Red Cross governance put to the test

With the crises shaking the Swiss Red Cross and the ICRC, the image of the Red Cross as a whole has been damaged.

The Swiss Red Cross has lost its president, Barbara Schmid-Federer, who resigned with immediate effect on June 2. This follows the dismissal last December of Markus Mader, the organization’s managing director since 2008, and the subsequent resignation of four of the ten members of the board. An interim chairman has now been appointed, pending the next Red Cross Council meeting on June 24.

Why the cascade of departures at the head of the country’s largest charity? Clearly, personal conflicts are at work. But the malaise seems to run much deeper, and for several years now has been pitting the cantonal sections against the Bern head office, which is considered too centralizing. One of the main sources of tension is the opacity of the head office when it comes to the distribution of resources collected during national campaigns.

This opacity also weighs heavily on the management of the Swiss Red Cross Foundation, created twenty years ago from the sale of its blood products laboratory, whose assets and criteria for allocating funds to the Red Cross remain unclear.

Fortunately, on the operational side, action continues to be effective, as in the case of the Geneva Red Cross, which has just increased its programs in response to the social crisis and the Ukraine.

For the ICRC, the crisis is on a different scale. A moral, identity and financial crisis emanating from its governance. Since President Maurer’s Faustian alliance with the Davos Forum in 2016, the Geneva-based institution has lost its compass and drifted away from its core mandate of protecting the victims of war, while at the same time blowing up its budget. The result: a 430 million hole in the 2023 budget, leading to major cuts in programs and the dismissal of almost 2,000 employees at this stage. There is no doubt that the lack of transparency in governance and its refusal to engage in dialogue with those who sounded the alarm have contributed to the worsening of the crisis. As the ICRC is exempt from external control, opacity has taken hold like a scorpion under a stone. Curiously, and despite its many economic experts, the ICRC’s governance failed to see this coming, content to follow the instructions of a presidential Icarus blinded by ambition.

At a time when negotiations are underway in Berne to bail out the ICRC, it is important that its staff manage to regain ownership of an institution that is drifting adrift, admittedly still vital in the field, but for how long? One hundred and sixty-four years after Henry Dunant’s brilliant intuition on the battlefield of Solferino, it is up to new president Spoljaric Egger to demonstrate her historical responsibility by rapidly organizing an independent external audit, and to put the focus back on the basic mission.

Jean-François Berger – former ICRC delegate

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