The ICRC: a story of Delegates, Dedication, Donors, and Diversity

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On a rainy Geneva afternoon we walked up the steps of the iconic International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) headquarters on Avenue De La Paix to meet with Helen Alderson, Director of Finance Resources and Logistics, who graciously agreed to provide us with some insight into the world and the workings of this global organization.

Ms. Alderson first joined the ICRC when she was 26 years old to work in Asia and the Middle East as a delegate, which is how most people start at ICRC. She worked on issues like the restoration of family links, Cambodian refugees, Vietnamese Boat People, and she carried out protection work in prisons in the Middle East.  Afterwards she returned to Geneva and worked in particular on fundraising at the ICRC.

“I then left the ICRC because I was reaching 40 and wanted to see and do something different,” she said. “I did an MBA and worked for ten years outside of the ICRC before returning to take up this position four years ago. My predecessor came up from within the ICRC and did a very good job. She was the only woman member of the Management Executive Team at the time. There are three out of six now!  This is the one job I said I would come back to the ICRC for and at this leadership level you can have a different kind of impact”,” she added.


The International Committee of Red Cross: Working the last mile

The ICRC has probably the most recognized emblem in the world.  It is a highly effective organization with a reputation to match. The work within many humanitarian organizations is similar. However, “one of the big differences”, Ms. Alderson informed us, “is that the ICRC does actually work in the last mile. We deliver the aid directly ourselves. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF, or Doctors Without Borders) do the same, but the United Nations (UN) has a different model. They sub-contract to implementing organizations.” The ICRC works in very difficult conditions and in countries that are largely fragile states. In every country there is a Red Cross or a Red Crescent Society, a local network that is part of the Movement, and there are Red Cross/Red Crescent volunteers in every country in the world.  “Other humanitarian organizations were born out of the ICRC, for example MSF, and they are as principled as we are,” Ms. Alderson said.

The ICRC has a very specific modus operandi.  It has been instrumental in a whole series of initiatives in the humanitarian world.  For example, the ICRC initiated the code of conduct for all humanitarian organizations that has been taken on board by other organizations. “We have what we call the ‘Principles of Humanitarian Action’, which are Humanity, Neutrality, Independence and Impartiality”, Ms. Alderson explained. “Those are 4 of our 7 fundamental principles, which enable us to work on all sides of a conflict. Our organization moves in a very political world, because we are working with governments and with other armed groups. We also have a very strong legal component. We are an organization of lawyers and people who have studied international relations and political science. The ICRC even does a lot of training for the military in International Humanitarian Law.”

The humanitarian response that the ICRC provides is relevant to the people that they are helping. “We have to involve the beneficiaries in what we provide, otherwise it won’t work,” Ms. Alderson said.   The ICRC does many types of things, focusing on contextualizing the response. “We are a multi-disciplined organization. We carry out protection activities, reunite families, provide medical assistance and restore water systems. In Bosnia for example,there was a need for forensics since no other organization was doing it, so we developed a forensic activity. It was what the people needed. The ICRC is more about involving and meeting the needs of the people rather than charging in with a ready-made model.”

Financial Resources: Fundraising and related challenges

“The ICRC has a similar fundraising model to a number of UN organizations. We are funded more than 90% by governments, and we appeal to donors to fund our operations,” Ms. Alderson explained. “In addition, the National Red Cross and Red Crescent societies give us 4% to 6%, and we also carry out direct private fundraising.”

According to Ms. Alderson, “Our fundraising strategy has been very successful, except for the fact that we have not managed to diversify our sources. We still rely on the same few traditional donor governments, yet the world around us has changed.  We do not want to change the model and get 90% from private sources and 10% from others, but our budgets are growing so we need to grow our income.   It is very difficult to diversify and we are not there yet.”  We asked if this is because many world economies are struggling. “It’s not just that,” she mused. “We often wonder why we are not funded more by emerging countries and are working to understand  how we can be more attractive to those that are looking to become active in humanitarian work.”

The global financial crisis was in 2008, but the sovereign debt crisis hit later. By 2010, government budgets were largely affected, which in turn affected their funding of humanitarian projects. Also, multi-funding agreements are sometimes cut or impacted by changes in governments or leadership.  “There is a high element of unpredictability in the income and expenditure forecasts,” Ms. Alderson said.  “The UK Department for International Development (DFID) has undertaken the most comprehensive multi-lateral aid review of all organizations that it has funded:  whether development funds or humanitarian funds. The results have been published online.  “The ICRC comes out strongly in terms of being a very effective organization,” Ms. Alderson asserted. “Accountability is essential in the whole sector: both to the donors and also to the people one is helping.” Evaluations are important and in particular for governments. They help a government decide which organizations they should fund based on those that are really delivering. Those that are not delivering will have to improve their results.

According to Ms. Alderson, “One challenge is getting the money in, and another challenge is dealing with the increasing regulatory environment,” New requirements are constantly being added to international reporting standards, which are already very complicated. Furthermore, Ms. Alderson added that logistics issues, such as customs and port authorities, are becoming increasingly complicated.

What is it like to be Director of Financial Resources and Logistics?

For her role, Ms. Alderson must have a good level of understanding of the job, of the issues in the humanitarian sector, of the workings of the ICRC in particular, and about leadership and management. “I have, under my responsibility, the teams that get the money that we need and ensure that it is well spent and well managed.  I also oversee the logistics team that makes sure that the supply chain works in the sense that the goods are purchased and that the goods and the people are taken to where they need to be.” Being able to build a team, and choose and motivate the right people, are essential elements that Ms. Alderson believes one gets from experience as one learns and develops. “It is also very important to believe in what the organization does as well as in what you can bring to the organization,” she affirmed.

For Ms. Alderson, being a good Director is an accumulation of elements gained from experience —sometimes technical, but mostly managerial and related to context and issues. One must have a good understanding of what the work is, but one does not need to be a specialist in every aspect. Specialists can be recruited, but it is critical for any manager at any level to make sure they have the right people and right team to move things forward. “As a member of the Directorate (Management Executive Team), I have to make sure that I play my role in terms of providing appropriate support and information, and making sure the right decisions are taken from a business point of view,” Ms. Alderson said.

Profiles, skill sets and experience required for working for the ICRC: the logistics example 

Since Ms. Alderson heads three very distinct departments, her human resource needs are diverse.  Logistics, for example, recruits multiple specialists such as buyers, air operations specialists and warehouse managers, with in-house field experience being a pre-requisite for some positions. 95% of the logistic staff are based in the field, often in very remote difficult places.

“We have many logisticians in the field who might become logistic coordinators”, Ms. Alderson said. “For logisticians in particular, I would say that the technical skills are necessary, but it is important to have a real desire to work for a humanitarian organization because while the lawyers are based in the capitals, the logisticians are in the middle of nowhere.”  The ICRC recruits from Geneva and from within the 80 countries it is working in.  For certain positions, it recruits centrally from headquarters (not necessarily from Switzerland) to work in the field. They may be recruited to go to the Democratic Republic of Congo, then to Sudan and maybe the Philippines.  “These are expatriates who move around and sometimes come back to Geneva then go to another location,” she said.

We asked what steps the ICRC takes to encourage and motivate local people in the field to contribute actively to logistics success, or even take a leadership role.  “We recruit locally and we have a policy to ensure that local recruits also have a career path.  25% of our logistic coordinators in the field are what we call ‘resident staff’,” Ms. Alderson replied.  “Logistics is quite far advanced for this in the ICRC.  It is a full in-house policy across the board and I would say logistics is leading in this.”

The ICRC has local logisticians who want to become international staff, and according to Ms. Alderson, that is possible as well.  Many of the logisticians from a number of countries in Africa and other places started as local staff and then decided to become part of the international poolThere is an ongoing recruitment cycle, but in emergency situations, the ICRC may have to recruit additional staff locally.

Mrs. Alderson summed it up as follows:  “It is important for all these positions that the profiles are clearly defined.  You need to find the right people for the right jobs.  We are very much a ‘home-grown’ organization, maybe even a bit like some private companies, which is very good because people are hugely loyal and fully engaged. I also think it is good that we ensure a little bit of diversity in terms of bringing some people from the outside.”

People Management Principles

red cross 2According to Ms. Alderson, “Throughout the ICRC, we have instilled four key People Management Principles”:

  • Creating conducive environment for people to work in
  • Taking decisions
  • Knowing yourself as a person and as a manager
  • Providing feedback

These principles, along with regular performance reviews, help to manage the talent and help people along their career paths. It is important to know who the talent is and where it is, and how to strike the right balance. Reviews can be good opportunities to look at the potential people have and what their development needs are. “This is not easy for an organization with 13,000 people.”  Ms. Alderson said. “We are constantly improving the whole ‘people management’ part and we want to put in more 360-degree feedback, which we do not do as much as we should,” she added.

What ICRC logistics has in common with and can take from the private sector

Perhaps surprisingly to many, the ICRC has a lot in common with the private sector. For example, in terms of logistics, it works with suppliers in a similar way to that of private enterprise. The ICRC is fairly advanced in terms of social and environmental audits of their global suppliers. It is important for the organization for all of its partners and suppliers to ensure absolutely no child labor and that standards of health and safety conditions are in place. “We have a commercial relationship with suppliers and with service providers. Just like in business when we are buying products, we look at price, quality and speed/timing,” Ms. Alderson stated. “Quality control is another element we have in common with business.  We have framework agreements with suppliers where we help them improve quality and we train them.  We do testing on items and provide know-how to suppliers so they can do the same kinds of testing.  We also have a penalty point system for suppliers. All of these practices come directly from the private sector.”

Both the ICRC and the business world deal with supply chain management and have regional stocks in strategically-located warehouses for dealing with supply and demand at short notice or in emergencies. “The way supply chains are managed today is nothing like the way they were managed 10 years ago,” Ms. Alderson insisted. “The tools are very different, and now there are flexible systems, which benefit all sectors, especially both humanitarian and business.”

“A lot of the people that work in our logistics come from the private sector,” Ms. Alderson continued. “They have been working in transport, or as buyers, or in freight forwarding, even the mechanics are part of logistics.  We own trucks and we are very good at maintaining them, which means that we can use them for longer than their date of depreciation.” Obviously, there is not the ‘increasing profit’ aspect for ICRC that exists with business, but all funds must be managed responsibly.  “What is different for us,” Mrs. Alderson revealed, “are the planning phases and the very unpredictable emergencies. In a commercial company, the supply chain can break down for a while due to a crisis whereas this is precisely the time when the ICRC supply chain needs to be up and running and we have to make sure that in any kind of emergency it actually works.”

So what does Helen Alderson see for the future of her Logistics team? “We are a service department, but very directly operational. We are enablers: we provide what the organization needs in order to meet the needs of victims of conflict and other situations of violence.” Ms. Alderson recognizes that those in her department can be “hidden heroes”, since logistics is not a very visible job. The beneficiary does not care how the supply chain works, and does not know that this job will probably get more complicated because of the unpredictability and the regulatory issues.  Everything is becoming more complex, just when things should be simpler, partly because informational technology is so advanced. “We need to continue to be the enabler, to deal the best way possible we can and anticipate all the various complexities, while continuing to be as effective as we are today,” Ms. Alderson concluded. A lofty goal, perhaps, but today they are definitely poised to accomplish just that.

Photos courtesy of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Our interview with Helen Alderson focused on the ICRC as an organization and on her “three hats” of logistics, finance, and fundraising, however, she also gave us quite a bit of information on her own interesting career path, how those who are interested in joining the ICRC can get a foot in the door, and the importance of employee reviews once inside the ICRC.  GBN will therefore be publishing a second article on Helen Alderson and her important role within the ICRC within the next weeks.


  1. Martin

    “This is all about one side of the coin or moon”.

    The quote above is the reaction of one of the people who read the article after I shared in on the “ICRC” group in Linked. As a former ICRC delegate, I’d like to use this comment to point out why I shared Caroline Tully’s article.

    I was not in logistics, but logistics was something I took for granted. For twelve years, if I needed something – a new car for my work, or bags of maïze flour for civilians in need, or even a medical evacuation when I broke a tooth far from any dentist’s – it was there. But my real appreciation of the ICRC’s logistics came in the run-up of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. My own job was to represent the ICRC towards the Coalition forces (first, in Qatar, then in Baghdad), and towards the various other actors present (United Nations, NGOs…) in Kuwait.

    The ICRC decided on a plan of action. It needed to prepare for this war by pre-positioning supplies in the countries of the region, such as Jordan or Kuwait. Plans were made, warehouses were rented, trucks were brought in and the supplies were in place before hostilities started. This was not that case of all the other actors present. As is often the case in war, things did not go quite as planned, and in retrospect, we might be able to say that we had too much of this or not enough of that, but that’s besides the point. What astounded me was the ability to act according to plans, to implement, and to be ready. In my experience with the ICRC’s logisitcs, there is no dark side of the moon. It was exemplary.

    I’d like to finish off my comment by remembering one of the ICRC’s logistics specialists, a friend and colleague who lost his life on 8 April 2003. Vatche Arslanian was hard working, he was committed, and he had a huge heart. He was killed in the course of his duties, in Baghdad. He is still missed today. RIP.

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