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ICRC funding woes fuel internal debate, fears of operational cuts ahead

‘There is no sugar-coating the fact that this year will be difficult.’

ICRC Director-General Robert Mardini speaks at a 2022 press conference in Kyiv, Ukraine. Nur Photo/Reuters
ICRC Director-General Robert Mardini speaks at a 2022 press conference in Kyiv, Ukraine.

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The International Committee of the Red Cross is debating cuts that could amount to 15% of its budget in frontline emergencies this year, citing extensive funding shortages, according to an internal message that has triggered a staff backlash and warnings of direct impacts to people in crises.

The ICRC is projecting funding shortfalls of up to 25%, just weeks after approving and launching a 2023 budget for 2.8 billion Swiss francs ($3.02 billion) – its largest ever. 

In an organisation-wide letter seen by The New Humanitarian, Director-General Robert Mardini said the ICRC would target 400 million CHF in “field budget reductions” out of 2.5 billion currently earmarked for field operations – as well as a longer-term “strategic review” that could see the global organisation re-examine its reach and focus.

“There is no sugar-coating the fact that this year will be difficult,” Mardini said.

The 7 March message has been met with outrage from a growing number of ICRC staff. An open letter signed by at least 2,400 people – roughly adding up to a tenth of the ICRC’s workforce – questioned leadership’s fiscal management, called for an external audit, and warned against top-down cuts. ICRC employees, the letter states, “are disappointed, disillusioned, and angry”.

“The efforts you are demanding today have a human cost, for the victims and for the staff,” the letter reads. “Such budgetary restrictions cannot be taken vertically without a substantial strategic vision.”

The ICRC says the shortfalls are driven by tight aid budgetssoaring needs, and rising inflation and supply costs magnified by the conflict in Ukraine

The organisation also began the year with a 140 million CHF deficit.

“Several end-of-year pledges did not come through at the level we had anticipated,” an ICRC spokesperson said in an emailed statement in response to The New Humanitarian’s questions. “At the same time, our costs during the fourth quarter of 2022 were higher than anticipated partly because of inflation.”

The spokesperson said the organisation is “looking at how we could lower our costs”, but “no decisions have yet been made to reduce our operational activities”.

It’s not the first time the ICRC has faced funding woes in recent years; the budget crisis “is not new”, the staff letter states.

In 2020, the organisation was forced to make wide-ranging cuts, including a hospital that helped war-wounded in Lebanon. At the time, the ICRC said it mirrored sector-wide funding problems amid the COVID-19 pandemic, though individual staff told The New Humanitarian it reflected deeper issues within the organisation.

Publicly, the ICRC is holding out hope that it can still raise all of its 2023 budget, despite signs that aid funding is particularly squeezed amid the fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and soaring global humanitarian needs.

In recent days, Mardini has been making the rounds near and far from Geneva headquarters, urging donors to maintain funding. 

His internal letter to staff, however, suggests the latest funding woes will force the organisation to examine the future breadth of its operations.

The ICRC has ballooned in size, scope, and budget in recent years – mirroring the wider humanitarian sector. In 2013, the organisation’s annual budget was half of what it is today.

Mardini said a strategic review would “seek to balance the breadth of services with the need to focus and specialise in areas where we are most relevant and effective”. All ICRC departments are being told to propose options for “services or activities that could be discontinued or reduced”.

Edited by Andrew Gully.

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