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Icrc-an Analysis of Culture


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International Committee of the Red Cross
An analysis of culture

July 9, 2011
OL 615 Leadership Across Boundaries
Quinnipiac University

In order to understand the culture of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), one must first examine its history. The ICRC was formed in 1863 by Swiss businessman Henri Danant who witnessed the carnage of war and vowed to limit future sufferers of war. The two strategies he proposed, the formation of national relief societies and the development of an international convention to protect the sick and wounded in combat (Deresky, 2011) remain fundamental to the ICRC to this day. Coupled with Swiss values such as neutrality, independence, discretion and humanism, the ICRC has become a symbol of hope and humanity since then.
As a multinational, humanitarian organization, the ICRC is facing challenges in many areas. In this analysis, we will explore these challenges, venture to answer the question of whether the ICRC’s culture helps or hinders its evolving strategies, and discuss the implications of these challenges on Human Resource Management.
The mission of the ICRC is that it is “an impartial, neutral and independent organization whose exclusively humanitarian mission is to protect the lives and dignity of victims of war and internal violence and to provide them with assistance. It directs and coordinates the international relief activities conducted by the Movement in situations of conflict. It also endeavors to prevent suffering by promoting and strengthening humanitarian law and universal humanitarian principles (” It seeks to achieve this mission through three main activities, protection, assistance and prevention. The ICRC’s reputation as a “western” and therefore US/UN associated organization can sometimes hinder its ability to be effective in areas in which the United States is involved in conflict. Looking at the organization’s website, the job vacancy board is littered with positions for Arabic speaking delegates and professionals; speaking the language of those with whom the United States is engaged in battle is only one piece of effective communication; the ICRC would be wise to also look at the host country’s attitudes, roles, and social organization. Merely speaking the language is not going to get a woman very far in a country that believes in the inferiority of women.
One challenge that the ICRC has addressed is the balance of Swiss to non-Swiss staff, though at the upper levels of management there are still opportunities for improvement. Whereas the amount of expatriates of Swiss origin fell 25% between 1998 and 2008 (from 68% to 43%), at the headquarters level that value has fallen just 11% (although, to be fair, their headquarters is in Geneva). The number of Swiss field personnel has dropped 36% over that period of time, indicating that the ICRC’s focus on the recruitment of foreign staff was successful (Deresky, 2011). The ICRC’s desire to be multinational may be somewhat hindered as well by the fact that its entire governing body (the Assembly, the Assembly Council and the Directorate) is 100% Swiss. According to Article 7 of the Statutes of the International Committee of Red Cross, this is necessary in the case of the Assembly “to guarantee neutrality”. Apparently the opinion of the ICRC is that only the Swiss are capable of neutrality. While it is unlikely that the ICRC will rewrite its Statutes, it is certainly appropriate to consider broadening its horizons by allowing non-Swiss to participate in the Assembly. Of note, the U.S. government is the ICRC’s largest single donor yet holds not one seat.
Of course, the United States is embroiled in conflicts abroad and thus cannot be truly impartial or neutral in cases involving Iraq or Afghanistan. The ICRC treats the Taliban as it does Americans; that is it provides medical care for the wounded and protection to prisoners of war, among other things. This puts the ICRC at odds with the American stance that they are in effect compassionately treating terrorists, a position that the ICRC defends according to its mission.
The strategic plan for 2007-2010 established three management priorities: multidisciplinary action, greater accountability, and increased efficiency through results based management (Deresky, 2011). The latter two were becoming more of a necessity because of a gradual reduction in the funding of humanitarian activities. Fortunately its funding process allows the ICRC to launch operations without having to ask donors for money first. They have found it more effective to appeal for donations based on past performance rather than future projects. Additionally, the pressures of a worldwide economic crisis have put a damper on donors’ generosity. In May of this year, the release of the 2010 Annual Report had ICRC President Jacob Kellenberger pleading for donations. ''The ICRC is appealing for urgent financial support,'' said Mr Kellenberger. ''Funding for humanitarian action is under significant pressure. Several important donor States have been hit by the world economic crisis, and that is now having an effect on the financial resources available for humanitarian activities. These financial constraints represent an additional challenge to mounting a strong humanitarian response in countries at war (”
And while Americans are aware of two wars that are inhabiting our national conscience, there are many other areas of the world that are dominated by strife; the Ivory Coast, Libya, and Somalia are being ravaged by war, Eastern Africa is experiencing the worst drought in sixty years, Pakistan is seeing floods of “unprecedented scale”, Haiti is struggling to recover from the earthquake last October. These are but a few of the crises the ICRC is working on, and, with increasing expenditures and a 7.6% reduction in its field budget, are finding it increasingly difficult to respond swiftly and effectively.
After all, it is embedded in the culture of the ICRC to measure its success not in terms of profit, rather by the survival and integrity of individuals and groups of people (Deresky). They act with a “bottom-up” strategy, which is different than that of organizations such as the UN, who make decisions at headquarters which are then filtered down to the locals. The ICRC puts field personnel on the ground, who then identify the needs of the area and make proposals to hierarchy. In other words, they act first, and analyze later. This could be a flawed strategy especially given the conflict between delegates and professionals.
The text describes in great detail the different perspectives of these two groups; to summarize, delegates are generalists and professionals are specialists. The need to peacefully coexist while being efficient and accountable is one that is not easily met. While the delegates are charged with overseeing operations and thus having a “big picture” focus, professionals have a more specific job to do and do not want to be delayed by practicality. Because delegates are looking to further their own management competencies, they place more emphasis on being “in the field” rather than the training needed to develop technical/professional competencies. Furthermore, experience as a delegate is considered a prerequisite to accessing higher posts, so delegates are ostensibly going to be reaching for the brass ring rather than focusing on the job at hand. The ICRC would be smart to explore promoting professionals to positions of increasing responsibility, and it seems as though this has not been a priority.
Another challenge faced by the ICRC is employee retention and management/career development within the ICRC. The average age of recruits has increased from early twenties to late twenties, and their motivation tends to be working in a field that “fulfills their ideals, recognizes their values, and allows them to express their opinions (Deresky).” Recruits are also seeking a career rather than a short term Peace Corps-like experience. As such their concerns are salary, benefits, and work life balance (and they wonder why they’re seen as “western”?). Once they undergo the rather arduous interview process, they are hired as one of approximately 450 expatriates per year.
The training process is intense and relatively short (two weeks off site and two weeks at headquarters), and recruits are subsequently sent on their first mission. This integration course was only offered to delegates up until recently; now professionals are included as well. This inclusion can only strengthen the relationships between the two groups which is beneficial for the ICRC. Unfortunately, there is little if any formal career planning in the ICRC. Aside from performance appraisals yearly and/or at the end of a mission, there is a dearth of opportunities to develop competencies, especially in management. The rationalization used is that “the nature of the job requires that the person become immediately operational (Deresky).” Lack of support at the field level can lead to failed missions, so is the ICRC not biting off their nose to spite their face? Perhaps a little bit of planning could go a long way in this instance?
Another challenge faced by the ICRC is the lack of women in higher positions. Although the percentage of female expatriates has remained constant since 1998 (at 45%), and there has been a respectable rise in female field “heads” (of office, sub-delegation, and delegations) from 20% to 32%, at headquarters just 29% of staff are women. This may be due to the phenomena of dual-career couples who met as expatriates and are then promoted into positions of greater influence. One of the couple’s careers has to take precedence, and generally the male counterpart is prioritized. Remedies to this issue do not seem to be apparent, or even essential. Promoting women through the ranks just to make the statistics look good may not be good strategy; perhaps a better approach would be to focus on continuing to increase the amount of women in the field. If experience as a delegate and being “in the field” is viewed as a prerequisite to higher positions of power, it can only benefit women to hold more of those field positions.
The text refers to the recruitment process being more focused on a person’s “soft skills” than their technical competencies, and according to one article, “implications are that women are strong on soft skills, i.e. communicating, negotiating, and dealing with customer relations and human resources management (Evans, 2010).” However, this same piece describes barriers to women’s advancement that very closely mirror those of the ICRC; lack of mentoring opportunities, failure of senior leadership to assume accountability for women’s advancement, and lack of opportunities to take on visible and/or challenging assignments. Given these obstacles, it is no wonder that the ICRC struggles with equanimity in this regard.
The ICRC’s biggest challenge will continue to be the maintenance of its neutrality and impartiality in a world where war is becoming more commonplace. Difficulties differentiating military from civilians, the use of “human shields” and what exactly defines terrorism are just some of the tasks facing the ICRC. In 2010, the ICRC said that it “does not hold the view that a global war is being waged. The ICRC believes it is dangerous and unhelpful to try to apply International Humanitarian Law to situations that do not amount to war (, 2010).” International Humanitarian Law (IHL) is the ideological marker on which the ICRC bases their use of services. The ICRC has been given the role of guardian of the Red Cross Principles and of IHL (Deresky). These principles are humanity, impartiality, neutrality, independence, voluntary service, unity and universality.
Applying and abiding by these principles and by the IHL become rather sticky given the current political climate. While the United States would like to see any country who threatens to attack or actually attack its citizens deemed “terrorists”, and therefore not be protected by IHL, the ICRC begs to differ. IHL does “explicitly prohibit most acts committed against civilians and civilian objects during an armed conflict that would, if committed in peacetime, commonly be considered as ‘terrorist’ (”; this would ostensibly cover the attacks on 9/11/01 against the United States but not the POWs in Cuba. Guantanamo Bay detainees are routinely visited by members of the ICRC, and the rights of these detainees continues to be debated. Are they actually POWs, and therefore subject to military commission trials under the Geneva Conventions? Or are they merely “detainees” whose alleged (and unproven) crimes have no connection with armed conflict? In that case, they face trial, but not by military courts. In 2004, Gabor Rona, legal adviser at ICRC wrote, “Where terrorism and the battle against it amount to armed conflict, the law of armed conflict must be applied. But when aspects of the ‘war on terror’ do not fit within the definition of armed conflict, it is in everyone’s interest that domestic and international law is respected (, 2004).”
As the United States sinks further into debt, might it decide to break ties with an organization that, in their view, respects the humanity of so called “terrorists”? It may be a stretch to imagine the U.S. cutting off their donations to the ICRC entirely, however, it is feasible that a country such as ours, still smarting ten years after the brutal attacks, may decide to drastically reduce their charity to the ICRC.
If that were to happen, the ICRC would find itself in the unenviable position of having to make up a portion of the 250 or so million Swiss Francs donated by the U.S. Even if the U.S. did not actually take their money and run, they could use it as leverage and attempt to alter the fundamental principles of the ICRC.

Deresky, H. (2011). International Management: Managing Across Borders and Cultures. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Hall.
Evans, D. (2010). Aspiring to leadership…a woman’s world? An example of developments in France. Cross Cultural Management: An International Journal. 17(4). 347-367.
Forsythe, D. (2007). The ICRC: a unique humanitarian protagonist. International Review of the Red Cross. 89(865). 63-96. Retrieved from
Position statement (2010). Retrieved from
Rona, G. (2004). Financial Times. “War” doesn’t justify Guantanamo. Retrieved from

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