Any way you look at it 2020 was unprecedented, complex and challenging, and there is little indication that things will get any easier in the near future. Amongst the many difficulties we faced, however, a number of positives emerged alongside some key lessons for us going forward. At the Solferino Academy we spoke to 20 senior leaders across the IFRC and network of National Societies to ask their views on this. Here is some of what they told us:
3 Things we can be proud of in 2020
Communities stepped up to work together to help combat the virus and its effects. National Societies saw significant rises in volunteering: 78,000 new volunteers signed up to help in the US, in Italy the figure was nearly 60,000, and Spain had a similar number. There were 48,000 in the Netherlands and 35,000 in Kenya. In Tuvalu, a country with no recorded cases of Covid-19, the local Red Cross welcomed 130 new volunteers.
“In response to unprecedented humanitarian need, we have witnessed equally unprecedented humanity and kindness,”Francesco Rocca, President of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies – in The Guardian online, 6 January
National Societies rapidly adjusted their systems and processes to mobilize these extraordinary numbers to respond, whether it be delivering food parcels, helping with testing or providing psycho-social support. Once again, our model of mobilizing local communities in support of their peers proved to be highly valuable for overstretched social and health systems as well as for meeting the needs of highly vulnerable communities.
We also demonstrated incredible solidarity as a Red Cross and Red Crescent network, working together in unexpected and creative ways. We came together in virtual workshops, think tanks and technical groups sharing, learning and developing new collaborations. China sent experts to Italy, emergency financing flowed across borders (and not just in the traditional flows from high income to lower income economies), and local data was provided globally on a vast scale, enabling informed decision-making and a presentation of data to major global institutions critical in responding to a global health crisis. The numerous major global forums to be held this year will require this level of cooperation if we are to effectively position the work of our National Societies.
There is indeed much room for improvement in the ways we collaborate internationally, but we made important steps in 2020.
National Societies moved impressively quickly to adapt to the new working reality that demanded virtual coordination and management of activities – alongside the shift to deliver services virtually. New platforms were launched and digital volunteering systems were rapidly scaled up, shifting to onboarding and coordinating activities entirely virtually. New services were designed or adapted to be delivered virtually. Remote working became the norm, and so did the acknowledgement of the challenges it brings, along with support for people facing these challenges in some instances. All of this happened very fast, within days, weeks and months.
NSs also started holding workshops, conferences and summits virtually. 10,000+ participants attended Climate:Red, a massive online climate summit, the first of its kind for the humanitarian sector. Digital transformation was widely embraced, teaching us both what is possible to achieve virtually but what is also more effective face to face. The challenge will be to continue to grow in this in the coming years and also to ensure that as offices inevitably begin to open again, we won’t return to business as usual or lose the tremendous gains we have made in digital transformation.
Trust and Communications
In a time where the importance of clear, consistent and reliable health information is critical, trust and the ability to communicate effectively with large audiences is more important than ever for NSs. As the virus outbreak and some media (including social media) coverage contribute to spreading fear and anxiety, superstition, cognitive dissonance and even conspiracy theories, and as distrust or dissatisfaction between citizens and their governments grows, in part ignited further by populism and polarization, there is a strong need for reliable, trustworthy health communications between NSs and their communities.
NSs rapidly scaled their overall communication efforts and community engagement in 2020, both through traditional means (including in-person communications and traditional media) and new sophisticated social and digital media efforts. 2020 saw a sharp rise in NSs capacity to communicate and engage through social media. This year we will need even greater scale and effectiveness of this, with further waves of COVID, new strands and a rollout of vaccines all playing out in 2021.
But for communications to be trusted and acted upon, the messenger also needs to be trusted. The National Societies’ reputation will have to be solid and all who work for and volunteer with the NSs will have to continue to be trusted too – particularly the leadership. Once again at the center of NS effectiveness we find trust. Any perceived breaches of this trust or lack of independence in the NS are likely to significantly hamper our efforts to save lives.
3 Things we need to focus on in 2021
2021 may well be the year of leadership. In a time of such high uncertainty, as many complex crises converge or emerge in sudden and unpredictable ways, leaders will play essential roles in creating spaces where entrepreneurialism, innovation and agility can thrive. It’s critical that their teams are able to anticipate challenges, ideate new solutions, rapidly experiment, reach out to and form new alliances and partnerships, learn quickly and adjust. Decision-making will have to be further streamlined and previous processes reviewed and adapted or abandoned quickly, should they prove inadequate. The pathway to scaling new approaches, so often in the past a long and arduous process, will need to be expedited.
All of this will require entrepreneurial and transformative leaders at all levels. From SGs and Governing Boards through to volunteer leaders and branch managers, leaders will have to create inclusive environments that enable diverse people to innovate and be agile without the top-down bureaucracy that has dominated the humanitarian sector to date. Data, collective intelligence and the ability to learn and gain insights quickly will also be central.
Senior leaders alongside their teams will need strategic foresight, the ability to anticipate shifting trends and challenges and to adapt quickly to prepare for them. In addition, being able to spot narrow windows of opportunity and to be able to move quickly to seize them will be essential.
Finally, with fatigue setting in for staff and volunteers across the network both personally and professionally, compassionate leadership that provisions for the care of their people will be essential humanitarian leadership.
Financing and Complexity
“By 2022 we may well face a reckoning with funding”(IFRC Leader)
With projected and currently evolving recessions forecast across much of the world, alongside increased domestic demands within donor countries, humanitarian and social financing is widely projected to become tighter from the end of 2021 onwards.
Unfortunately, this comes at a time when demand is not only going to be very high, but one that is highly complex and involves a myriad of crises and associated impacts that flow into more areas of vulnerability. We are likely also to witness many casualties in the charity/civil society sector further reducing support available for vulnerable populations.
The ability to find new and innovative ways to mobilize alternate sources of capital are going to become increasingly central. It will be crucial to partner with new actors and to build entirely new models of collaboration, which enable greater activity at scale and enable NSs to manage highly complex vulnerabilities stretching across most aspects of individual and community wellbeing such as livelihoods, health outcomes, social and mental health through to food and housing and so on. We will need better ways to collaborate with each other as a RCRC network and to find new efficiencies to support millions suffering.
Auxiliarity in the Spotlight
Health roles present some of the biggest auxiliary opportunities for many NSs. With widespread projections of increased vulnerabilities, over-stretched social and health services and a difficult rollout of vaccines there will be many roles for NSs to play. Providing critical health programs and prevention efforts will help cement the enhanced auxiliary roles of NSs, enable strengthened advocacy efforts and new sources of funding and in the end ensure that we can help address some of the many needs unfolding. These are opportunities for NSs to be seen as crucial to preventive health measures also for the pandemics of the future.
In addition, there is both a need and an opportunity for expanding the auxiliary role of the RCRC during these crises. There will be new spaces where the RCRC can be invited or step into proactively. During 2020 NSs were frequently asked to take on roles they did not previously have. These spaces may open even further in the second and third wave. However, there are challenges with rapidly stepping into new roles. If we are to be effective at these new services and roles, it requires the kind of leadership outlined above.
Furthermore, in some contexts, steps into the new auxiliary space may impact our role as a neutral civil society actor and lead to a decrease in public trust. And as we anticipate growing polarization, decrease of trust in institutions and potential civil unrest, striking the right balance between our auxiliary and civil role will allow us to achieve the best outcomes for vulnerable people.