Nine Trends that will shape how National Societies will work together during Strategy 2030

by Alexander Matheou | Jan 22, 2019 | Leadership Voices

At British Red Cross, we’ve been writing our international strategy at the same time as the Strategy 2030 consultations have been taking place, so we’ve been able to benefit from the S2030 horizon scanning of external trends, and from the reflections on how we’re going to work together as a network of National Societies over the coming years.  The ‘how’ has been critical to us in our planning, because while our ambitions are big, we know that alone we are small, and our success depends on our ability to form great partnerships with sister NS, to participate in great coalitions of NS working towards a common aim, and to find the best ways to engage with the IFRC Secretariat and ICRC.  Only if we get those partnerships right, can we really make a difference to people in crisis. So, while our strategy rightly focuses on big, external humanitarian issues of hunger, migration and conflict, underneath that lies an attempt to anticipate how internal shifts within the International RCRC Movement, particularly within our Federation, will influence our work.  Here’s a stab at predicting nine internal trends that will force us to adapt in how we collaborate as a network in the coming years.

Bilateralism will reach its peak and NS will get better at working as a Federation, but we’ll function more like a network than a multilateral organisation.  Two drivers will push this forward.  The first is internal pressures to confront the duplication of assets and resources amongst NS in their international work, the second will be large grant opportunities that require coalitions of partners.  In response to both these pressures, NS will learn to align systems and structures and form teams for long term programming.  These will be agile, fit-for-purpose models of collaboration that may or may not involve the Secretariat, but will involve a broader range of NS from around the world than has been the case in previous decades.  Most internationally funded programming and partnership between NS will take place in this space in the next ten years.

NS will still need a pooled coordination/delivery mechanism for major emergencies.  NS will continue therefore to turn to the IFRC Secretariat for strategic coordination and management of global tools.  These global tools will become less western-centric and many will be outsourced to the stronger NS from Africa and Asia. It will make sense for NS to support the IFRC Secretariat to deliver in disaster management, but investment will be half-hearted unless some form of operational governance is introduced that involves those NS and donors that are financial stakeholders in Emergency Appeals.   The absence of such a mechanism will give NS too little confidence that they can hold any pooled mechanism to account.  If an operational governance is introduced, we could see a breakthrough in collective commitment.

The NS paying the highest statutory fees will claim they are getting ‘the worst deal ever’ and will demand a ‘really great deal’.  Ok, they might not phrase it quite that way, but we will see a change.  Many of the big barame payers were happy to contribute in previous decades because the IFRC Secretariat was the pooled delivery system through which they did their international business.  That hasn’t been the case for over ten years now.  So, populism around us may seep into NS and make them less tolerant of annual contributions for a vague, international good without a clear return on investment.  NS will push harder for the IFRC plan and budget to focus on core business that serves NS interests and for the bareme to reflect global wealth distribution rather than willingness to pay.   

The number of donor NS and government donors will continue to grow and diversify, shifting power and influence south and east. The first 100 years of the IFRC was disproportionately influenced by a small number of NS, most of whom were from western Europe and north America.  That power dynamic already looks different and will continue to do so. Coordination in emergency response will involve a much broader range of actors who will play by different rules. We will see more politicised aid and more ‘gesture’ aid of trucks and planes of unsolicited goods.  A whole new discourse will need to take place to bring alignment and good practice amongst a more diverse group than was the case in previous decades.  Overtime, as international operations have a boarder range of NS stakeholders, Geneva may look less appealing as an HQ.   The decentralisation of the Secretariat may take another step and begin to look more like a network of thematic reference centres hosted by NS, with a smaller Geneva base.

Institutional donors, stimulated by the co-chairing of the IFRC’s Donor Advisory Group, will push for clarity on the role of the IFRC Secretariat, and these discussions will be genuinely helpful for the Movement.  On the eve of Strategy 2030, even those donors who have gone as far as to commit unearmarked budget support to the IFRC, would probably struggle to explain whether they are funding a Red-OCHA, a pooled delivery mechanism for NS or an operational, international, humanitarian organisation providing services to people in crisis.  Given how old the IFRC is, that confusion may seem surprising, but it’s less surprising when we consider that NS don’t agree on these definitions either, and thereby place a range of often conflicting expectations on the Secretariat.  The co-chairing of the DAG by government donors from 2019 will force these conversations into the open and both NS and the IFRC Secretariat will come out stronger thanks to that clarity.

Donors will piece together a holistic picture of the International RCRC Movement in protracted crises and they will refuse to fund multiple Movement actors in the same context. The existence of parallel ICRC, IFRC, PNS and NS logistics, HR, admin, back-office functions etc, all in one capital, supported by the same NS and governments, will be called out at last.  We shall start seeing field level mergers and shared systems in order to create more efficiency.  IFRC NSD functions will be seconded into ICRC delegations in protracted crises.  Everyone will be unhappy at first, but the optics of it will be much better, and it will become second nature overtime.  This field level alignment will nudge forward conversations about merging IFRC and ICRC, but NS will be too reluctant to let go of a NS-governed Federation for a full merger to take place.

Low levels of risk tolerance amongst donors will slow down investment in localisation but localisation will pick up pace anyway.   It will remain hard to use humanitarian funds to invest in building institutions and the risk aversion of the major, western donors will keep intermediary PNS and IFRC offices in business, but more NS will exert independence anyway thanks to strong leadership and government backing.  The assigned leadership roles given by host governments to SARCS and PMI will set precedents for other countries and international aid will become more demand led.  But NS around the world will still want the benefits of international investment, and those NS that do make the effort to pass international due diligence processes and high donor compliance standards, will end up on top.

The most progress will be made by those who master the art of having the right conversations:  As a Federation of NS, we are not good at strategic convening. We tend to opt for maximum participation and end up with too many people in the room to do serious business.  Where this practice continues, we will remain frustrated and divided.  But where we thoughtfully convene small numbers of critical decision makers and stakeholders for open and honest construction of shared problem analysis and collective solutions, then we will enjoy breakthroughs in collective action.   The Secretariat will struggle to convene like this for fear of excluding people, but where such diplomatic space is designed well, is where the most progress in collective action will be made.

The IFRC will survive and thrive.  There still may be black swans out there that will shake the whole thing up, but my guess is, even as the world changes around us, the model of a global network of NS with a Secretariat function to link it all together, will prove to be resilient.  Some NS will do well over the next ten years and some will fail, but ones that fall won’t sink the network.  The richer NS may choose to invest in the Secretariat as a shared delivery model for humanitarian outcomes, they may not, and while that decision may shape the size of the Secretariat, it won’t change the fact that the shared learning, the solidarity, the mutual aid, the belonging to a global family, the platforms for humanitarian diplomacy and even for personal ambition, will continue to be valued. Providing we are open to pragmatic adaptation in response to the sort of trends outlined above, the IFRC will survive and thrive because it offers the combination of local and global humanitarian action that the world needs. It was, after all, a great idea a hundred years ago, and it still is.

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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.


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