"The goal of humanitarian work is to eliminate the need for humanitarian work"
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"The goal of humanitarian work is to eliminate the need for humanitarian work"

The Red Cross has had an enormous impact on the world. ICRC President Peter Maurer discusses new ways of financing humanitarian projects, modern conflicts and whether the world is doing better or worse today than in the past.

Mr. Maurer, is the world better or worse off today than it was in 1863, when Henry Dunant founded the International Committee of the Red Cross?

Peter Maurer: Paradoxically, it is doing both better and worse. From a global perspective, we have seen improvement in many indicators, including infant mortality, life expectancy and education. In that regard we are experiencing a uniquely positive trend in human history. These advances are due in large part to the rise of half a dozen Asian countries – China, India and several economic tigers. But countries that are not doing well are facing an extremely difficult situation. And the difficulties are increasing.

In what way?

The majority of the 120 million people who rely on humanitarian aid are living in the ICRC's 15 largest areas of activity – which include such countries as Syria and Yemen as well as Central Africa. These few areas also account for 80 percent of the world's refugees who are fleeing violence. Migration flows are destabilizing not only the countries that are directly affected, but also neighboring regions and the global political situation. Underdevelopment, a lack of prospects and corruption are posing an increasingly serious challenge in the crisis regions, and this in turn is leading to the delegitimization of political institutions. As a result, conflicts are continuing for longer and longer periods, and we are spending more and more time in these regions.

The number of democracies has increased since 1946, and especially since 1990. Doesn't that bring more peace?

That's a misconception – in fact, the opposite is true. Conflicts are no longer flaring up where poverty is greatest, but more often in places where a middle class has emerged but lacks political power. The Arab Spring is a prime example. It ultimately led not to the freedom the crowds at Cairo's Tahrir Square were demanding, but to the opposite – namely to an avalanche of conflicts in the Middle East.

I didn't anticipate that we would be confronted so quickly with conflicts triggered by climate change.

You have been president of the ICRC for the past six years. Were there some conflicts that you didn't see coming, and that took you completely by surprise?

The conflicts themselves haven't come as a surprise, but we haven't always been able to predict their timing and momentum. Let's start with Ukraine: I didn't expect that a major humanitarian relief campaign would once again be needed in Europe. I never expected that a conflict like the one involving the Rohingya in Myanmar would escalate with such horrendous speed, forcing nearly a million people to flee their homes in the space of one month. And I didn't anticipate that we would be confronted so quickly with conflicts triggered by climate change.

How are modern conflicts and new types of warfare affecting the work of the ICRC?

Traditionally, a war meant two national armies fighting against each other. Today's conflicts often involve several actors that may be very different from one another. Research has shown that more armed groups have sprung up during the past six years than in the previous six decades. So there has been a dramatic increase in the number of conflict parties we need to negotiate with. Take Libya, for example. Practically every Middle Eastern power and every major international player has an ally or a representative in that country. Not only does that make our work more difficult; it also affects the UN Security Council, which has become virtually incapable of achieving a consensus on solving conflicts.

Given this situation, what role will your organization play in the future?

First of all, we need to find new ways to bring all of the actors to the table – including radicalized splinter groups – so that we can work together on humanitarian campaigns. Second, we need to think strategically about which tasks we are really able to take on. We are and will continue to be a humanitarian organization; we can't transform ourselves into a development or climate organization. We need to find new ways to work with education experts and/or the World Bank. It's all about networking.

Countries that are not doing well are facing an extremely difficult situation.

And this networking involves closer cooperation with the private sector. Why are you focusing so much attention on that area?

Because of the obvious convergence of interests between the stabilizing nature of humanitarian work and efforts to stimulate regional economies. Conflicts have changed; they often last for many years, and they are destroying vital infrastructures needed to deliver water, energy and health care.

Where, specifically, are you seeing this happening?

As soon as crisis regions have achieved a minimum level of stability and people have managed to survive, thanks to our humanitarian efforts, we must support them as they try to move beyond dependence and make their countries attractive to investors once again. The goal of humanitarian work is to eliminate the need for humanitarian work. That can only happen by getting business cycles up and running, at least to a minimal extent. One of our goals, therefore, is to transition from providing humanitarian aid to investing in a more sustainable future. In this context, the expertise of the private sector is of great interest. What are the right tools? In what context should they be used, and when? These are questions we need to think about and test together.

Is this a departure from your organization's traditional approach to financing? In the past, the ICRC's budget of over 1.7 billion Swiss francs has been financed almost exclusively by government contributions.

Government funding and philanthropic contributions from private sources still play an important role. But whether the money comes from governments or companies, what matters is that we are able to work independently and neutrally – and we insist on that. I should also note that we have a long history of cooperation with the private sector, dating back to the organization's founding. Our successful corporate partnerships, such as with Credit Suisse,* are one prominent example. We are also trying new approaches, and they pose new challenges.

One of our goals, therefore, is to transition from providing humanitarian aid to investing in a more sustainable future.

One new funding instrument is your Humanitarian Impact Bonds, a means to encourage social investment from the private sector. What are you hoping to gain from impact investment – an approach that is designed to bring about quantifiable social and environmental change while also yielding financial returns?

The ICRC's expenditures are not decreasing, but rather increasing. Governments will never provide enough money to meet all of the humanitarian challenges we face. So we need additional sources of funding – and we believe in investments in the humanitarian sector that can have an impact. These humanitarian bonds are one initial approach. They enable private investors to invest in aid projects, with measurable results and the repayment of capital at the end of a five-year period.

Where is the money in this pilot project being invested?

Private investors have contributed a total of 26 million Swiss francs, which has been invested in three ICRC rehabilitation centers – in Mali, Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The money will also be used to modernize the management of these centers. If these projects are successful, several countries and a foundation are guaranteeing the repayment of the capital with a low level of interest. The amount of repayment depends on the performance of the three centers. One might also invest in a hospital in a crisis region, setting quantifiable goals for the hospital to achieve. We are confident that there is a market for humanitarian projects.

The purpose of humanitarian bonds is to mobilize money that would not otherwise be invested in humanitarian activities.

Humanitarian aid and financial returns – isn't that a contradiction?

That's a misconception. The purpose of humanitarian bonds is to mobilize money that would not otherwise be invested in humanitarian activities. We are mobilizing investments in an effort to ensure that our social engagement has a greater impact – and this, in turn, can be expected to have a positive economic effect. We're not primarily concerned with the profits of individual companies or countries. We repay the capital and offer a small amount of interest so that investors don't take a loss. An important consideration is transparency – the public needs to know where the money comes from and what rights and obligations are involved.

Digitalization has radically changed how wars are waged. Is that true of humanitarian aid as well? Will we soon be seeing robots used in your activities?

That is still far off in the future, but it's certainly conceivable that robots will eventually play a role in our work, for example by protecting victims. To take advantage of technological change, we are collaborating with external experts, developing new instruments in a global laboratory and testing them in everyday situations. In Kenya, for example, we have tested stethoscopes made with 3D printers and they are far cheaper than conventional ones. And we have worked with EPFL to design new prostheses that will allow disabled people to be more mobile, even in difficult environments. In addition, an energy-saving power supply system for a mobile operating room is currently in development.

It's certainly conceivable that robots will eventually play a role in our work, for example by protecting victims.

Digitalization also means decentralization and delocalization. What does that mean for the ICRC headquarters in Geneva?

In the past few years, we have moved some of our services to other locations. Our IT department is in Belgrade, bookkeeping and reporting are in Manila, and we have decentralized our logistics. This has saved us tens of millions that can now be used to help more people. But I'm confident that for the foreseeable future, Geneva will remain the home of our headquarters and the place that is most closely identified with the ICRC. This historical connection and its symbolism are important.

The Red Cross movement was a fundamentally Swiss idea that originated with socially committed businesspeople, and it earned Henry Dunant the very first Nobel Peace Prize in 1901. How "Swiss" is the ICRC today?

The people who work for the Red Cross come from over 130 different countries. We need their cultural expertise; as a globally active institution, it is important for us to reflect the world's diversity. But Swiss values are still at the heart of the ICRC. These include neutrality, which allows us to talk with all of the involved parties; a practical, solutions-oriented perspective; and a bottom-up organization – principles that are not only distinguishing features of our organization, but also, in a sense, part of Switzerland's DNA.

Speaking of personnel: Millennials have a reputation for insisting on doing meaningful work. So has the number of applications to the ICRC increased over the past few years?

There is a great deal of interest worldwide in working for the Red Cross. We receive between 15,000 and 17,000 applications for roughly 500 positions as ICRC delegates. That allows us to meticulously screen applicants and recruit highly motivated young people. At the same time, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find experienced people who are willing to take assignments in dangerous crisis regions. We have had to create a new system of compensation and incentives to attract people who are prepared to accept such risks.

I know, rationally, that the only way to create humanitarian safe zones, and ultimately to solve conflicts, is through direct communication and consensus.

For you, personally, is it difficult to remain neutral – for example, when you're negotiating with people who are bombing hospitals?

I'm able to stay neutral because I know, rationally, that the only way to create humanitarian safe zones, and ultimately to solve conflicts, is through direct communication and consensus. Excluding some parties from the negotiating table makes it impossible to reach a solution. But emotions play a role, and I express mine. Emotions are a sign of authenticity. That's important when attempting to persuade people.

Has your view of human beings changed?

I am continually surprised, as well as deeply impressed, by people's resilience and capacity for innovation, and by how they are able to organize their lives even under the most adverse conditions – how they create a certain degree of normalcy despite all of the misery they endure. They serve as an example for me. They also give me a sense that I am doing work that matters and makes a difference.