In the month of November, at a major global meeting in Antalya, Turkey, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies will elect its new President for a four-year term. This person will take the reins of the world’s largest and oldest humanitarian network at a time of unparalleled humanitarian need and complexity.
The new President will immediately be confronted by an array of global priorities – the increasing frequency and intensity of natural disasters as a result of climate change, protracted crises in places such as Syria and Yemen that have decimated social and economic infrastructure, and the massive movements of people fleeing conflict, violence and inequality. Elsewhere, we have seen the re-emergence of ancient diseases and appearance of new ones. He or she will also be confronted with the task of shaping a global humanitarian organization fit for a future of even greater complexity, and even deeper uncertainty.
It is fair to say that our world is in the midst of a period of unparalleled change. The World Economic Forum (WEF) has called this period the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” – characterized by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres. Everyone, in every field, will have to adapt to these tectonic shifts, and seize on the opportunities they present.
As humanitarians we see huge opportunities in these changes. We see increased interconnectedness flowing from digital technologies that allow for new forms of mobilizing and collective action. In many parts of the world, these technologies are shifting the power from governments and institutions and to people on the street. They are already changing for the better how we work. But, looking ahead, we can also see new challenges, new vulnerabilities. One in four city dwellers in the world now live in informal settlements, or ‘slums’. The so called “youth bulges” in Asia and Africa could result in many millions more young people unable to find meaningful employment.
Clearly organizations like mine need to find innovative strategies to confront these historic shifts. This is something that we in the Red Cross and Red Crescent have been working on, and we have identified three distinct areas for which we are developing new models for our work.
First, at a time of escalating humanitarian crises, constrained budgets and in an increasingly unpredictable world, humanitarians need to be more agile, more anticipatory, and more alert to change. Although we often cannot predict disasters and crises, we can develop ways to respond to them as quickly and efficiently as possible. We can also incorporate emerging technologies into our practices to save and improve more lives.
Second, we need to accept that we will increasingly need to do more with less. Concretely, we believe that one of the most critical steps in this direction is to invest more in local, grass roots action.
Today, well over 90 per cent of humanitarian funds go to international organisations. Local groups are too often treated as sub-contractors. The great shame here is that it is these groups, including National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies that are usually best placed to affect meaningful change. In addition to being lower-cost, they speak the local language, understand the local culture and are committed to helping their neighbours during crises and providing long-term social services.
Increased funding is not enough, however. We need to ensure local organizations have the capacity and systems in place to do this work well. This too will require greater investment, but it will yield tremendous dividends.
The third sea change we envision is emerging models of financing built on new partnerships that will, to a large extent, rip apart traditional partner-as-donor models. For example, every year, billions of dollars are spent responding to humanitarian needs. At the same time, trillions are spent by social-minded investors on projects designed to deliver benefits for communities such as lower health costs or increased productivity and profits for investors. We need to learn to swim across both lanes.
The good news is that these ideas are not abstract, they are increasingly being tested and are delivering real results. Take the example of Togo. This tiny West African country is prone to disasters, especially communities that live in the basin below the Mono River dam.
In 2016, the Togo Red Cross partnered with the German government and the German Red Cross to run a pilot project built on the pillars of anticipation, innovation and local action. First, they created a computer programme – a self-learning algorithm – to learn the history of flooding in the Mono basin, and to begin to predict future flood events.
Then, through trial and error, they tied specific preparedness actions to the predictions put forward by the computer – a 10 per cent chance of flood would automatically trigger community warnings, a 90 per cent would lead to evacuations, and so on.
Crucially, the German government set up a dedicated fund for these activities. They saw that, in the long-term, this model would not only save lives and reduce suffering, but it would save money by reducing the need for costly emergency response efforts.
The world has changed at a greater speed than we ever could have imagined a decade ago.
Humanitarian work must keep pace. By embracing new technologies, innovative financial models and a more heavily grass roots approach, we can rise to these challenges. The reality is that if we do not, then the international community’s ambitions for sustainable and equitable development, for a world where no one is left behind, will not be possible.
The world has changed dramatically in the past decade. The only thing we can now be certain of is that this breakneck pace of change will continue. Organizations like the Red Cross and Red Crescent need to keep pace, retool, and ready themselves for what is to come.
The South African Red Cross Society being part of the International Red Cross subscribes to serving our vulnerable communities in terms of Disasters (this year specifically during Knysna Fires in June and most recently the storms in KZN, Limpopo and Gauteng regions), Health and Care and providing First Aid Services and Training.