Re-elected IFRC president: local actors know the reality and needs of the most vulnerable

IFRC president Francesco Rocca was re-elected on Sunday. (Credit: courtesy IFRC)

The newly re-elected president of the IFRC stressed the need to put local action at the centre of humanitarian action.

Francesco Rocca was re-elected on Sunday as president of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), kicking off the humanitarian organisation’s General Assembly in Geneva.

A former lawyer who took on the Italian mafia in the 1990s, Rocca entered the ranks of the Italian Red Cross in the 2000s and has been moving up since, becoming president of his country’s national society in 2013 and then IFRC president in 2017 – both voluntary, unpaid roles.

After four years of representing 192 national red crosses across the globe, Rocca has been tapped for another four-year term. Geneva Solutions spoke with him about the challenges the 14 million-strong organisation faces amid worsening conflicts, a looming climate threat and increasingly polarised geopolitics.

GS News: How has the role of the Red Cross and Red Crescent societies evolved over time?

Francesco Rocca: When an important natural disaster happened anywhere, we were mostly recognised as reliable actors and  first responders. I think the evolution of our role lies exactly in one word: crisis. The culture of the Red Cross has started to recognise ‘crisis’ in the context of natural disasters, earthquakes, conflicts and so on, but also at the individual level, including psychosocial support and assistance for food. This is something that is increasing and has enlarged our role and our own perception of the difference that we can make in the daily lives of people.

You’ve been pushing for localisation since your previous mandate, and you’ve said you will continue to do so. What does this mean?

It is about the humanitarian sector putting the role of communities at the centre of its actions. On too many occasions in the past the strategies on how to respond to a crisis were decided abroad or by someone that came from abroad. As I told my colleagues [of national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies] yesterday, ‘you were the implementing partners’. Now, Covid has changed the game, in terms of making strategies to respond at community level that are closer to the needs of the people. Reliable local actors know the reality, the culture and the needs of the most vulnerable.

How does this translate on the ground?

Technically speaking, as we move forward, the federation should act as a broker, advocating for the red cross societies and for the most vulnerable at the international arena. It should also provide the necessary support when it comes to specific skills, for example filling out hundreds of pages of funding applications for the European Union or other big donors. But the strategy, the projects and the programmes must be adopted at national level.

One of your priorities has also been to crack down on corruption. As national societies take on a more prominent role, this can become challenging…

To be very sincere, we are not immune, we are a mirror of our societies, as was the desire of our founder Henry Dunant. And when it comes to immunity, I jokingly say it’s like we have 192 variants. So it’s about culture, but it's also about control and raising the bar on integrity very high. That means that I don't want to be surprised. I want a system that is able to detect if there are particular risks, to intervene and correct.

Are there measures that you are going to take to this end?

I've instructed the audit and risk commissioner to implement these policies. We are doing a great job but I want to do more. At the moment, we have a hotline that is run by an independent auditor so no one else can interfere. We are doing our utmost to protect the whistleblowers, intervening immediately in cases of fraud or corruption or harassment. This is a priority because the Red Cross emblem is very powerful. It is identified as a sign of safety.

You have warned that while the Ukraine crisis is attracting a lot of attention, other crises have been sidelined and are having difficulty raising funds.

I'm not naive. I fully understand that Ukraine is not only about the humanitarian crisis, but also about the geopolitical implications. Nevertheless, it is sometimes painful to listen to some politicians deal differently with the same situation in different places of the world. So, we have to keep the attention high on the other crises and protect the lives of many.

How would you suggest depoliticising humanitarian aid?

This did not begin with the Ukrainian crisis. This is an ongoing dialogue with donors from long before to obtain unrestricted funding. We want to have more freedom to do a proper triage and identify where the priorities are.

Has this dialogue produced any results?

Compared to some years ago, we have advanced, but we're too slow, since, unfortunately, the needs are growing faster. The crisis in Africa is completely underfunded. In Syria, donors are moving out because when they put a lot of money in one crisis, there are less resources for others.

You mentioned in the press briefing that humanitarians should renegotiate neutrality. What did you mean?

I mean renegotiate from within. What does it mean for us when we are confronted with conflicting messages that don’t follow the science and the evidence? It has become very difficult for us when political leaders give advice to the communities completely different from what the scientific community is saying. If we go against a minister or a president, it could be seen as taking a political side. The same with climate change. What do you do in countries where politicians say that climate change is a fantasy?

You also said that you were unsatisfied with the outcomes of Cop26. What are your expectations for Cop27?

I want to be optimistic, because the more optimistic we are, the heavier a failure will feel on the shoulders of leaders. But of course, the geopolitical situation will make Cop27 even more challenging than Cop26.