6 things we need to be great at during S2030

by Alexander Matheou | Feb 25, 2019 | Leadership Voices

Going to scale:  In 2016, I attended a roundtable to discuss plans to mitigate a major hunger crisis in southern Africa.  Agencies and donors put proposals on the table to import cereals, to oversee mass targeting for cash-based assistance and to diversify the mono-cropping that is a root cause of food insecurity in the region.  The Red Cross offered a few small, scattered projects.    The 500 000 000 CHF raised to stop that crisis becoming a famine all went to the other agencies: the ones who had a specific role within a plan that was operating at scale.  There is an important lesson here: that while smaller investors in RCRC might be satisfied with charitable actions, the bigger, government donors will only be satisfied with credible plans to mitigate a threat. Can you help stop the famine?  Can you contain an epidemic?  Can you help stop an asylum system or health system from collapsing?  Thinking in these terms is as relevant to NS planning services domestically as it is to NS engaging in crises internationally, and it involves going to scale.  Going to scale doesn’t always mean increasing the size of operations, it means locating your interventions in the wider strategy to address the risk at hand.  The Global Fund paved the way for this approach in epidemic response and we need to learn from such examples.

Innovative financing Well-coordinated and timely humanitarian assistance can avert crises from becoming worse, as we saw with the threat of famine in Somalia in 2017, but even at scale, humanitarian interventions are often tokenistic relative to complex climate, conflict, population growth, literacy and health challenges.   Countries like Niger for example, will need ambitious, Marshall plans of assistance if they are to avoid the doomsday trajectories predicted for them, and that will require looking beyond ODA and mobilising the much larger potential of foreign direct investment (FDI).  Fundraisers tend to look at the significance of FDI and remittances compared to the relatively small pots of overseas aid and see a whole new potential for income generation, but innovative financing will be more about partnership and brokering than fundraising.  Humanitarians will need to consider how their experiences and skillsets can make the most critical humanitarian contexts attractive to investment.  ICRC and IFRC are both bravely leading the way here, and others will need to follow.

Donor Compliance – The more we go to scale and branch out into new financing, the more rigorous the demands of donor compliance will become.   This will not be welcome, as we can see from the feedback the UK government receives on its increasingly stringent oversight mechanisms, but rigorous donor compliance is here to stay for three main reasons. First, aid budgets will become harder to defend in an era of populism and therefore donors will need to prove they are spending well and mitigating risk of abuse and scandal. Second, recipient governments will become increasingly interested in how aid is being spent in their own countries and will want evidence that funds are benefiting the target country and not international agencies.  Third, people who either voluntarily or through taxes contribute hard earned money to humanitarian efforts, will always have the right to know their money is being spent well, and will choose to support those agencies that can demonstrate that most clearly. So, we are going to have to be great at setting world-class standards on accountability, both at a NS and multilateral level.

Data protection – As we get better at compliance, we shall have to get better at data collection, and that means we shall accumulate a whole new set of risks during s2030. The most obvious risk comes from being fined for breaking data protection laws, but the biggest challenge will come from controlling data flows.  Aggregated humanitarian data has value: it can be used to predict population movement, to identify irregular migrants and to find people who have just received cash assistance.  It is therefore of interest to security services, immigration officials and criminals.   So, we are going to have to make ‘do not harm’ a guiding principle of data management. NS can start by having strong data protection systems, but as data is global, there is no national solution. We shall have to be great at working together as a Movement to keep peoples’ information safe. 

Listening to people in crisis – Several years have passed since Yves Daccord, the Director General of ICRC, predicted the emergence of a Humanitarian Trip Advisor.  It hasn’t happened yet, but I still think he was right and something very like it is around the corner.  Whenever I suggest as much to colleagues, I hear a list of ways it could go wrong.  Probably it will be messy, but it will still be good news in the long run, because in s2030, community engagement needs to be liberated from the control of the agencies who deliver the services.  Listening to people in crisis should be as natural to humanitarian agencies as listening to clients is to businesses, but international aid is structured in such a way that listening can become an afterthought.  The people who receive services don’t pay for them, and those who do pay for the services don’t deliver them but outsource to trusted organisations, who then broker the actual front-line delivery through local partners.  It is not surprising that the voices of people in crises can be subdued in such a multi-layered form of engagement.  It is good news that IFRC is already showing more commitment than ever to community engagement, but the real breakthrough in s2030 will come when accountability is driven from the bottom up.   

Leadership development – Twenty years ago, sister NS supporting each other around the world would have put leadership development at the top of their aid agendas.  Their budgets would have been full of trainings, branch development, twinning, youth development, peer exchanges and even MBAs.  Much of this has withered away in the face of more performance-based management of projects. Leadership development is just too nebulous to fit into a log-frame at anything but an activity level. Yet, it remains the cornerstone for success both for NS and the multilateral system, so it needs to be back on the table in s2030.   We need a Red Cross Red Crescent leadership academy that will convene, guide and motivate our NS leaders and heads of ICRC and IFRC delegations – to help them become great at the five points above for a start. This will have to be a brave, no-regrets investment, because  lots of the people who would benefit from such an Academy will disappear from the Movement – but great leaders are needed in all walks of life, so this may be our generous offer to wider, civil society; and anyway, even with attrition, the biggest winner will still be the International Red Cross Red Crescent Movement.

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Alexander Matheou, the IFRC Regional Director for Asia Pacific, has worked in the humanitarian sector for 20 years, both within and outside the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. He has worked across a variety of fields, including disaster response, food security, social exclusion, displacement and migration, HIV/TB prevention and institutional development. Alexander is a regular contributor of opinion pieces on humanitarian and development issues to an assortment of audiences and forums.


  1. Ian O'Donnell, Team Leader for 1BC, IFRC Secretariat

    Thanks Alexander. I like a lot of the ideas here.

    On the Leadership Academy, it would be great to combine efforts — e.g. building on the Solferino Academy and online learning opportunities like the IFRC Learning Platform and collaboration with the Humanitarian Leadership Academy. We should also tap into other networked resources like Ashoka’s network of social entrepreneur fellows, university and city networks, and corporate partners own organisational networks that can provide leadership support and learning as local peers, mentors and advisors to Red Cross Red Crescent branches and volunteers. These networks are often distributed much like our own and could provide ‘localized Leadership Academy’ opportunities.

    IFRC partner Peace First talks about this as the ‘ground game’ that can be connected to a digital ‘air game’. The impact multiplier is in connecting across our networks, building on the local nexuses of support where our networks overlap. This concept of network-wide partnering is something that we have been exploring within the One Billion Coalition for Resilience (1BC). Let’s connect further on this.

  2. Irum jalil

    Well work on different areas specially in these areas where is poverty cross the line and they are waiting for any kind of help.As a human as a volunteer or as a worker of the agency or ngo or any field of life it’s our responsibility to help out them n give support to them.on this base that To help the people to help themselves


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