The future of aid

Technology is changing the way wars are waged and humanitarian aid is delivered, says Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The sector must reinvent itself to stay relevant  

Wars waged today are of a different quality to those we’ve seen in the past. We see violence that is not only destroying people, but systems – healthcare, sanitation, education – and that demands another style of humanitarian work. The challenge we face is to save lives, and to respond rapidly to basic needs. And at the same time, to immediately begin to rehabilitate systems and to put people in charge of their own futures. 

In Syria last year, we saw some 600,000 Syrians return home, and roughly 1.3 million others newly displaced because of the fighting. Those who are newly displaced need food, water, shelter, medicine , and  everything else. Those who are returning need support with healthcare facilities, access to water, schools and economic activity. As aid actors, we now need to work both short and long – and that’s new for the humanitarian world. 

The ICRC today works in more than 80 countries, and employs more than 16,000 people. Last year, we appealed to our donors for more than $2bn – an 11 per cent increase on our previous field budget – and that partly reflects the fact that we operate in places many others do not. Much of our growth has occurred in some of the most fragile contexts: in rural Afghanistan, in southern Somalia, in places in Syria and Iraq where others aren't. In Yemen, there are few international aid actors operating close to people in need. 

"You have this perverse situation where aid agencies are doing more every month, yet at the end of the month, the situation is worse overall"As conflicts become more politicised, with multiple parties involved, maintaining a neutral, impartial space for aid becomes increasingly difficult and important. For ICRC, I think that’s at the core of what we’ve done in the last 150 years: try to negotiate minimum consensus among belligerents. 

Conflict is also becoming digitalised. As the ICRC, our traditional occupation is dealing with battlefields, actors, weapons and international humanitarian law. But as much as wars today are carried out with bombs and weapons, they are also waged anonymously in cyberspace – to the extent that you don’t really know who the actors are, and the battlefields are no longer clearly recognisable. This digitisation of violence greatly affects the way we work. 

If you take the humanitarian sector as a whole – the UN, the Red Cross, NGOs and global aid agencies – it has an accumulated budget of roughly $27bn to $30bn. Ten years ago that figure was $2bn. These are big multipliers, and an indication that conflicts are spreading and deepening. While the needs landscape grows exponentially, the delivery landscape is growing linearly – and so the discrepancy becomes bigger. You have this perverse situation where aid agencies are doing more every month, yet at the end of the month, the situation is worse overall. That’s a complicated situation to message, and one that is not sustainable, either in terms of public or private donors. 

"Traditionalists tell me that social investment is making money out of poor people. But that’s the wrong way of looking at things. Investing in people, services and impact changes the ballgame"Innovative finance has the potential to change the global aid model. Last year ICRC launched a humanitarian impact bond, raising $27.5m to build and run three rehabilitation centres for people with disabilities in Africa over a five-year period. It was an opportunity to raise social capital from the private sector, and also to test a new economic model. We are also discussing insurance schemes for early recognition of health challenges, impact investment and philanthropy. There is a lot of new thinking around financial tools, and recognition that no one actor can do it alone.

There is a convergence of interest between digital companies and aid actors. It turns on how data collation and storage can link to digital identities. Imagine if, in five years’ time, people in fragile contexts had the trust to store their health data and identity documents somewhere in cyberspace, where they could retrieve them if necessary. In emergencies, this would change the landscape around family reunification, missing people, and the ability to offer health services. These concepts are really promising. 

Traditionalists tell me that social investment is making money out of poor people. But that’s the wrong way of looking at things. With scarce resources, we are trying to have maximum impact. If we want to close the gap, we can’t do it through turning donor money into services. It will never be enough. But investing in people, services and impact – that changes the ballgame.

In 2017, ICRC carried out a study to measure the knowledge of international humanitarian law in both conflict-hit regions, and the northern hemisphere. We found out that people living in countries affected by war and violence know the Geneva Convention much better than people in, say, Switzerland, or the US. That’s an encouraging message. If you’re not exposed to violence, you don’t need to know about these things. But if you are, you’d better know about it and use law as a tool to protect yourself.

You can’t just mitigate the effects of violence; and throw seeming solutions at people and problems. You have to change behaviour. And behavioural change – in terms of respecting laws, principles and the work of humanitarian agencies – is difficult. But I’m encouraged by the enormous resilience of people and the ingenuity they show in finding solutions themselves – and by the recognition of how little is needed to support this.

With very little but well-targeted money, and with a lot of credible positioning as an actor, you can do an enormous amount to contribute to humanitarian spaces and to support some of those activities, even in dire situations and conflicts. It’s extremely encouraging.