If everyone is moving forward together, then success takes care of itself

by Alexander Matheou | Nov 14, 2019 | Leadership Voices

Executive Director – International
British Red Cross Society

A quiet revolution is happening in how partner Red Cross and Red Crescent societies are collaborating.  It is not happening everywhere, not everyone is on board and there continue to be bumps in the road.  But it is involving ever more National Societies (NS) and millions of CHF.   It is worth learning from: because as is clear in Strategy 2030 – how well we collaborate, will define our relevance in the years to come. It started two years ago, when a group of partner NS calculated that our collective annual investments into international assistance came to around 750 million CHF.

The good news was that we committed to pooling these resources, and even to merging our structures, in order to achieve more collective impact. The bad news was, that when we announced it and tried to roll it out, it went down like a led balloon.

In hindsight, the tactics used to roll out the idea were probably clumsy, but the vision wasn’t. So, undeterred, a group of NS have continued to plough on, convinced that we can’t engage in the crises of the next ten years through disconnected, country-level projects.  To work alongside vulnerable migrants, for example, we will need to operate like a network across multiple countries. It’ll be the same for climate change, chronic hunger, epidemics, violence and all the crises that won’t stop at borders. No single NS will be able to invest in all the skills we’re going to need collectively to stay relevant for people in crisis in the years to come – the real-time accountability, the feedback loops, the data protection, the new financing models – but if we coordinate how we develop these competencies around a distributed network, then we can all benefit. In short, our individual efforts may be positive, but it’ll be our combined efforts, based on pooled resources, complementary skill sets and mandates, that will make a difference.  We have seen early hints of progress over the last year. The work on migration trails in the Sahel is a collaborative effort of five African NS, four European NS and the IFRC Secretariat. There is Movement wide, global cooperation to scale up cash-based assistance.  Efforts to respond to the current hunger crises across Southern Africa are based on collaboration of multilateral, bilateral and national support.

Increasingly, partner NS are choosing not to set up their own offices, but to collaborate through sister, partner NS. We are seeing this in Niger, Namibia, Burkina Faso, Mali, Kenya, Bangladesh and Sudan. In Nepal, four NS have decided to go as far as to merge teams to align work alongside the Nepal Red Cross.  Lots of people have complained about this.  But wind back a year and imagine visiting Kathmandu and seeing the scattered, separate offices of British, American, Canadian and Danish Red Cross Societies, all running projects in isolation, all having separate finance systems and staff.

Now wind forward to 2020, and walk into a combined team office, with one finance system, pooled resources and shared approaches, all under one IFRC integration agreement. Tell me that’s not progress. If there are hints of success in these examples, there is also a fair dose of pain.  Collaboration is easy to preach but hard to practice.  It is worth taking note of the learning so far.

First, collaboration is as much about shared values as it is about shared objectives.  Let’s take an example of three partner NS that all have objectives to end hunger. They convene in one country where the host NS is engaged in responding to a chronic food security crisis. It looks like the foundations for collaboration are all there.  It soon becomes clear though, that what partner NS 1 values most is reaching as many people as possible with direct services; whereas NS 2, puts most value on sustainable capacity of the host NS; NS 3, however, prizes increasing its own profile and income as the most important indicators of success.  In the meantime, for the host NS, the most important value is motivating its volunteers and paying salaries evenly across the country.   Collaboration may have sounded like a great idea, but fractures will soon emerge.   To make collaboration work across NS and the wider Movement, we need some honest conversations about the hierarchy of values that drive us.

Second, we need to spend time together to build empathy and trust.  If a few partner NS have improved collaboration over the last two years, it is a lot down to the fact that leaders have invested time together and have become comfortable enough to challenge each other, while still presuming good intent.  I attend more than my fair share of Red Cross meetings, and all too often, partner NS aren’t happy with the IFRC secretariat, who aren’t happy with ICRC, who aren’t happy with host NS, who aren’t happy with partner NS etc.     There is something deeply human about projecting blame and probably the only way to overcome the instinct is to share time. We need a culture of joint inductions, trainings, planning and monitoring visits.  We need to spend time together in the Solferino Leadership Academy: time that builds networks of trust that makes communication and problem solving easy.

Third, we need an honest conversation with donor governments about how to support collective impact, not just our individual efforts.   It is a lot to ask of donors that they get their heads around the complicated way our Movement works.  But we do need to ask, because otherwise, unwittingly, we become the product of their choices.  A massive upsurge in investment into ICRC over the last fifteen years has changed power dynamics across the Movement, as well as the roles of IFRC and NS in conflict areas.  Decisions to support partner NS bilaterally, has changed the shape of the Secretariat.  If government donors choose the IFRC Secretariat as a major partner in climate-related disaster management over the coming ten years, that could change the whole picture again.  In other words, our opportunities and motivations for collaboration are shaped as much by external financing as by our own choices.  If we believe that we really do bring complementary mandates and capacities to humanitarian crises, then we need to learn to talk selflessly about the benefits of a collaborative effort.  This, perhaps more than any of the other learnings, is what will require the most courage from leaders, because it will mean that they must advocate as passionately for each other, as they do for themselves.

Finally, we need to start critical conversations before we’ve decided what to do, not after.  All too often, collaboration is interpreted as coming together with ready-made plans and trying to make them fit like jigsaw pieces from different pictures.  Collaboration needs to start with the vision.  What role do we want to play in the growing migrant crises?  In protecting people against sexual and gender-based violence? In investing in institutional resilience of NS?  What role should we seek to play in Syria, Yemen, Nigeria in the next ten years?  How can we start adapting and converging our current plans to enable that collective vision?   These are the conversations we need but are struggling to have.  Largely, because it takes effort and may force us into difficult compromises.

If we have learned one lesson from collaboration over the last two years, it is that it is much easier to pay lip service to it and then to carry on focusing on the things you can control yourself.  The status quo is the option likely to keep most people in the system happy.  It is not though, the option most in the interests of the people who donate to us or the people we serve.  That is why, hard and frustrating as it may be, collaboration amongst NS and within the Movement, is a moral responsibility.

Alexander Matheou,
Executive Director – International
British Red Cross Society

+ posts

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. GL

    It is not our differences that divide us, it is our inability to celebrate those differences…

    Thank you for this timely and interesting reflection. Hopefully, this will put the leaders and staff of National Societies, ICRC and IFRC in the right frame of mind for the discussions during the Statutory Meetings in December. It is clear that all the documents the Movement has developed over the years with the purpose to define the mandate of each component, to coordinate their activities during disasters, conflicts and peacetime, haven’t necessarily helped to address the issue of coordination and complementarity in the Movement. We still struggle to reach a more natural way for working together. Intensive efforts still need to be pursued to anchor transformational change in mind set and organizational culture; in the way we do things and how we need to work together in a more collaborative and non-competitive manner that strives to ensure a greater Movement footprint. There is a need to continue nurturing, and in some areas even to build trust, change mind set and define leadership in multi-component operations. This has to be painstakingly created and sustained across the whole network, if we want to continue being relevant as a Movement. The truth is that the humanitarian space is shrinking, and it seems that we are stuck in our eternal debates on who is leading what and where without achieving that ‘so much desired’ coordination in the Movement.

  2. Jyotishree Nath

    What an excellent thought-piece. It is great to read how a wave of authentic and practical collaboration, the sense
    of collective (over individual) in vision and our actions – are the need of the hour for the success (and survival) of RCRC movement. When I got to the bottom of the article, there was one thought. RCRC is part of but not the ecosystem itself, so wondered how you see the movement collaborating with other actors of the ecosystem important? Would you put the same emphasis in outward collaboration in addressing the need of people in crisis, as much as collaboration within the movement? What practical tips would you suggest in achieving this, and what role do you see the partner NSs and Federation can play in bringing about change within this sphere?

  3. Md Amin

    A great write up and a calling. Its a reflection of the realty of humanitarianism where the actors are tied to their organisatiin prunciples and the financial strings of their donors.


Leave a Reply