Authors: Gintare Guzeviciute, Laurent Fernandez, Sara Gullet, Shaun Hazeldine (IFRC Solferino Academy)
From November 9 to December 15, 2023, we explored the collective wisdom of our vibrant IFRC Network through a global survey. A total of 2,060 responses were gathered from volunteers, staff and leaders from 106 countries. They generously shared their thoughts and expectations for the future. Their responses are proof of the energy and richness of our Network, guiding us on a path of adaptation and improvement and portraying a landscape of both considerable and complicated threats alongside hope for the IFRC network and its future.
How respondents feel about the future.
Their responses were then mapped:
While overall there is a leaning towards optimism and agency in the determination of the future, there were some stark differences when we dug deeper.
Interestingly in general if you are internal to the RCRC you are both more likely to be optimistic about the future and more likely to feel you can have an impact, than if you are external to the organisation.
Respondents from the 34 countries with a very high human development index, are overall much more pessimistic and much less confident in their capacity to have an impact on the future than those from other countries. Conversely, if you are from lower or middle-income countries, you are more likely to be very optimistic about the future.
Respondents from sub-Saharan Africa are overwhelmingly confident in their capacity to have an impact (high to very high), whether or not they were optimistic about the future.
And not surprisingly we saw some gender variations; Women are less likely to feel that they can have a significant impact on the future unless they are in a leadership position. In that case, they are more likely than men to think they’ll have a very high impact.
Staff were more likely to be very pessimistic about the future than volunteers, who are generally optimistic. And finally, in general people between the ages of 18 and 34 are more likely to be optimistic than those who are 35 and over.
This begins to give us some insights into the sentiment of the network and how they feel about the future. We next asked for qualitative responses to the questions of what concerned or excited people about the coming years, how we should change as an organisation to meet future challenges and opportunities and what skills and capacities they thought our leaders should have to be successful.
The opinion piece below provides a summary of these responses and some reflections on these from the Solferino Academy team. We reviewed a sample of about 50% of the total respondents. They were chosen for analysis to ensure a more balanced input across the countries participating (so that no one country was over represented). Those respondents who provided more substantial inputs, (in terms of word count) were also prioritised. A complete analysis of all responses received will be made available in a few months time. Follow the IFRC Solferino Academy to stay up to date.
A Complex, Connected Set of Crises. An Age of Polycrisis and Permacrisis
Not surprisingly, the most prominent concern cited by respondents was the climate and environmental crises, around half of respondents listed this as their major concern. There is anxiety in the responses, and at times, an overall sense of futility, fueled by a sense that not enough is being done.
“There is a (mis)perception that it is just a passing trend… that emerged for a while, then will fade away.”
“Climate change is happening, and we are not acting fast enough or in a way commensurate with the crisis at hand.”
“People are physically clashing about topics like climate crises, and there is a spirit of helplessness.”
The complexity and systemic nature of the challenges however underpinned many of these reflections. The environmental crisis is recognised as interacting with and complicated by a confluence of factors, including inequality, political priorities, geopolitics, conflicts, polarisation, declining trust and a fraying social cohesion in general. They speak to a recognition that we are living in a world that has cascading problems that interact with each other in sometimes visible and sometimes less visible ways and are often non-linear and unpredictable. One where we cannot expect stability and must deal with permanent states of crisis and uncertainty. One participant described this disintegration as a catalyst for “extreme stress, worry, and panic amongst almost everyone”.
Interestingly this was a feature also of the consultations conducted in 2019 during the IFRC Strategy 2030 process, which the Solferino Academy also led. But in the results of this recent survey, there appears to be a much more urgent and palpable sense of numerous crises accelerating all at once. This convergence of crises is feeding each other and complicating each other and worsening impacts and outlook across the board.
“We are too often still operating from fixed mindsets and with fixed responses rather than recognising the interconnected nature of issues we are facing.”
Polarisation and mistrust were observed by respondents to be happening at all levels, interpersonally, and organisationally within the RCRC, within societies and geopolitically across the world. For many, this represents the critical challenge going forward in attempting to address any of the challenges we face.
At a societal level, comments suggested a concern about the erosion of shared values that once bound communities together.
“(This is) A divided society, which may become even more divided”
“(There is a) reduced respect for human rights”
“The social values people lived [by] are not respected anymore”
Others noted that the space for social discourse is fraying; “More extremism, less nuance in social commentary and interpersonal engagement”, paints a picture of a society losing its capacity for balanced debate and dialogue. The role of social media and technological advances in feeding this mistrust and building divides was frequently identified
“I worry about the erosion of objective truth and fact and how it’s making it harder for people to know what is right, and what is true. With technology, it is easier and easier to weaponize public opinion using AI-driven content, videos that can be altered or generated with deepfake software etc. And predatory entities seem to be leveraging it more effectively than it can be countered. How this impacts our work is that people are growing less and less trusting, and more willing to reject facts from sources that should be trusted, because of ‘evidence’ that is false or incorrect.”
This deterioration of trust has been widely documented elsewhere, eroding confidence in virtually all public institutions. This underscores the centrality of some of the recommendations that we highlight in the next section that call for focus on transparency, more inclusive decision making and ethical leadership within the network.
Widening divisions in wealth occurring across most societies and the economic threats facing many were seen as contributing to this mistrust and social fraying; “(there is an) increasing social detachment between wealthy and non-wealthy”. The survey highlights societal divides, depicting new forms of poverty, complicating a range of issues such as poverty, food security, crime, migration and health implications (both mental and physical), as highlighted by 62% of respondents.
As an organisation deeply involved with disasters and major crises, respondents saw some hope and opportunity in the kindness of individuals in response to crises.
“When times get tough, the community pulls together, more foodbanks open up, local businesses try to support – people are using social media to ask for help and people are responding, which is a new dimension to community spirit.”
A significant number of individuals (44%) stress the capacity of unity and the willingness to act together in times of crisis. The solidarity and resilience displayed during events such as floods stand out, and present considerable opportunity for our organisation to grow and foster this spirit. But respondents also noted that this collectivism is fleeting and is set against a backdrop of a more generalised political and social mistrust and erosion, that we revert back to quickly after the sympathy generated through major events has dissipated. Further there was also a concern that compassion fatigue and radicalism is seeping in where crises and conflicts pervade so regularly.
“Crisis events are (breeding) radical thoughts, provoking to destroy social cohesion, signalling the vulnerability of societies in crisis to manipulation and extremism.”
The echoes of division, mistrust and polarisation however reverberate beyond borders, shaping not only interpersonal and social dynamics but political landscapes: “I see political challenges, tension, and reactions to progressive thinking, and populist political parties taking over.”
In this evolving political landscape, a flag is raised: the IFRC Network will have to navigate partnerships with governments and populations who are less inclined towards collaborative humanitarian efforts at a time when it may be needed most. Globally the mistrust and geopolitical divisions may make the essential cooperation required to address major challenges less likely, as well as the threat of further conflicts more real. Polarisation at the geopolitical level is also likely to have impacts on the IFRC network and its own unity and neutrality.
Respondents expressed concern about the escalation of violence and conflict on a broader scale, the situation further complicated by the harsher humanitarian consequences arising from the protracted conflicts, coupled with diminishing resources and the emergence of new points of escalations and tensions.
The complexities of conflicts entwine with potential risks related to the use of AI, technology, autonomous weapons and weapons of mass destruction. This threatens to dramatically increase human suffering on the global scale and adds an urgency for better mechanisms for anticipation, adaptability and collaboration to prepare our future humanitarian responses.
“The challenges would lie in the nature of conflicts that are now protracted, decrease of resources as there are also other emerging conflicts, community fatigue, unstable economy, huge outflow and migration, nuclear threats.”
What Do We Do?
Respondents made numerous calls for action, we have highlighted 3 below here;
- Confronting the system
- The opportunities with localisation
- An organisation that is anticipatory, agile, inclusive, ethical and innovative and leadership that can embody that
Confronting the System
The challenges outlined in the previous section indicate systemic-level threats which render singular, vertical or one-dimensional solutions largely insufficient. There are no short-term solutions to long-term, complex problems.
“We must recognize that attempting to alleviate the environmental and social impacts caused by a highly extractive and exploitative economic system is unlikely to effectively address the challenges we face”
What is the role of a network such as the RCRC in the face of such complex and systemic challenges? Survey responses called for much more collaboration, perhaps radical realignment that lifts us far from organisational self-interest and component-driven ambitions to deeper integration and subservience to a greater cause. Thus addressing our systemic challenges is a necessary element in confronting the systems of challenges facing our societies
“I am worried about the way the Movement parts (IFRC, ICRC and NS) are working in competition, not in complementarity.”
“a powerless UN and international organizations who are more concerned with their reputation than making change.”
“We need leaders who can have the ability to put their ego and their own agenda aside to work for something greater than themselves”
Some began to speak also of going beyond greater collaboration to a reframing of humanitarianism and our organisation’s purpose;
“Our organisation must change fundamentally, protecting the earth may be the main humanitarian service in the future.”
“We need a more holistic approach that deals with planetary resilience, within that lies people’s health, and livelihoods. There can be no community resilience without planetary resilience and the health of ecosystems.”
The complexity of systems level responses is complicated work that will need serious learning from and with others. Moving beyond component driven interventions and vertical programming is not incentivised under current mechanisms and requires entire organisational realignment and courageous leadership. But it is certain that we will need new ways of collaborating and of conceiving our purpose and delivering our mission;
“How can we avoid making the world worse for our grandchildren through sustaining a violent and unequal system? Instead, how can we promote a universal vision marked by kindness, humanity, and universality for the generations to come?”
The opportunities with Localisation
Respondents, while simultaneously calling for more collaborative and sophisticated systemic level responses, also called for a complementary hyper localisation, with communities genuinely at the heart of change.“More localization, more contextualization” is the key to fostering ownership and sustainability. The plea was not just for more localized approaches but for the empowerment of local and micro-local communities.
“Inaction must give way to proactive listening”, to focus on meaningful localization, create spaces for open dialogue, feedback loops, and more effective community engagement. The imperative is clear: leaders should “proactively seek new and different perspectives and actually listen”.
“We need leaders with a post-colonial mindset and the establishment of policies that are free from colonial frameworks and attitudes.”
Once again, as with virtually every consultation we have seen (or led) in recent years, our ability to mobilise youth is raised as a major challenge. This is particularly critical here as ‘hope in our youth’ was one of the most cited sources of hope for our future (more than 1 in 4 listed this).
“What excites me the most in my region is the young people who are actively trying to embrace the innovation world, technology for development”.
The emphasis was on constant innovation in volunteer engagement models tailored to the changing environment. There were multiple calls (26.5% of respondents) to give the younger generations power and a meaningful place within the organisation, acknowledging that “future leadership must be nurtured today”. There were calls for getting better at channelling their worries into tangible actions, instilling hope and a sense of purpose and, for the IFRC network to become a better facilitator, harnessing young people’s intent to do good and building their capacity to be problem solvers.
Much of the challenge is linked inextricably to the broader structural, cultural and leadership issues of our organisation identified in the survey. There is a tension in organisational composition between what respondents saw as a bureaucratised and top-down system, either hyper-corporatised in some countries or resembling a traditional government department in others; and that of a community-driven, grassroots organisation in which those communities are rightly demanding more agency, decision making power and control over their engagements and lives. These are competing cultures and systems which we continue to grapple with reconcileing.
“We should rethink the years-old hierarchies that today prevent us from the innovative transformations necessary for our Movement.”
An organisation that is anticipatory, agile, inclusive, ethical and innovative and a leadership that embodies that
The answers from our Network speak of transformations— in the way we lead, operate, and engage. The emphasis in the responses reviewed were on a more accelerated and shared, decision-making mechanism to provide timely assistance. This echoes a desire to “be less bureaucratic” and a call to embrace a more dynamic and adaptive organisational model.
Calls for transformations unfolded across various dimensions; continuously improving the skills of staff and volunteers, exploring innovative fundraising, enabling National Societies for climate change mitigation, to building stronger tech, data and evidence-based approaches, the journey is vast.
“I see that we have an opportunity to innovate and do things differently, to have more meaningful impact in our interventions and to prove it based on data and qualitative research”
The organization was challenged to invest in research, understanding emerging trends and designing strategies to mitigate new forms of human suffering. Advocacy for climate action, but also fairer wealth distribution, more transformative collaborations, responsible governance of AI and technologies, and empathy stood out as important.
The opportunities emerging in technology were also seen as fertile ground for innovation and growth. “What amazes me is the use of technologies, let it be for industrial productions or simply connecting people together” From access to information to energy generation, income generation, agriculture, education and healthcare, digital tools are reshaping community development, and our organisations.
The survey responses provide a vivid portrayal of the desired leadership qualities required to achieve these changes, emphasising humility, kindness, and a visionary mindset that embraces diverse perspectives. Diplomacy, humanity, and collaboration were viewed as essential attributes, calling for leaders who support their teams and individuals, and fostering a culture of innovation and learning. People want highly ethical, inclusive and transparent leaders.
To be able to navigate the times ahead, a call for “being anticipatory and adapting to change” was central. Respondents stress the necessity of a leadership style that is adaptive and forward-thinking and embraces knowledge found in diverse perspectives.
“An organization must maintain its strengths while simultaneously adapting to changing circumstances. Leaders must create a culture of being one step ahead”
Anticipation is difficult in an age of such complexity and uncertainty. When a major event can occur that takes us perhaps by surprise, and can have ripple effects across a whole range of systems, many of which can’t be foreseen, it is increasingly difficult to plan. It is no surprise that we at the IFRC Solferino Academy have seen a renewed interest from NSs in scenario planning as a way to explore potential futures and understand some of the potential implications cascading from these.
“Embrace more change, to influence the direction where this is going.” The call for a shift from resisting change to actively embracing it and influencing the direction was made. Leaders are encouraged to relinquish control and cultivate an enabled and dynamic work environment.
“Focus on our organizations being more representative of the world we live in.” The important call for leaders to provide space for women and individuals from different backgrounds. Integrating new insights, leaders are advised to
“consider rethinking rigid hierarchical structures and embrace more collaborative and inclusive decision-making processes to foster innovation and engagement.”
“Red Cross and Red Crescent leadership should consider stopping any practices that hinder agility, innovation, and community engagement. This may involve reassessing bureaucratic barriers, encouraging more decentralised decision-making, and ensuring that the organisation remains adaptable to evolving environmental concerns.”
“Maybe current leadership models are obsolete because the challenges are too complex and overwhelming to be addressed by a few people only. We need real inclusion.”
It should be noted that the advice above relating to leadership was consistent across regions and the differing political, social and cultural contexts in which we operate. While current leadership cultures may differ across the world, we found no meaningful difference here in our survey in the recommendations for change being provided in this sample.
As we explore transformative ideas for our organisation, the wisdom in the quote, “We need to get better at listening and asking the right (tough) questions”, feels like the perfect note to end this piece. This echoes the spirit of the many thought-provoking questions you all shared in the survey. Each question is like a guide, helping us navigate new possibilities, fostering reflection, and inspiring a continuous commitment to a kinder and better IFRC Network. Summarising these profound inquiries here does not do them justice, but we have tried to faithfully represent some of the key themes and will explore these further with our network in 2024.
So, we invite you to take a personal journey by exploring your questions. As you discover insights or answers, please share them with us [email protected] or on social media @IFRCinnovation, and we will ensure they reach a wider audience, contributing to our collective learning and improvement.