Young humanitarians juggle interest versus engagement amid sector’s funding crisis

Youth Humanitarian Summit in Zurich, 25 March 2023. (Geneva Solutions/Irene Velicer)

Growing budget gaps are having young people interested in launching humanitarian careers asking about the viability of those choices.

Students and young professionals met with large and small aid organisations in Zurich this weekend at a youth conference organised by the Swiss-based Circle of Young Humanitarians. The event, sponsored by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), took place as aid groups face growing challenges.

Among these are growing funding gaps and budget cuts as humanitarian needs outpace donor contributions. Ongoing conflicts, climate disasters, rising food insecurity and poverty have weighed in on the sector’s balance sheets. Many organisations are reporting increasing funding gaps and unattained pledges.

Earlier this month, the ICRC announced that it would cut a historically high budget for 2023 that it had passed in January. The belt-tightening, worth some CHF 440 million, comes after years of budget growth, with funding projections having misjudged contributions. The ICRC cited inflation, the impact of Covid-19, challenges of allocating resources across multiple ongoing crises and unmet funding commitments from donors.

At the youth summit, which gathered around 300 students and young professionals from Switzerland and other parts of Europe, Katrin Wiegmann, ICRC’s head of strategy and organisational development, said the organisation’s creeping financial shortfalls have been straining its ability to operate. “This is a huge concern to us, especially right now,” she said.

Wiegmann said that the aid group’s budget trimming is forcing it to prioritise where to focus efforts amid multiple, simultaneous humanitarian crises including the Covid-19 pandemic and ongoing armed conflicts including in Ukraine. “If needs are growing, we will have to make hard choices.”

Bridging humanitarian interests

The Circle of Young Humanitarians, a non-profit group based in Zurich, has been trying to provide a bridge between youth and humanitarians.

“We are trying to get the humanitarian world closer to the younger generation and to inspire people to make an impact wherever they can,” Leonie Basler, one of the organisation’s three Swiss founding members, told Geneva Solutions.

“We felt that young people wanted to do something but that they did not really know how to engage in humanitarian work or to help people in need,” said Kay von Mérey, also a co-founder and president of the group, launched in 2021.

Von Mérey was inspired to launch the Circle of Young Humanitarians after her traineeship with the ICRC’s fundraising team. The association has since grown to a core team of over 27 student and young professional volunteers.

For Jessica Eberhart, the third of the organisation’s co-founders, people do not have to be working at a Geneva-based group to have an impact. “My advice is to find out where in your life you can already make an impact.”

Securing internships

Growing funding gaps may however be making it even more difficult for young people to break into the humanitarian sector. Already potential applicants have to decide between jobs allowing them to get by during their studies and early careers, and doing unpaid humanitarian work, said Ulysse, a 24-year-old Swiss university student.

“Even students from higher-income countries – like me, a Swiss citizen, recognising my privileges – we also have to think twice before even considering allowing ourselves to live months unpaid, relying on our savings or weekend second jobs,” said Ulysse. “This creates a vicious circle for people who cannot afford to do an unpaid internship and disproportionately impacts people from lower-income countries.”

Within the UN system, many internships are still unpaid, affecting the diversity of young applicants.

Many of the larger humanitarian organisations that were represented at the summit, including the ICRC, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), Unicef, and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), offer stipends or salaries for internships and traineeships.

Stephen Cornish, MSF’s director, told Geneva Solutions that the medical aid organisation expects to continue to pay its interns.

When asked whether the ICRC’s recent budget cuts will affect the opportunities for young people interested in working with the organisation, Wiegmann told Geneva Solutions that it was too early to say.

Rethinking aid funding

In light of the aid sector’s funding issues, the youth group said it is important for organisations to diversify sources away from government contributions. “For good work to be done there needs to be secure funding,” Eberhart said.

UNHCR relies on governments for around 90 per cent of its annual funding, while over 70 per cent of Unicef’s funding comes from the public sector.

“That’s exactly why our work might be more important than ever, because many humanitarian organisations are trying to diversify their budgets and not depend so much on states, because that’s exactly what is threatening them as well now,” said von Mérey.

The Swiss youth group has committed to contribute what they can to aid organisations. Twenty per cent of summit attendance proceeds will go to participating aid groups, as well as all of the proceeds from a charity concert and charity sports boot camp held over the weekend. It expects to donate over CHF4,000 to humanitarian organisations as a result.

Wiegmann said that the ICRC is committed to growing young voices in the humanitarian sector and will continue to be involved in initiatives like the Circle for Young Humanitarians.

“As the young generation of today and tomorrow, you will have to be better than us to overcome some of the mistakes and missed opportunities and shortcomings which we, the leaders and our other forerunners, have left you with,” she said, addressing the summit.