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The IFRC needs to change. Here’s a to-do list

‘Faced with unavoidable global turmoil, will the new president bask in old glories, or confront the future with courageous new thinking?’

A worker of Venezuelan Red Cross walks past a truck with logo of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) carrying humanitarian aid, at a warehouse where the aid will be stored, in Caracas, Venezuela, April 16, 2019. Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters
A worker of Venezuelan Red Cross walks past a truck with logo of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) carrying humanitarian aid, at a warehouse where the aid will be stored, in Caracas, Venezuela, April 16, 2019.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies desperately needs a makeover. Will its new leader be up to the task?

The IFRC elects its next president on 11 December in a hastily convened vote. The incumbent, Francesco Rocca, reluctantly announced he would step down after a conflict of interest controversy obligated his departure.

The incoming president will head a federation that is rich in symbolism and a core pillar of the humanitarian system – but one that is in urgent need of restructuring, a clear new strategy, and some honest self-reflection.

The presidential contenders are Ramy Elnazer, CEO of the Egyptian Red Crescent; Kate Forbes of the American Red Cross and chair of the IFRC Audit and Risk Commission; Abbas Gullet, former secretary general of the Kenya Red Cross and former member of the Red Cross Red Crescent Standing Commission, and Natia Loladze, president of the Georgia Red Cross and current IFRC vice-president.

Although all candidates have made good election pitches, only Gullet shows principled integrity – and a recognition of the controversy that cast a cloud over Rocca and the federation – by resigning from positions that could represent conflicts of interest before pursuing his campaign.

The vote will be behind closed doors. There is no independent monitoring, and the public and media are excluded – in striking contrast to norms among some UN organisations whose elections are even webcast.

The IFRC’s opacity and archaic rules of procedure are more akin to that of a private club from a bygone age, rather than a public-interest institution funded from the public purse. The secrecy has allowed past elections to be shaped by external pressures and deep-pocketed electioneering.

The federation comprises 191 national societies, most of whom will cast a ballot for the next president. A polite IFRC request urges governments not to interfere in the election process. But in reality, few national societies vote without a nod from their governments.

Regardless of who wins, the next IFRC president will helm a federation that faces rising global turmoil while saddled with urgent internal challenges. These seven steps should be at the top of the new president’s to-do list:

Take an honest look in the mirror

To start, the president must distinguish between the federation’s marketing myths and its ground truths. Take the claim that the movement – comprising the federation, the national societies, and the International Committee of the Red Cross – is a network of 80 million people, including 15.1 million volunteers. These are unaudited assertions, as are its self-declarations of reaching 260 million people with healthcare or 51 million with disaster risk reduction, for example. How are beneficiaries defined and verified to avoid double-counting?

The president would be prudent to order an independent assessment of the evidence base. Potentially exaggerated claims can undermine public confidence.

The president should wean the federation away from obsessing over its size as the world’s biggest humanitarian network and, instead, question programming quality. IFRC’s audit and evaluation reports emphasise process and learning. While this is commendable, absent are measures of quality and impact. With little genuine independence in its evaluation machine or self-criticism in published reports, there is a whiff of white-washing that does no good to IFRC credibility.

That makes objective judgements difficult, but experienced humanitarians are concerned that the federation’s service quality and consistency are falling behind industry standards. There are new ideas and healthy competition among the thousands of agencies that inhabit today’s humanitarian ecosystem. The trend is toward specialisation in our age of expertise, while the Red Cross Red Crescent has de-skilled over time and lost market share.

Challenge past dogmas

The problem is that the Red Cross Red Crescent has sat on its ancient laurels. Humanitarian values, principles, and laws have achieved the status of theological dogma, unchallenged within its closed club of adherents. Its Solferino Academy is a wasted resource that, at best, represents intellectual fiddling while the humanitarian world fizzles with challenging ideas.

Although national societies’ traditional methods did well in the COVID-19 crisis, the Israel-Gaza war and burgeoning climate crisis are illustrative of tougher challenges ahead. They will require revisiting the movement’s fundamental principles, especially concerning neutrality in conflict and other polarised contexts.

Faced with unavoidable global turmoil, will the new president bask in old glories, or confront the future with courageous new thinking?

Sharpen the federation’s strategy

IFRC’s current 10-year strategy, Strategy 2030, is filled with worthy aspirations underpinned by platitudes – perhaps the lowest common level of agreement among the diverse federation membership. But lacking hard analysis or tough choices, it is more like an eat-all-you-can buffet.

If the new presidency is not to meander like a broken GPS, it will need a sharpened new strategy. This should prioritise demanding a guaranteed volume of donor funding, in exchange for a tighter focus on core healthcare and disaster management areas – a proactive new compact with donors that could make the business of humanitarian finance less volatile.

Put national societies first

The president’s GPS must point unwaveringly toward the vital IFRC constitutional purpose: the development of its members.

That means solving the central problem of the asymmetrical relationship between rich national societies in the Global North, and poor ones in the Global South. The former dominate funding opportunities from their Global North governments; the latter instead end up as subcontractors – delivering top-down projects for their richer counterparts instead of prioritising their communities’ needs.

It breeds clientelism among national societies and disincentivises sustained institutional development. Most national societies in the Global South are unable to cover their basic infrastructure and personnel costs – and fall prey to any donor that wishes to rent them to deliver a product or service.

Today’s power imbalance among national societies is antithetical to the localisation goal of the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit and its Grand Bargain promises. Despite its quintessential local persona, the federation sets no benchmarks, collects no data, and publishes no reports to indicate its own progress. The president must remedy this embarrassment.

However, national societies in the Global North are not necessarily stronger: They function more as domestic contractors to their governments and conduits of aid under their foreign policy. The erosion of independence of the Red Cross Red Crescent – one of its fundamental principles – does not bode well for public trust. 

Overhaul governance

To grapple with these issues, the president needs backing from a strong board. The current part-time arrangement – whereby a few friends elected through somewhat murky electioneering convene twice a year in Geneva – is inadequate for a joint enterprise of around $40 billion. There is a risk the federation could fracture, if the relevance gap between its centralised governance and far-flung membership keeps widening. That requires the president to consider new models for distributed governance that are not about symbolic rituals, but exemplify compliance with ethical norms.

That is sorely missing today. Fraud, corruption, sexual abuse, and exploitation occur across the federation. Yes, this is also the reality across the aid sector. But the IFRC is reluctant to publish full reports on wrongdoing, even while others have become more transparent.

It’s not only at the individual level. Corporate misconduct or mismanagement has led some governments to intervene in the running of their national societies after the federation was slow to provide the necessary discipline. The flat-footed IFRC is eventually obliged to respond, as recently was the case in Venezuela and Peru, or previously in Greece.

While such embarrassments are forcing IFRC to improve, its feeble and politicised internal mechanisms are more about mediating differences than enforcing compliance with standards. It is not the only international body facing such problems, but the federation is too coy. Defensiveness causes reputational damage to the brand.

Then there is the presidency itself. It is an unpaid, voluntary role. That worked fine in distant, gentler times when people of means could spare some time to serve in the spirit of noblesse oblige. Modern governance in our egalitarian but troubled times is inherently complex and requires dedicated attention. A remunerated presidency – perhaps even an executive presidency – deserves debate. The traditional Western business school model of separated governance and management may no longer be appropriate for IFRC.

Transform spending

A financial crunch has compelled ICRC to downsize, and IFRC could follow. This is not because of funding – it remains well-funded thanks to COVID-19 and increasing numbers of big disasters – but because of complacency in the IFRC secretariat. Although its overall staffing is not excessive, it is in the wrong place. The headquarters, operating out of the world’s third most expensive city, is bloated by low performers relying on consultants for what they should do themselves. Moving the focus away from Geneva to where the action is – country and regional offices – would be galvanising.

The president could trigger a shift by limiting the secretariat to its annual core budget of around $41 million in statutory membership contributions – the democratic expression of the services federation members want from the executive. But the actual operating budget is set around $570 million. This is made up by aggressively sought donations from the same donors that back national societies, and by selling secretariat services, instead of building the capacity of their members to resource themselves.

Stopping the secretariat from divisive internal competition would reduce conflicts of interests with the membership, and allow the latter more self-development opportunities.

Pull together

The most difficult item on the IFRC president’s plate is bad blood with ICRC that is papered-over by IFRC and ICRC management, rather than resolved. Leave aside the question of whether our resource-constrained world can afford two large Geneva organisations; it is unbecoming when they bicker – as, for example, on who takes the lead in responding to crises in Ukraine and Sudan, the floods in Libya, or the earthquake in Syria. The bureaucratic heat generated by turf wars damages collective impact despite the painfully negotiated “Seville Agreement 2.0” – the 2022 codification of their respective roles.

During my time at IFRC and beyond, I have witnessed the work of Red Cross Red Crescent volunteers first-hand in more than 100 countries. From marriage counselling in Iran to blood donations in Bangladesh and disaster preparedness in Fiji. From earthquake relief in Haiti to tsunami recovery in Indonesia and ambulances in Lebanon. From community pharmacies in India to elderly care in China. From hospital management in Japan to nurse training in France. From psychosocial support in America’s urban wastelands to potable water in Papua New Guinea jungles. From the front lines of favela wars in Brazil to the front lines of Syrian refugee reception in Türkiye and Ukrainian arrivals in Romania.

These are just some of the 200,000 local Red Cross Red Crescent units in action. They have seen IFRC presidents come and go, collecting air miles and photo ops along the way.

Then there was my grandmother in India. She never joined any unit, but wore her Red Cross arm band with pride, offering water to labourers toiling under the sun. She would be pleased but not particularly interested to know that Red Cross Red Crescent heatwaves programming reached 11 million people last year. Her labour of love never registered in IFRC statistics, but she did inspire me to do my own bit.

That is the crux of the matter. How do you preside over an idea that inspires millions but won’t be corralled by bureaucracy? And yet, without organisation, humanitarianism is just a collection of random acts of kindness.

It would be another wasted IFRC presidency if the new incumbent does not realise that their high office is not for burnishing their CV, but a sacred trust that must not be betrayed.

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