center is a burgundy red square and over it a cut out of Ignacio Packer in black and white. The main background is a paper-like grid and black and red paint strokes.

Change doesn’t come easy – even when the push starts at the top.

When Ignacio Packer stepped down as head of the International Council of Voluntary Agencies, an influential NGO network, his goal was to make way for new voices and leadership from the so-called Global South.

That’s why his eventual replacement was a surprise pick for some – especially Packer.

Jamie Munn, a veteran humanitarian and most recently country director for the Norwegian Refugee Council in Iraq, began his role as ICVA’s new executive director in November. He’s the latest in a line of leaders who share what Packer delicately describes as his “external profile”: Western European or North American, and overwhelmingly male.

Packer said he knows and respects Munn, but he found the board’s decision “difficult” at first, when it was announced in August.

“At the start, I felt disappointed and even angry about what happened,” Packer told The New Humanitarian in an interview. “But at the same time, I value the organisation and I value the person who's taking the position. It's just that I feel it's not right.”

Shahin Ashraf, currently vice-chair of ICVA’s governing board, declined to comment on the issue, citing a need to maintain the confidentiality of the recruitment process.

In an email to ICVA members announcing Munn’s appointment in August, Ashraf wrote: “The board and ICVA remain committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion within the membership, secretariat staffing and board member representation. The board looks forward to working with Jamie to make further strides toward bringing more diverse voices to ICVA and the humanitarian architecture.”

Packer’s very planned move – announced internally in November 2020, more than two years before he stepped down – was a rare example of a “get out of the way” tactic to shift power in the international humanitarian system. Leadership and decision-making are concentrated among people from the mostly Western countries that fund the largest share of emergency aid.

“I am programmed – from my education, from many other things – to think in certain ways. So, if we do want systems change, we need inspiring people who help us that come with very different perspectives.”

ICVA may not be a household name outside the aid sector, but it participates in the Inter-Agency Standing Committee, the humanitarian system’s highest-level coordination body, alongside the leaders of UN agencies and big international NGOs. On paper, this gives the Global South NGOs that form a part of ICVA’s membership a seat around a relatively exclusive table.

Known among his colleagues for his penchant for bright running shoes and endurance sports, Packer is now executive director of Initiatives of Change Switzerland, a peacebuilding foundation.

Packer spoke to The New Humanitarian about the key skill the aid sector is missing, what his experiences say about how change happens, and the symbolism behind those shoes.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The New Humanitarian: Take us back to your decision to leave. Why did you decide to step down from one of the highest-level decision-making positions in the humanitarian sector?

Ignacio Packer: In preparing for the 60th anniversary of ICVA, I saw the list of my predecessors [who were] executive directors, and then I realised: Wait a second. It is also about me. If I have values and a commitment to diversity, inclusion, and equity, it is also about me. In the 60-year history of ICVA… with the exception of four years, [the executive directors were] all men of my profile, shall we say.

Some would say, “No, it's about the values, it's not about your appearance.” But my gut feeling led me to say, “No, that's not the right thing. I have to step down… It is not possible for an organisation like ICVA, which is a global organisation that champions diversity and inclusion, that we keep on having someone of my profile.” So that was my thinking.

I also wanted to show that, yes, people with privilege and power can step down in a planned way, to help an agenda of supporting this movement of more diversity, inclusion, and equity in our workforce.

I really welcome the new executive director, who I know well, and is a super-competent person. But I feel it's a missed opportunity.

The New Humanitarian: At the time, you described this as walking the talk, to make way for new leadership from the Global South. What would you have liked to have seen, and why was this important to you?

Packer: The pressure is mounting in our sector to have leaders that can think in different ways, that can bring different perspectives. I'm well-known in the sector for wearing colourful sports shoes – you know, when I go to an ambassador's reception or just to the office, I have yellow or orange shoes. For me, this is of course because I feel comfortable in these types of shoes, but it's also to say: Every time I get up in the morning, you have to think differently. You may be in a suit like everybody else, but you have to force yourself to think differently. And the capacity to do that has its limitations, because I am programmed – from my education, from many other things – to think in certain ways. So, if we do want systems change, we need inspiring people who help us that come with very different perspectives.

And then for the element of what diversity was needed: I would have thought that the first one is one around gender. I mean, there are women out there who could have taken the position. How come our system didn't pick them up? How come, perhaps, these women weren’t interested in taking a position like this one? For me, that remains a huge question mark.

The New Humanitarian: Can you expand on that? What do you think the lessons are here?

Packer: One is very much for all of us to to think about: How are we nurturing talent, how [are we contributing to an environment where there can be a] diversity of people to be at different levels of positions.

The movement is there. It's happening, and a lot is going on. But certainly, we have to question that there isn't enough going on. Because it's about the system. It's not only about a recruitment panel or a recruitment process. We also work with different firms of headhunters. Do they clearly understand what we mean by this pressure mounting in our sector to have more of this diversity?

It really has to start by looking very broadly, beyond just one organisation. I found myself far too often being in a male-dominant room. So my perception is that we still have quite a long way to go.

The New Humanitarian: How has this changed your views on how change happens in the system?

I don't say this has changed it, but I am very conscious that we can only manage to change the system with individual change. So it’s working a lot on our inner development, on our genuine and real intentions of what we want to achieve.

The position of my new organisation is to talk about how we have to increase the efforts to develop the skills and the capabilities to be able to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

We would hear from almost everybody in the room to say that we're backtracking on the SDGs, and that's because of the war in Ukraine, it's because of COVID, it's because of climate change. There are great efforts to try and move this further, and that's really important.

But what I feel we're lacking is to look at the inner development goals. So these are: What are the leadership capacities that go beyond the technical aspects? It's about who you are, and what is your intention.

If we want to change the system, we have to take risks and we have to be a bit bolder.

You can't only address technical issues with technical answers. You really have to work, and we have to invest much more on the capabilities, the skills, the qualities, that we need for systems to change. If not, we're just going to be rearranging the chairs on the Titanic, just moving things by a few degrees – perhaps feeling upset about it, or feeling I've done my job. We have to go beyond that.

The New Humanitarian: What does talking about the inner development goals look like in practice?

Packer: This is an easy example, but it happened to me recently, at a meeting of philanthropic foundations in Croatia with a session around how programming on climate change should be moving. At the end of the session, I asked, “Yes, but what does it mean for us individually? Who did not come by plane to the meeting?” This is a European meeting. And there were just a few Croatians and myself, who did 26 hours by train. So what does this mean? This means that we're prepared to talk about it at the level of our organisation, and reprogramming the funding, and so on. But are we prepared – us individually – to make some of the efforts to try and be coherent and align our values, or what we're saying are our values, with what we are doing?

Climate change is perhaps an easier one to bring up. But it's one that we have to address with high urgency. And in our sector where we still keep on jumping in planes to go from Geneva to London or Geneva to Amsterdam – sorry, we have to lead by example. As individuals, we have to be much more aligned with what we are doing [as organisations]. So that's what we mean by the inner development goals in practice. It's not a revolution – far from that. But I think it is supporting the qualities that are needed for the ambitions of the SDGs.

The New Humanitarian: How does your thinking on this relate to what’s required for change at the leadership level?

Packer: For me, it's around how we are aligned with our values. And it's not having a report saying something which aligns us with our values. It has to go much further than that.

The question of me stepping down to try and bring more diversity is anecdotal. The key message is how, in everything we do, are we aligning our values to how we are living.

The New Humanitarian: At the time, your decision to step down seemed symbolic in the sense that you're this relatively prominent aid leader, but you are just one person – how much change can you do? How do you make sure such decisions are more than just symbolic?

Packer: I think it's what others make of it. I feel fine, because I feel that it was the right thing to do. What is done, I don't have all the understanding, of course, and it's not in my hands…

It's difficult for me to be very – I’m all right if it was just considered as symbolic. It wasn't for me, and... It wasn't for me. Yeah. Just that, is really important.

I don't think I would have felt at ease doing another five years at ICVA. Or shall I say, in many instances, I would probably have found it difficult.

The New Humanitarian: When I say symbolic, I don't mean “not without substance”. It's more the rarity of stepping down for the reasons you did – because it was so rare within this sector.

Packer: Perhaps others would want to try and do it in a better-prepared manner than I did.

The New Humanitarian: Well, that's the thing: It was quite prepared. You gave notice a couple years before; you didn't just step down. So, going back to my earlier question, what does this say about how change happens in the humanitarian sector?

Packer: Well, change happens centimetre by centimetre. It doesn't need a revolution. But it needs a little bit more sense of urgency.

Edited by Andrew Gully.

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