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IFRC Secretary General Jagan Chapagain
The daily task of remaining impartial
Jagan Chapagain, Secretary General of International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies
1 Nov 2022

Founded in France in 1919, the IFRC emerged to embrace the citizens of the world in situations of humanitarian crisis. Surely with the vision that, at some point, these crises would no longer be needed. Today it embraces 160 million people a year through its 192 member societies.

How is it possible for an institution that is constantly working in situations of injustice to remain impartial? What kind of culture does management practice to compel its teams to remain unbiased? This is the exchange with Jagan Chapagain, the person in charge.

Impartiality is one of the fundamental pillars of IFRC Operations. How has impartiality changed over time in view of the rapidly evolving nature of conflicts in which the IFRC is called to intervene?

Impartiality is a central pillar of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement’s Fundamental Principles. According to our statutes, impartiality is defined as “[making] no discrimination as to nationality, race, religious beliefs, class or political opinions. It endeavors to relieve the suffering of individuals, being guided solely by their needs, and to give priority to the most urgent cases of distress.”

Along with neutrality, impartiality has been accepted as a bedrock humanitarian principle at the diplomatic level. In practice, however, it has, at times, been unpopular. The world we live in today is very different to the one that existed at the origin of our movement. Digital connectivity has increased social polarization and intolerance over the last several years. The politicization of humanitarian issues during conflicts and major emergencies, as we saw in the wake of COVID-19, has meant that we can come under pressure for not taking sides in situations where uncertainty and mistrust permeate actions and relationships.

Even more challenging is the effect of uneven visibility and funding for different humanitarian contexts – for example, the slow and low level of response to historic hunger crisis affecting the Horn and Central Africa. This hinders our capacity to prioritize the needs of the most vulnerable in our aid. However, despite the challenges, these principles must remain at the center of our work. Delivering impartial and neutral aid is the only way to maintain the trust of all communities.

What are, in your view, the main challenges that this impartiality is facing nowadays, and how can it be maintained?

The politicization of humanitarian aid has led to serious misperceptions. This has resulted in both funding and access to vulnerable people becoming increasingly politically charged, contentious, and difficult. Humanitarians face greater danger because they are perceived as legitimate targets by actors who demand loyalty to one side or another. Today, impartiality is fundamentally linked to the critical issue of ensuring a safe environment for humanitarians to work in.

For the IFRC, this problem most strongly impacts the National Societies that comprise our global network. Our National Societies must be recognized as auxiliaries to the public authorities of their own countries in the humanitarian field and provide a range of services including disaster relief, health and social programs. Unfortunately, this distinct partnership – while absolutely critical for National Societies to provide aid – is often taken as a sign of non-neutrality and non-impartiality. This mistaken perception impedes their capacity to provide both impartial and neutral relief, and assistance to the most vulnerable.

However, we can push back against this by increasing diversity and inclusion among our staff, volunteers, and leadership. Having a fully inclusive leadership and workforce helps build trust. Plus, by remaining consistent and emphasizing greater accountability and transparency in our actions, we can maintain our commitment to impartiality.

Like any international institution, IFRC is in need of reform and change. What are the changes that you would personally like to gradually introduce in order to make the IFRC more efficient?

The transformations I have introduced as Secretary-General ensure that we continue to deliver assistance as an engaged, accountable, and trusted organization while increasing our organizational agility and efficiency. To make this a reality, our network is focused on localization, building and scaling up capacity of our National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies who are already embedded in communities.

Localization is critical for efficiency and effectiveness. By empowering the communities and local organizations, strengthening accountability and channeling international investment to them, we eliminate layers of bureaucracy and emphasize simplification and flexibility. This puts the local humanitarians at the center of action who are most aware of the needs facing their communities. This also ensures that we treat communities as equals and promote their dignity. By pushing for more localization, the IFRC is working to break free from dynamics that obstruct efficiency and instead have honest and respectful dialogues with individuals and communities when they tell us what they need.

For IFRC to reach these objectives, we need to strongly encourage youth and volunteer engagement, fostering impactful leadership within National Societies – in particular from women and leaders from diverse backgrounds. These leaders hold unique capacities and strengths and are exceptional in their ability to foster trust and consider risks. Overall, we need to better represent the diverse perspectives of the people we are trying to reach, in our decision-making and strategic processes. This means more women, more people with diverse mindsets, from diverse age groups, cultures and socio-economic backgrounds in leadership positions. The IFRC has global reach – and we are working to ensure that it remains truly global in its vision and approach to humanitarianism.

* Julián Ginzo is a Contributor for UN Today.
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