Swiss Red Cross shakeup sparks ramification fears

Swiss Red Cross staff packing relief items for the Gaza strip, 21 January 2009 in Wabern near Bern, Switzerland. (Keystone/Peter Schneider)

The global aid movement known for its inverted Swiss flag emblem and the response it provides to those most in need is seeing its home country organisation face its worst internal crisis ever.

As the winter holidays were about to start, the Swiss Red Cross issued a statement in December announcing that it was “separating” from its director, Markus Mader, and thanking him for his many years of service. A few days later, four members of its management council were added to the list of departures.

Observers were baffled by the dramatic departures from the Swiss institution.

Few details have been provided by the organisation since late December on what had led to the latest decisions. Contacted by Geneva Solutions in early January, a spokesperson in the group’s headquarters in Bern said the decision had been taken due to “differences of opinion”.

For an organisation at the heart of a global movement made up of tens of millions of volunteers and often seen as synonymous with Switzerland’s own identity, there are fears that the crisis may have deep repercussions.

Global impact

Founded some 160 years ago on the suggestions of Geneva businessman Henri Dunant, the Red Cross movement expanded from the International Committee of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (ICRC), to include what is now known as the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).

The federation, made up of national societies which respond to disasters and the needs of vulnerable populations, is of particular importance to the Swiss Red Cross.

Unlike any other IFRC national society, the Swiss Red Cross holds a permanent seat within the global group’s governing board. The four other vice-presidencies are, in contrast, put up for election. The board is responsible for deciding on the federation’s direction and policy. It is of key relevance as the aid sector grapples with rising costs for its response, as well as  worsening climate shocks, pandemics and sexual harassment allegations within its ranks.

Francesco Rocca, IFRC’s president, who was recently reelected and has previously criticised Switzerland on issues such as its delayed adoption of the United Nations compact on migration in 2018, had also pushed for putting an end to the privileged seat held by the Swiss, said Pierre de Senarclens, a former Swiss Red Cross vice-president and ex-officio IFRC vice-president between 2008 and 2011.

“He tried to change the statutes because he thought that this historical privilege was no longer justified,” de Senarclens told Geneva Solutions. “It was an issue when they were reviewing the constitution of the federation.”

In an email statement to Geneva Solutions, IFRC rejected such speculation. It also said that after the resignation in December of Brigitta Gadient, the Swiss Red Cross’s ex-officio representative in the IFRC’s board, it asked the national society to propose a representative to fill that role. “The IFRC values its relationship with the Swiss Red Cross and will be providing guidance and support to the national society throughout the new designation process,” it said.

Angry exchanges and muted reactions

The Neue Zürcher Zeitung reported in December that just weeks before Mader’s dismissal, he pleaded with the national Red Cross president, Barbara Schmid-Federer, to stop verbal attacks upon him, “without being specific”. Documents seen by the Swiss newspaper suggested that she had been pressuring him for some time with claims that unnamed other peoples were critical of him. In an email he sent her in early December, Mader reminded the president of her duty of care and requested an open discussion with his critics, which she rejected.

“He was dismissed without warning,” de Senarclens said, adding that he believed Schmid-Federer had been mobbing the former director. “When nearly half of the board decides to leave immediately, it is because they feel that something went really wrong.”

One of the departing SRC board members, who did not wish to comment publicly, told Geneva Solutions that while the organisation had been experiencing  issues for some time, the current situation was “worrying.”

Mader had been SRC director since 2008, after working as ICRC delegate in Sri Lanka, Peru, Pakistan and Afghanistan, and as a management board member for the Swiss Red Cross and other Swiss aid organisations.

“It was a pure personal power relationship. The new president couldn’t bear the idea of sharing a minimum of responsibility with him,” De Senarclens commented regarding the disagreements.

The SRC president has publicly condemned a media campaign against her. An internal investigation into the circumstances of Mader’s dismissal and allegations against Schmid-Federer has begun, and an election to fill the vacant positions is planned during an extraordinary assembly on 23 March.

Not the first shakeup

But the recent shakeup is just the latest of the SRC’s management setbacks over the last few years.

In 2021, Thomas Heidiger, a former member of the Zurich cantonal government, left his role as SRC president, amid disagreements over cooperation and the roles of cantonal member groups, pitting centralists against those favouring greater sway by the cantons. Similarly to the Swiss federal system, the national Red Cross organisation brings together 24 cantonal leagues.

Schmid-Federer, part of a triumvirate which took over after Heidiger’s departure, was then nominated president.

De Senarclens worried about the impact of the current situation at the SRC. “When you have turmoil in an organisation, its image is shaken. I am sure it will have an impact on the financial support, because people do not like to support an institution going through internal turmoil.”

Pierre-Alain Eltschinger, a spokesperson for Switzerland’s federal department of foreign affairs, which contributes financially to the Swiss Red Cross, wrote via email: “The SDC (Swiss Department of Development and Cooperation) received assurances from the Swiss Red Cross that the internal changes will not have an impact on its relationship with the SDC, and that the SRC remains committed in its pursuit of its stated goals within its international programme.”

He said the organisation is subject to yearly controls by the Federal Foundations Surveillance Authority, as well as audits and checks by the SDC. A financial audit by the Swiss Federal Audit Office published in August 2022 recommended that the SDC “formalise” its oversight of Swiss NGOs and that local audits in countries, where funds are being deployed, are improved.

Patrick Bondallaz, the Swiss Red Cross historian, stressed that he did not wish to comment on the current situation, given his focus on the SRC’s history. “The situation is very unusual”, he told Geneva Solutions in a telephone interview. In the early days of the organisation, he said, “such issues would have been dealt with quietly within the organisation’s governance, and that they would not be revealed.”

Bondallaz nonetheless said that stark disagreements had existed historically. Just a few years after the Red Cross was created, Dunant himself was forced to resign as secretary of the International Committee and as a member of the organisation after going bankrupt, he recalled.

If little noise was made over internal clashes over the following decades, it may have been due to the management approach at that time. “Matters were run essentially by the ‘grandes familles’ or prestigious well-to-do families, who knew each other and were part of the same circles,” Bondollaz explained.

“If there were problems, they would take care of them privately. They were discussed in that manner without following a given protocol.”

Such models are long gone, Bondollaz added, due to the rising role of social media and the push for transparency. “Times have changed,” he surmised.

Schmid-Federer’s lawyer sent Geneva Solutions the following comments after a first version of this article was published:

“Our client, who never received a request for comment on the allegations of bullying and abusive behaviour, strongly denies any wrongdoings of any kind, and underlines that the relationship between the former director and large parts of the Red Cross organisation had been strained for years.

Mrs.Schmid-Federer highlights that the Red Cross Assembly, the highest authority within the SRC, spoke out almost 90 per cent against her predecessor in a no-confidence vote, and he subsequently resigned. This was neither a conspiracy nor a solitary decision.

Similarly, it was a majority of the Red Cross Council, not a single person, who decided to initiate the release of SRC's Director in December 2022.”

*This article was updated on 9 February 2023 to include the comments from Barbara Schmid-Federer’s lawyer and clarifications that Patrick Bondallaz’s comments did not refer to the current situation.