Hugo Slim: ICRC partnerships, today and tomorrow, in conflict and disaster

from International Committee of the Red Cross
Published on 01 Aug 2019 View Original

The ICRC head of policy, Dr Hugo Slim, gave a speech at the 5th Singapore Red Cross Humanitarian Conference on the theme of partnerships and volunteerism for humanity on 20 July 2019.

It is a very special year for the Singapore Red Cross because it is your 70th anniversary year and you have so much to be proud of over the last 70 years – so many humanitarian achievements.

Today – at 70 years young – you continue to be an impressive organization that is highly focused and effective within Singaporeand a very active National Society internationally around the world.

And, you are a twin! You share your 70th birthday with the Geneva Conventions. Both born in 1949, you two twins stand for the same universal value – the principle of humanity, which asks us all to "protect and alleviate human suffering wherever it may be found and to protect life and health and ensure respect for the human being." And we are asked to do this in the best of times and the worst of times..

With the magical age of 70 comes great wisdom.

"And one of the things that every wise humanitarian will tell you is that humanitarian work is best done together. It is never a solo performance. It always relies on mutual support of various kinds."

Humanitarian action is best done in partnerships - by working with others – which is why this year's conference theme is such a good one.

The ICRC is very old, and, like the Singapore Red Cross, we too are reminding ourselves of the important truth of partnership this year. Our new institutional strategy has partnership as one of our five major strategic objectives as "working with others to enhance impact". We are doing this for three main reasons:

  1. The long-lasting conflicts of today and tomorrow mean we need the help and support of others to have a bigger and more sustained impact in the lives of people who are struggling to survive conflict and violence, often for decades and through multiple generations.

  2. The escalating climate crisis will mean a large expansion of human needs in the years ahead and make humanitarian action more even more complicated and reliant on partnerships.

  3. We also know that it is ethically right and operationally eective to work more in partnership with local and national organizations which are closer to aected people or organized by them.

So, today, I want to talk share some ICRC thoughts on partnership and focus on four questions:

  1. What is partnership?

  2. How can we do it well?

  3. What does it look like in practice for ICRC?

  4. How ICRC can improve to do it better?

In doing so, I am drawing on two literature reviews on partnership which we carried out to help all of us at the ICRC understand the subject better. But before I look at these four questions, I want to stress that partnership is about relationships. It is about people doing things together with other people.

I also want to arm that the art of partnership is not just a matter of collective partnerships in which organizations work together as various groups of people teaming up in inter-organizational partnerships.

Partnership is also inter-personal and intimate. It is about how two individuals work together in a humanitarian purpose at the most basic level of humanitarian action. At their best, we can talk of the millions of daily humanitarian interactions as personal partnerships of care.

The relationship between a medic and a patient is a partnership of two people working together in common cause: one concentrating on recovering and the other concentrating on treating and encouraging them in a partnership of healing.

The same is true of the member of a Restoring Family Links Links team working with a father to trace his lost daughter. They need to work together to bring about a humanitarian success.

Even the blood donor is in a mysterious partnership with a person she or he will usually never meet. The flow of blood from one arm to another, carefully mediated by others along the way, is remarkable series of inter-personal links in a humanitarian partnership to save a life.

"Volunteers make all the dierence in partnerships of all kinds because they are fundamental to collective partnerships and intimate partnerships."

Volunteers are the building blocks of inter-organizational partnerships between our institutions, and they are also the human face of caring inter-personal partnerships between people working together one-to-one as humanitarian and victim.

1. What is partnership?

There are several dierent types of partnerships and we tend to enter dierent types for dierent reasons.

Dierent levels of partnership are usually described along a spectrum. At one end are minimal transactional partnerships in which relationship-building and common goals are not very important to the parties. At the other end, are highly transformative partnerships in which forming a new joint relationship to achieve deeply shared goals is deeply valued by the partners.

An (exaggerated) example of a very transactional partnership may be the commercial relationship between a trucking company and the humanitarian organization which contracts the company to move food in war or a disaster. The company has an essentially commercial goal and does not really mind whether they carry relief food to an IDP camp or a consignment of Cognac to a casino, just so long as their trucks are busy, and their profits are maintained.

In a transactional partnership, one party is typically in control and the other party is doing something largely for the purposes of the other. These minimal partnerships can be very successful at achieving certain objectives, but they are not build around shared purpose and shared values.

A transformative partnership is dierent. This may be two groups or two individuals who deliberately come together to combine what they do in a way that changes each one of them for the better and significantly transforms what they are able to achieve as a team - a new kind of eect which neither of them could ever have achieved on their own.

Importantly, an essential dimension of a transformative partnership is that it is genuinely a "two-way street" – each partner learns from each other, benefits from each other and is transformed by each other.

For example, two companies come together. One is a medical company that has found a new way to monitor blood pressure and the other is a digital company that specializes in developing apps and digital interfaces for business data which has a very wide take-up across the globe. Together, they find a way to make the health company's new blood pressure test available to millions of people with hyper-tension all around the world in a phone app.

This partnership transforms both companies. It diversifies the digital company from a finance data company into a major healthcare business able to realize its social values. It transforms the scale of the health company by giving it huge new remote reach to millions of stressed middle-aged business people prone to high blood pressure and vulnerable to heart disease and diabetes.

These transformative partnerships typically have common goals, shared values and, importantly, are based in the genuine collaboration of both partners and not the control of one party over the other.

People often illustrate the dierence between minimal transactional partnerships and maximal transformative partnerships mathematically.

In a transactional partnership, 1+1=2, just as it always does.

But in a transformative partnership, something much greater than this is achieved so that 1+1=5.

A transformative partnership achieves a genuinely new thing for both parties which changes the game for them and for others around them. Transactional partnerships are relatively easy and low-maintenance if the unequal terms of control and the dierent purposes are understood and accepted by everyone. But they can feel conflicted, humiliating and abusive if one of the partners wants a transformative partnership.

We know this happens in the humanitarian sector when national and local organizations feel used and under-valued by domineering international partners, or where international agencies have felt used and abused by uncooperative or unaccountable local and national partners.

Transformational partnerships also require much more emotional and administrative work by all parties. But they can also deliver exponential and sustainable gains so their return on this extra investment can be high.

It is this type of deep transformative partnership that I will concentrate on today and they are generally much harder to do well.

2. How can we do partnership well?

The many studies of transformational partnership in practice in all areas of life have found several factors to be critical to success. Most of them mix ethical principles with working practices: doing the right moral things and doing practical things the right way.

At the outset, it is important to choose partners on the likelihood that your combined chemistry will deliver favourable conditions for eective teaming-up. There are perhaps three vital conditions to a good partnership.

First, as in the success of both arranged marriages and love matches, compatibility becomes a key ingredient to be sure of before you start.